New titles for Lent 2022
Back in 2019, I reviewed two titles for Lent that year (what a world away it seems) by Erik Varden and Henry Martin. Both authors have new books in this round-up for 2022, and other writers besides. There is much to commend here.
It was in 2019 that Erik Varden become the Bishop of Trondheim in his native Norway and left Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. Entering the Twofold Mystery (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is only his second book, but like the first it is a masterpiece. Subtitled ‘On Christian Conversion’, this sustained meditation on the religious life holds much incipient and profound wisdom on life in Christ, and the part we are called to play in community. Varden is a pellucid and original writer. The first half of the book (‘What makes a monk’) looks at life as a religious. In places it is as lively and dialectic as spiritual direction. Always crisp and elegant, Varden is multilingual and enjoys weighing words through etymology, philosophy and philology. In this way his handling of Greek and Latin is insightful; he reads fluent French; his English is elegant; he is very at home with the Hebrew texts. The monastic life is covered in three sections: Vows, Patrimony, and The Heart’s Expansion. References to Benedict’s rule give comfort that not so much has changed. ‘Traps like these [temptations and distractions] are as real today as in the sixth century. If we fall into them and, instead of breaking loose, make a comfortable nest for ourselves, we are in trouble. There is, then, a healthy unease we should cultivate…God knows how easily we deceive ourselves.’ He considers, quite brilliantly, the gender binary debate in relation to language, and Plato’s philosophy with a reading of ‘manliness’. Other topics include pillars and their role, murmuring, and also celibacy. Even for those of us outside of monastic walls, yet refreshed by this spirituality all the same, it is thrilling stuff. The second ‘half’ of the book, as it were, is ‘The Monastic Year’ and a collection of short homilies delivered in community throughout the seasons. Major festivals feature, along with a number of Feria and Saints’ days. For those who like a prompt or run-up in preparing for a sermon (be it to write it or hear it), or simply some devotional context, this is more than invaluable. This is not a Lent book in the concerted sense. It has six sections and the focus is not primarily Lenten, but it’s a wonderful resource and as good in keeping the 40 Days as it might be at any other time of the year, or even on retreat. Highly recommended.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year is also worth having. His former chaplain (now Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops) Isabelle Hamley has written Embracing Justice (SPCK, £10.99). French by birth, she also writes with fluency, originality and care over language. She is an impressive OT scholar which shines forth in the first three chapters on Genesis and Creation, Exodus and liberation, and OT law with concepts of justice. The remaining three chapters deal with the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and Holy Communion. This final chapter is not especially Eucharistic, but it is good all the same – bringing in ecumenical, international and patristic voices; a call to us all from beyond any bubble. Archbishop Welby gets it right in his introduction when he refers to the last two years and their ongoing implications. ‘The disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on those who were already from marginalized communities…exposed much of the injustice that has made its home in the cracks of our society.’ And there shall my servant be, we might add. Each chapter of this pithy book has questions for discussion or reflection, and a prayer. It’s a welcome and worthwhile contribution.
Back to the religious life, Daniel P. Horan OFM (Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago) gives us The Way of the Franciscans – A Prayer Journey through Lent (SPCK, £9.99) and it’s absolutely charming. Six taut chapters give spiritual depth through the lives of Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Bonaventure, Angela of Foligno, John Duns Scotus, and the way of the Franciscans. He marshals a number of voices and resources without getting weighed down. There are questions for reflection or discussion in each, and the overall atmosphere is reassuringly Catholic. Very good for a group or individually, and especially for retreat conductors.
Richard (Lord) Harries is the gift that keeps on giving since his retirement from the See of Oxford. His is one of the more informed and grounded literary voices in Anglican theology. Hearing God in Poetry – Fifty poems for Lent and Easter (SPCK, £9.99) is a steal at the price and something everyone should have on their bookshelf. It does exactly what it says on the tin and takes from us from Ash Wednesday to just beyond the Easter Octave with a poem each day. Harries is both succinct and sensitive, alert to how poetry can enliven and quicken faith, and intuitive on what it can say to us about the poet’s interior belief too. Each chapter is a poem and a short reflection (around two pages) on the poet, poem and some gentle theology. It’s unfailingly courteous as well as grown-up; he never presumes we need to be spoon-fed or patronised. No poet is repeated and the breadth is good. Personally I might have liked to see Mary Oliver or Philip Larkin there. No foreign language poets are included so that rules out Rilke and so many others. But the roll call is strong: Hardy, Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Spenser, Keats, Words-worth, RS Thomas, Jennings, Hill – even Toni Morrison. The seven sections are themed, and it’s an ideal book to keep daily devotions on track. Buy it anyway, and let’s hope for more from the noble lord.
