The Inheritance


The term “medieval” was not coined until the early nineteenth century, anticipating the strong affinities between Victorian sensibilities and the earlier Catholic civilisation, but the presence of the “old faith” never did wholly fade. How could its spirit be exorcised when the language itself was formed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries? If we wish to follow the traces of a Catholic culture, we need only examine the words and cadences of written literature. The metric variations in medieval religious verse such as “Conduct of Life” and “The Whole Duty of Man,” from the twelfth century, were described by Samuel Johnson as containing “the rudiments of our present lyrick.” The prosody of versified saints’ lives in The South English Legendary employs “verse patterns later found in [Coleridge’s] The Ancient Mariner”1 so that the theme of spiritual redemption in the late eighteenth-century poem is maintained by the ancient cadence itself. The consonance is also a form of resonance, whereby the old spiritual life of the language is harboured in contemporary settings. That inheritance may work in more elusive ways, also, with the physical horrors associated with the legends of martyred saints “providing the authentic frisson that Gothic novels later developed.”2

It is difficult to know whether an interest in the medieval period represents an interest in medieval Catholicism also. There is evidence of a deep spiritual continuity, but that must be balanced against the fervour of Nonconformism and the moderate compromises of the Anglican settlement; one of the consequences of that moderation, for example, lay in the end of affective piety in favour of a more measured devotion to Christ the Redeemer rather than to Christ the Sufferer. The mysteries of the Passion, and the annual celebration of it, were replaced by the individual exigencies of conscience and the private path towards salvation. The dramas of popular faith were gradually displaced by the plainness of orthodox worship; just as the churches were stripped of their paintings and images, so the cults of the Virgin and the saints were abandoned in favour of attention to the translated words of the New Testament.

Shakespeare does invoke, however, the Catholic doctrine of purgatorial fires in Hamlet. Thomas Carlyle, the great intuitive historical mind of the nineteenth century, described Shakespeare’s work, and the civilisation that sustained it, “as the outcome and flowerage of all which had preceded it . . . attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages.” It could not be otherwise; the chronology allows no other conclusion. A more dramatic example, if the phrase may be allowed in this context, can be found in the life of one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. John Donne, who preached at St. Paul’s Cross as dean of the cathedral, was a convert from Roman Catholicism. His own brother, a more steady Catholic, was imprisoned in 1593 and died in incarceration; the priest discovered with him was given the ritual execution of disembowelling and hanging. The nature of that death emphasises the mortal peril in which many Catholics found themselves after the Reformation; they were deemed to be traitors as well as heretics, servants of a foreign power and corrupters of the state. They were to be hunted down, imprisoned or executed—just as the Catholic authorities had hunted down Lutherans or “new men” before the Reformation.

The penalties imposed upon Donne’s clandestine faith must have deeply oppressed his childhood and youth—he remained a Catholic until his early twenties—and this may help to account for the anxiety and uncertainty infused within his poems. One critic has suggested that Donne’s “habits of thought remain Catholic when he feels himself threatened”and that his Holy Sonnets are striated by Catholic devotion culled especially from the Advent Offices and the Hours of the Blessed Virgin. The conclusion may be, then, that his poems are “the work of a man who has renounced a religion to some manifestations of which he is still, at a profound level, attached.”4 That might almost be translated into a description of early seventeenth-century English culture in general.

Donne’s theatricality, and his metaphors of power, might be adduced here as further evidence of his attachment. His conflation of sacred and secular love recalls the mingling of courtly love and religious fervour in Catholic England. When De Quincey refers to Donne as a rhetorician rather than a poet, he is referring to that earlier tradition. Donne’s antitheses, when two opposed ideas are yoked violently together, may in turn be a token of his own divided and divisive religious sensibility. They are part of the morbid intensity of his nature. It is perhaps not unexpected, therefore, that his poems circulated only in manuscript until after his death.

The author of English Spirituality has remarked that between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, despite the fissure of the Reformation, a