Henry Martin has retired from prison chaplaincy and now lives in France where he devotes his time to writing, painting, his husband and their dog. Vincent van Gogh and the Good Samaritan – The wounded painter’s journey (DLT, £12.99) could recall Henri Nouwen’s classic on the Prodigal Son, except he delves into van Gogh’s life, like a biographer, sifting through letters and memoirs, weighing contemporaneous accounts with his own experience as a priest and artist. It is also deeply contemplative, because the subject before us is the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Christ and as painted by van Gogh. This is a solid and well-informed book with Scriptural reference and exegesis. It has questions for discussion at the very end, and is seven chapters of valuable theology. Martin acknowledges Henri Nouwen and Sr Wendy Beckett at the back as ‘two people whom I will never meet’ – their legacy is safe in his hands.
book of the month
A Life Volume II: Professor and Prefect to Pope and Pope
Emeritus 1966-the Present
Bloomsbury Continuum, £30
The second volume of Peter Seewald’s authorised biography of Joseph Ratzinger begins with him aa professor at Tübingen University, a colleague of Hans Küng – theologians each with a dazzling reputation but very different views on the future of the Church; views which, ultimately in Ratzinger’s view, derived from different understandings of Jesus. Is the Church’s founder to be reduced to a historical figure, his life and teaching to be constantly contextualised and relativism by changing fashions in scholarship? Or is he the universal and eternal cosmic Christ with all that this implies for witness to revealed truth?
The answer given to this fundamental question then shapes how progress and reform in the church are to be understood and applied. Tubingen undoubtedly brought a clarification and a parting of the ways from former colleagues as younger German progressives at Vatican II. “Certainly I was progressive at that time” Ratzinger said “but progressive did not yet mean that you broke away from the faith but that you learn from its origins to understand it better and live it better. The point is to rescue the faith from the rigidity of the system and reawaken its original vital power without giving up what is really valid in it.” There are two different kinds of false renewal: the first is an obstinate pursuit of an individual course; the second a rejection of tradition in order to adapt to the world. Real Christian renewal leads to a new simplicity which is missionary at heart. The aim is not to make Christians more comfortable by releasing them to conform with the world or fashionable mass culture but demanding the biblical ‘do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed’. Such reforming radicalism is focused not on secularisation of the church but a renewed desire for holiness and standing firm against what Christ is not.
Here we have what Ratzinger himself declared to be the constant of his ministry from Professor to Pontiff, from beginning to end: always to release the core of the faith from encrustations and to liberate its power and dynamism to transform the world. While humans may improve their situation, they cannot themselves rid the world of the disorder in creation, the fact of sin and evil which are the ultimate causes of temptation, oppression and misery. Renewal in Christ, rather than the pursuit of utopian ideologies, is what gives hope. This, he insists, has been the constant of his life. The extent to which it was so is something that this biography sets out to explore.
With the parting of the ways in Tubingen came a move to the University of Regensburg in his beloved Bavaria “because it would be peaceful there”, and so conducive to the scholarly life which remained his ambition, but one that was to constantly elude him. Against the background of a wholesale rejection of authority of any kind, culminating in the worldwide student revolts of 1968, and of which he saw theological revisionism to be a part, the scholar was already shaping up as a defender of the faith.
“If there is a date for Ratzinger’s entry into battle mode,” writes Seewald, “then it is 14 September 1970.” Fearing that the work Vatican II was in danger of being manipulated, if not wholly misappropriated, by those who saw reformation and secularisation going hand in hand, he showed his combative verve as co-founder and co-editor of the alternative journal Concilium, its aim being to address decline in Catholic theology and the resulting confusion arising from fashionable reinterpretation of Catholic doctrine to suit the spirit of the age.
Pope Paul VI also had misgivings about the direction the Church had taken after Vatican II and in 1976 he drew Ratzinger out of the academy and made him Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and a year later a Cardinal: he was still only 50 years old. It was to be a short tenure with little time to make a lasting impact. A year later Pope Paul VI died and, after the short reign of John Paul I, the cardinals elected the Polish Karol Wojtyla who took the name John Paul II. Meeting at the two conclaves, Wojtyla and Ratzinger discovered that they agreed about what was wrong with the Church. After only six years in Munich, Ratzinger was summoned to Rome by John Paul II as Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The issues coming across the new Prefect’s desk were many and huge: birth control, intercommunion, celibacy, authority, the ordination of women, the disciplining of clergy, the Tridentine mass, the schismatic Lefebvrites and Liberation Theology. For the Vatican’s response Ratzinger was constantly attacked by the liberal media and the tropes of the polish Pope’s ‘panzercardinal’ and ‘God’s rottweiler’ were born. To explore the extent to which these caricatures are unfair is part of this book’s aim and the way in which these issues were addressed, and why, is meticulously described. It shows how, always, Ratzinger’s driving desire was to communicate the fundamentals of Christianity while closely watching what was going on in the world and might disturb believers. In this maybe one of his greatest achievements may come to be seen the monumental ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ brought into being against the odds.
Yet Ratzinger became, and remains, a touchstone for many Catholics – both among traditionalist who approve of what he achieved and revisionists for whom he is the one who “prevented the church from moving into the contemporary era.”.
For a time after his election as Pope in 2005 this polarised view seemed to be fading as, freed from his CDF role, the genuine warmth of his personality, his self-effacing nature, and the simplicity of his personal lifestyle were, alongside his undoubted scholarship and spirituality, in his general audiences and papal visits allowed to shine through. It seemed that millions were genuinely learning to love him. But then came the crises (real or media provoked) occasioned by his Regensburg speech (reported as anti-Islamic); his pastoral reaching out to the traditionalist Society of Pius X (leading to accusations of being antisemitic); the ‘condoms’ outrage (portrayed as anti-humanitarian); the scandals of abuse by clergy, financial management and the leaking of Vatican papers (held up as failures of leadership). The evidence, and the responses of serious commentators at the time, show much of the criticism to be unjust, but once again he could be firmly fixed in the cross hairs of liberal sights. There is no doubt that as a scholar and theologian his views and the way in which he expressed them were often more nuanced than reporters could handle. He (and the Vatican) in general were slow to get to grips with the reductionist slogans of a social media age. By his own admission “practical government is not my strong point,” and he showed a loyalty to colleagues and friends beyond that which was sometimes deserved. Yet for all that, the painstaking evidence accumulated in this book shows him to be one of the great Christian figures of the 20th century and one who would have had a lasting standing in the church even had he not become pope. Whatever his own shortcomings it is hard not to conclude that much of the opposition to him, in the church as much as in the wider world, stems from (as he put it in a comment made to the author after he became the first pontiff to resign in 800 years) ‘the actual threat to the church coming from the global dictatorship of ostensibly humanistic ideologies . . . modern society formulating an anti-Christian creed, and opposing it is punished with social excommunication’.
I enjoyed reading this book, part carefully researched biography, part autobiography drawing in extensive conversations with the subject himself, and part reflection on not just a life but the broader context of the church within which it has been lived. Benedict XVI probably remains little understood by the media and even much of his own church. My own understanding of him has grown considerably through the reading of this two-part work. In this second volume the writing becomes more personally appreciative and I can understand why, with the writing coming as it does not just from the study of historical records, but personal encounter with a witness to Christ that has clearly left its mark.
+ Michael Langrish
Europe’s 100 Best
ISBN: 978-0241452639, £30
Cathedrals are the most splendid and visible manifestation of the Christian religion that shaped Europe. Readers will have their own favourites, often linked with its setting, whether Lincoln on its hill, Durham viewed from the passing train, or Bourges, seen from afar across Stendhal’s ‘plains of bitter ugliness’. “Europe’s cathedrals are its finest works of art”, is the opening sentence of this book, which examines buildings over an area extending from Trondheim in the north and Sicily in the south to Constantinople and Moscow in the far east of Europe.
It should first be said that the book is illustrated extremely well, and some of the photos of Spanish cathedrals linger in my mind, along with some of the Italian pictures. ‘Best’ is of course a subjective term, reflecting the interests and prejudices of the person speaking. Things are slightly complicated by the inclusion of some well-known churches that should not qualify, as they do not contain the cathedra, the seat of a bishop – Westminster Abbey in England; the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi; the Frauenkirche in Dresden; the Sagrada Família in Barcelona; the basilicas in Ravenna; Vezelay and Toulouse Saint Sernin in France being examples.
Some countries have a large number of cathedrals, which makes selection a difficult matter. Franklin’s book (1958) on the cathedrals of Italy says that Italy has 275 bishoprics, whilst Wikipedia says that there are 368 cathedrals and former cathedrals in Italy. Similarly there are around 180 cathedrals and former cathedrals in France; the number was considerably reduced at the Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII in 1801 which established the general principle of one cathedral for each département; today there are some 110 still functioning as cathedrals. Thus if you visit the Gers département today, the cathedral at Auch, seat of the Archbishopric, is accompanied by former cathedrals at Condom, Lectoure, Lombez and Mirande.
Not only does no one-size fit all as cathedrals are concerned, but there are national characteristics. As John Harvey once pointed out, the cathedrals of France are distinguished by their height, those of Spain by their area and those of England by their length. Styles vary. In France, Gothic predominates in the North; whilst there are some Gothic cathedrals in the South, but they are accompanied by a larger number of Romanesque buildings. Some Italian cathedrals date back 1500 years, starting with the basilican form, then there’s the growth of the Romanesque style from the 11th century. Gothic had much less impact than in the northern areas, but the Counter-Reformation saw Baroque reintroduce classical formulae.
As far as England is concerned, Jenkins’ choices are: – Wells (5*); Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Lincoln, Winchester (4*); Exeter, Gloucester, London S. Paul’s, [Westminster Abbey], Salisbury, Norwich, York (3*). Saint David’s represents Wales, and Kirkwall Scotland. That isn’t a bad selection (but why no Westminster Cathedral?), though I’m not sure about some of the ratings. It is when you venture further afield, that gaps appear. No Hungarian cathedral – why not Esztergom, the primatial see, or St Stephen’s in Budapest? Austria – there’s Vienna, but where’s baroque Salzburg? Basel is the only Swiss representative – how about Chur, Saint Gall or Lausanne? Belgium only gets Antwerp, no sign of Brussels, Malines or Tournai. Many of the German representatives – Aachen, Cologne, Passau, Regensberg, Speyer, Trier and Worms – appear in other people’s lists, but Bamberg, Erfurt, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Magdeburg, Mainz, Naumburg and Ulm are also included. Perhaps were it not for the author’s distaste for Baroque one might have expected Die Wies or Vierzehnheiligen sneaking in as ‘honorary’ cathedrals! Spain gets Seville, Toledo [5*]; Burgos, Córdoba, Salamanca [4*]; León, Santiago de Compostella, Segovia [3*]; Gerona, Palma (Majorca) and Zaragoza [2*]. I think that some of these ratings should be higher, León and Santiago for a start.
Then we come to France. Jean Guitton, begins his preface to the Abbé F. van de Meer’s Cathédrales Méconnues De France (1968) with the words ‘Au Moyen Âge, l’Europe vit surgir de son sol des hymnes de pierre blanche: les cathédrales’ [‘In the Middle Ages, Europe saw hymns of white stone spring from its soil: the cathedrals’]. And the late Ian Dunlop, once Dean of Salisbury described the early Gothic cathedrals of Northern France as ‘the greatest buildings that the world has ever known.’ And there are so many of them. Jenkins’ top dozen are: – Chartres, Amiens, Bourges, Paris Notre Dame (5*); Strasbourg (4*) and Albi, Beauvais, Laon, Le Mans, Reims, Rouen, Troyes (3*). His others are Arles, Metz, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges, Tours (2*) and Auch, Autun, Carcassonne, Coutances, Narbonne, Paris Saint-Denis, Soissons (1*). Again I disagree with some of the ratings; for example, how Albi does not get five stars mystifies me, likewise Reims, and how do Auch and Autun only get one star each?
What do I think? Well, in my view, choosing the best French cathedral is as easy as ABC – Amiens, Bourges or Chartres. And any book which chooses numinous, poignant, Saint Bertrand-de-Comminges can’t go far wrong with me.
The Sacramental Vision of Edward Bouverie Pusey
Tobias A. Karlowicz
2022, T&T Clark
Opponents of the Tractarians and their Ritualist successors were often labelled “Puseyites”. Yet compared with what Tobias Karlowicz calls “the scholarly obsession with Newman”, Pusey as a theologian has usually been dismissed as obscurantist and unappealing. This comprehensive study of Pusey’s sacramental vision and the principles that underlay it is therefore an important exercise in re-evaluation. Written by a scholarly American parish priest, it began as a PhD thesis significantly supervised by Professor David Brown whose seminal article in Anglican and Episcopal History (2002) challenged the view of Pusey merely as an erudite though unimaginative scholar, quite inferior to Newman’s brilliance.
After over a century of fits and starts Pusey scholarship has clearly entered a new phase to which this is an important addition. The monumental four volume biography by Pusey’s disciple H.P. Liddon published in the early 1890’s remained the standard interpretation for over seventy years. Then David Forrester in a provocative study later published as Young Doctor Pusey (1989) attempted to link Pusey’s development as a theologian to his troubled and often tragic family life; while Colin Matthew in an equally provocative article saw a fatal discontinuity between the promising early liberal scholar and the later Tractarian reactionary. Both views have cast a long shadow. It lingered even in the series of essays I edited in 1983 as Pusey Rediscovered which demonstrated the wide range of Pusey’s interests and influence; themes often neglected by Liddon. The view of Pusey as a man who lacked a free intelligence, seemingly joyless and life denying with an austere piety bordering on the morbid (I paraphrase myself, alas) had become fairly standard.
Fortunately in the last twenty years this negative estimate of Pusey has begun to be revised. Studies have appeared of his correspondence with the German scholar Tholuck, his understanding of scripture, his eucharistic theology and, perhaps most importantly, the significance of his neglected and still unpublished Lectures on Types and Prophecies which is a key text for the shaping of his subsequent theology. Karlowicz has now attempted the ambitious task of producing a comprehensive study of what he rightly calls Pusey’s “sacramental vision”, thereby reclaiming him as an important theologian with an alternative programme to the rationalism that flowed from the Enlightenment. Pusey is thus seen as prophetic of future theological developments and so a theologian with, Karlowcz believes, contemporary relevance.
Convinced of the underlying continuity of his thought contra Forrester and Matthew, Karlowicz roots Pusey’s theology in a re-appropriation of the Patristic allegorical reading of scripture and a sacramental vision stemming from the doctrine of creation. At its heart is the believer’s union with Christ inaugurated in baptism and sustained by the eucharist. With such a vision Pusey is thus able pastorally to link doctrine to discipleship. He concludes with two chapters on Pusey’s mediating understanding of the atonement and its work “in us” through the sacraments. A conclusion asserts Pusey’s contemporary theological relevance and points to the future work to be done, for as Owen Chadwick reminded us thirty years ago, the archive is so plentiful.
For the general reader this is a challenging study. It is closely argued and supported with much scholarly apparatus. Such an ambitious revisionist interpretation demands to be taken seriously. For me one of its most interesting contentions is that Pusey developed and extended themes from the older High Church tradition, whereas the usual picture has been of Pusey significantly diverging from this tradition. While no “overt” Romaniser himself and uninterested in ritual, nonetheless Pusey’s developed understanding of catholicity has usually been seen as giving later Anglo-Catholicism its pro-Roman orientation.
Karlowicz writes as a theologian. It will be interesting to see whether other theologians see in Pusey the contemporary theological resource he believes him to be. So much of what Pusey published is difficult to obtain and important correspondence is unpublished. Karlowicz admits Pusey’s thought is difficult and his prose convoluted. Historians perhaps, with their sensitivity to the different and varying contexts in which Pusey wrote, may also feel Karlowicz has overemphasised the continuities in Pusey’s development. But by all accounts this is “an original and nuanced theological study.” as Peter Nockles says in his endorsement. Karlowicz has put all future students of Pusey in his debt.
THE FREE CHURCH OF
Introduction to an Evangelical Catholic Tradition (2nd Edn., 2020)
Tenet Publishing House, 341pp, £29.99
John Fenwick’s book has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time waiting to be reviewed, though I discovered my reticence to read the volume was not entirely well-founded. Instead, on making my way through the 341 pages, I found that this historical overview and contemporary assessment of the Free Church of England provided a pleasant, if somewhat laboured, introduction to an important narrative which makes appearances in the church press, and through websites and blogs, now and again, and of which it is important to be aware.
The book is the second edition printed, with the strongest chapters being those which occurred in the first edition. The new chapters fit somewhat disjointedly into a preconceived structure, but nonetheless provide important additions to the narrative as told, given that the picture seems to be changing so frequently.
Fenwick clearly wants to suggest that the history of the church is more its people on the ground, but he fails to accommodate this in his narrative, preferring to present key people and moments in a broader historical context. For this reviewer, ignorant to the world of continuing Anglican churches, it is also a complicated picture, and whilst Fenwick does well at conveying the story of various fragmentary groups, one is occasionally left wondering how these groups relate to one another and to mainstream Anglicanism. He introduces his text by claiming that those considering joining the FCE should read this, together with another of his books, before making their decision, but this is certainly not an apologia which would entice this reader to find fellowship in that particular direction. Indeed, the Anglo-Catholic tendency to greater unity is stoked with the more churches and groupings one encounters, contemplation of which tends to leave one exhausted.
The dual strength of this work is, firstly, its presentation of a coherent historical narrative, which seeks to correct some earlier interpretations, and which have made the FCE what it is today, and secondly, the rapprochement at the end proposed between the FCE and both Anglo- and Roman-Catholicism – though whether all of Fenwick’s fellow FCE Anglicans would agree with him on this is another question. Indeed, sadly, but inevitably, the group’s schizophrenic theological tendencies leave one still pondering by the end of the volume exactly what the FCE is.
There are some tedious aspects to the book – repetitions, references to Brexit, always putting the verb ‘to ordain’ in inverted commas when referencing the ordination of women, the sudden appearance of bold type in parts, and its general length and flow (from the adaptations made in the second edition) – but nonetheless, the book and the FCE more generally could teach the Church of England and remind those within her of the importance of doctrine and of the need for consistency between public declaration and private belief.
The editor of this magazine may also be interested to see it makes an appearance in the text: the changing strap line is used as an example of how New Directions has become less broad and less evangelical over the past few years. The language employed can also be a little less objective than might be the case in more serious histories, but clearly this is a personal work from a serving bishop seeking to justify the position of his church, and generally Fenwick does a good job.
Would I recommend this work to the readership of New Directions? If one is looking for a tome setting out some basic history of continuing Anglicans, and wants to gain an impression of the present lie of the land, then yes. However, readers should steel themselves for some anti-Tractarian bias and encountering a worldview whose logic simply does not tally with our own. The book will, however, remind one of the advantages of belonging to the Established Church, and on that basis alone, perhaps it’s worth it.
Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and one Epitaph
Jonathan Cape, London 2021.
347pp. , £17.99.
Lucasta Miller puns on Keats’ ‘Brief Life’: most of his famous poetry was written before he was 23. He died in Rome aged 25 in 1821. Soon after his death Shelley dedicated his poem Adonais to Keats and so ‘transmogrified him into a disembodied Romantic saint’.
Miller tells us this is a ‘book by a reader for readers’, and shares her responses to nine of Keats’ poems or poetic fragments and their biographical and historical contexts. These poems, considered chronologically, are ‘On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer’, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ (from Endymion), Isabella; or The Pot of Basil, The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Bright Star’. Space allows consideration of only two of these.
An anonymous 1817 review of Keats’s epic poem Endymion in Backwoods Magazine coined ‘the cockney school of poetry’ and savaged him as a lower class political radical, one of Leigh Hunt’s subversive circle. ‘Cockney’ did not then refer to Londoners born within the sound of Bow bells, and was rather a politically motivated insult suggesting ‘urban, uneducated, …vulgarity’. Keats, the reviewer said, should ‘get back to the shop’. The Quarterly Review acknowledged Keats’s gleams of genius, but dammed him as ‘a copyist of Hunt’.
Miller disagrees with the myths that humiliation killed Keats and that his background was poor. Although ‘strapped for cash’ before he died his literary career was ‘made possible by unearned, if relatively modest, wealth’. Thus inherited funds allowed him to leave medicine in 1817, and concentrate on writing poetry.
Keats undoubtedly suffered multiple family traumas. By fifteen he had lost a brother, his father, his grandfather, and his mother had deserted her children only to reappear remarried to a man younger than herself who soon left her. She died of tuberculosis, penniless. Keats’ grandmother died in 1814 and brother Tom in 1818.
Miller’s eighth chapter examines Keats’s ode To Autumn, a paean to the English countryside, finding that it ‘humanises nature’ rather than regarding it as a classical deity. She notes a debate between scholars: should To Autumn be regarded as self-contained artwork, or should it be analysed in an historical context? In August 1819, a month before Keats’s ode as written, the cavalry dispersed 60,000 demonstrators on St. Peter’s field in Manchester, killing fifteen. Among critics who believe that Keats referred to this ‘Peterloo massacre’ in his ode Miller cites Tom Paulin. Paulin alleges that Keats’s
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn…
obliquely refers to the deserted Peter’s field strewn with bloodied banners. The critics Stephen Greenblat and James Shapiro likewise ask whether Keats ‘linguistic fertility’ was powered by historical circumstances.
Another area of debate is Keats’s purported atheism or pantheism. His reputation as a Romantic Movement thinker rests on the contents of published letters in which he resists the idea of philosophy or indeed any totalising theory. For Miller Keats’s rejection of Christian dogma suggests he was ‘far on the road to Deism … and perhaps far beyond it into some sort of Pantheism’. She also holds that Keats’s rejection of reason was ‘a culturally specific rejection of the eighteenth century Enlightenment’. Keats, she says, preferred ‘the faculty of the imagination’, citing his ‘I am however young writing at random – straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness’, and suggests this informed his famous theory praising a ‘negative capability’ wherein a man is capable of being ‘in uncertainties’.
Commenting on Keats’s religion, Miller holds that Keats ‘grew up a free-thinker . . . Conventional Christianity held no attraction’ for him. She points to Keats’s early sonnet ‘Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition’ in which he refers to ‘the sermon’s horrid sound’, and also to a letter in which Keats rejects the notion of life as a vale of tears ‘from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken up into heaven’. But other readings are possible.
Keats and his siblings were baptised at St. Botolph without Bishopgate, and St. Leonard Shoreditch, and Keats was educated at a dissenting academy. An 1818 letter reveals that Keats helped his sister Fanny prepare for her confirmation, surely by choice. Keats’s letters also speak of human beings born as ‘intelligences’ with ‘sparks of divinity’ and life on earth as ‘a vale of soul-making’. He concludes that suffering exists ‘not for God to take us to heaven but to make us who we are’, and states that the ‘heart must feel and suffer in a thousand ways’ if an individual’s soul is to fulfil its potential as God’s ‘own essence.’
Other critics expand on the danger of assuming that Keats rejected Christianity. John Saverese (2011) points out that although some have interpreted Keats use of Greek antiquity as ‘oppositional’ this may not be as simple or radical as sometimes claimed. Charles Taylor (2007) likewise questions claims that Keats referred to Christianity when he positioned himself against ‘geopolitical power’, holding rather that supposedly ‘secular’ values such as liberal pluralism and autonomous state institutions can be understood as developments of a specifically Christian logic.’ The subject is clearly not closed.
Miller’s book draws on the traditions of Keats scholarship, including recent research. There is a good index, a large bibliography and plentiful endnotes. The valuable historiography of Keats posthumous literary reputation is welcome.
Creation: Art since the
In 2014 John-Paul Stonard curated the splendid Tate Britain show, ‘Kenneth Clark: looking for Civilisation.’ Clark’s great television series was deliberately limited to Western/European civilisation by the constraints of the B.B.C.’s budget and Clark’s own knowledge. A book requires a smaller budget and thanks to pre-Covid travel Stonard has been able to develop a wide knowledge of Asian and African art. Like Lord Clark and Sir Ernst Gombrich, whose ‘The Story of Art’ this book might replace, Stonard limits himself to writing about what he has seen. And he has given us (for £30 in hardback) a history of art which includes highlights from non-Western art and the neglected areas of Western art, i.e., women artists.
The book begins and ends with reflections on why human beings make images. Stonard says there are many answers to that question but throughout history works of art have always reflected on the human relationship with nature. That, as they say, requires a lot of unpacking and the unpacking isn’t done in this book. But it is hinted at. And the final chapter with its series of lightly connected aperçus challenges us to new thought about artistic creativity. Sadly, as modern theologies have sometimes shown, what doesn’t begin as clear and simple won’t challenge the reader, rather it will turn-off all but the most high-minded.
Maybe the problem is the idea of creation. Since at least the end of the nineteenth century there have been artists who have liked to put themselves in the place God the Creator. Curiously God still seems to be blamed when things go badly wrong in the world – the scandal of a nation of art-lovers being involved in the Holocaust has not seriously dented the self- understanding of the Arts Establishment. But at least some artists have seen themselves as makers rather than as creators, which is both modest and coherent. Gombrich’s introduction to his work is the more helpful here as it is both concrete in its examples and focussed on the act of making.
The strength of Stonard’s work lies elsewhere, in the stories, or histories, of the main body of his text. And this feels like an Establishment reading. There’s chapters on African and Asian art (and interesting to read that the Benin Empire’s skill in bronze-casting was funded by enslaving other countries). There’s approving sections on art post-World War 2. There’s Black art. And the core of the narrative is painting in Europe 1300-1650, especially Italy, i.e. Florence and Venice, the Low Countries and Spain, with some architecture and sculpture thrown in. The prominence of that core may simply be because it is accessibly well-researched (the book has no references to literature in non-European languages) and there’s a lot to write about.
The narrative in places has a strong feel of progressive non-conformity. There’s none of Lord Clark’s sympathy for Catholicism. Instead, for Stonard, Catholicism means the Inquisition and Galileo, and Caravaggio the rebel. But did the 16th Century Catholic Church really make it impossible to paint a portrait of a Mother and Child which wasn’t Mary and Jesus, as Stonard claims? (No, Giorgione, Pontormo and Titian all did). And Stonard’s idea that the Counter-Reformation simply bludgeoned the senses without any intellectual argument is crude and at odds with his own characterisation of artists such as Bernini.
The progressive non-conformity becomes stronger as the canon comes closer to today, and with mixed results. There are interesting lines on Socialist realism. It is wilful to emphasise the intuitive aspects of Matisse’s ‘La Dance’ and ignore the inspiration Matisse took from the great formalist and intellectual (and Catholic) Poussin. And in the parlour game of who is in and who is out, it’s not clear what are the historic or artistic reasons why Mary Cassatt is given as much space as Manet and more than Degas, or Lee Krasner more space than Jackson Pollock. Is Frida Kahlo up there with Picasso, and why is there so much about Mondrian?
The illustrations in this book are of high quality though small. There is much of interest. It is a very 2020s view of the history of (Western) art.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist
National Gallery, London
until 27th February 2022
This show is satisfyingly old-fashioned. It is based on solid scholarship and a long-matured understanding and love of the artist’s work. The drawings, prints and paintings are displayed within a coherent framework which helps illuminate aspects of Dürer’s work – the way his journeys to the Alps, Italy (especially Venice) and the Netherlands were an occasion for cross-fertilisations with other artists and for picking up new techniques and materials. We learn about Dürer the man through his letters and journals. Even the provenance of the paintings is made sense of. So, the late picture of St Jerome comes from Portugal’s national collection via Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada, head of the Portuguese trade mission in the Netherlands, who was given it by the artist. That’s the sort of detail which may not be cutting edge in the culture wars, but it suggests the curators know what they’re talking about.
And some visitors will enjoy the show for its many curious insights. So, the close regard Dürer had for the aged Giovanni Bellini has recently been confirmed during the cleaning of Bellini’s ‘The Assassination Martyrdom of St Peter Martyr.’ For a long while it’s not been clear why there’s half a cow on the left of the painting. It’s deliberately there, the painting’s not been cut down. The answer was found by one of the Gallery’s restorers who saw that the cow is copied from Dürer as a gesture of respect.
And then there’s the relationship between a number of Netherlandish painters, Dürer and St Christopher. We learn that Joachim Patinir had some of his artist friends paint parts of his paintings out of a sense of artistic friendship. Dürer was a friend of Patinir, went to his wedding, drew St Christophers but – here the scholarship disappoints us – we don’t have any recognisable St Christopher by Dürer in an extant Patinir. But we do have a series of sketches of St Christopher by Dürer which are exquisite, almost baroque. It gives a little human interest to know the background of the sketches, but they are standalone works of art. Which is the ultimate reason to come to this show – some of the works are breathtaking.
Not all. The curators argue that Dürer has never been out of fashion. The ‘Hands’ and the ‘Hare’ remain popular (neither are at this show). The self-portraits of Dürer as Christ, or possibly the other way round – there is a line of vanity in artists which only Louis XIV out-egoed in the great church of Val de Grâce with his conception of Christ the Forerunner of Louis XIV – were groundbreaking and still today have a sense of style and assuredness. These aren’t in the exhibition either.
In fact, there are only four paintings by Dürer in the exhibition which are memorable. All are portraits of men; Johannes Kleberger (one of Dürer’s last works and a lively, innovative design), Bernhard von Reesen, Burkard von Speyer and Man with baret and scroll. Other paintings in the show are either copies (The Feast in the Rose Garden) or rarely seen in this country – the Haller Madonna and Christ among the doctors. They are not Dürer at his best.
But it would have been splendid to have seen the original of The Feast in the Rose Garden. Dürer painted it in Venice for the German merchants church to show the Venetians what he could do. He had come to Venice with the reputation as a draughtsman and engraver. Since Dürer ran a commercially successful line in prints this was not surprising. Even today, enterprising clergy still find Dürer useful for illustrating newssheets with scenes from the Large and Small Passions, the Apocalypse and the Life of the Virgin.
The show has only a small number of his prints and drawings but they are its heart. Dürer’s father was a goldsmith and the training he gave him made Dürer a master of printing technique. The opportunity to study and enjoy even the earliest prints is not to be missed. The lines are sharp and telling. Beautifully precise while at the same time always at the service of the design, they create fields of crosshatching in stark and telling contrast to the unmarked, open spaces. Not only are Dürer’s prints maturer earlier than his paintings, they manage the grotesque and rounded much better than the paintings (except the ‘Adam and Eve’). The early ‘Sea Monster’ and ‘Large Fortune’ are weird but convincing. As are the great works of maturity, ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ ‘Melancolia’ and the ‘St Jerome in his Study.’ These are technically assured and psychologically penetrating, as well as disturbing in a way the Surrealists could only hope for.
And then there are equally disturbing dirty fingernails on the painting of Martin Luther. There was nothing quite like them in Italy until Carravaggio. For all his travels, Dürer never really left Germany.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
This poem, from the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1572-1631), subverts the romantic tradition of this verse form by presenting the relationship between believer and God as a passionate and intimate one. The last line with its idea of being ravished would have been bold and even shocking.
Born and baptised a Roman Catholic, he became a member of the Church of England for career reasons to advance his progress as a civil servant. But in 1615, on the orders of King James, he was ordained and became Dean of St Paul’s six years later. His poetry and sermons are held in high esteem. There is often some tension in his work which balances the demands of faith with religious hope and assurance. This poem is included in Hearing God in Poetry by Richard Harries, reviewed on p25.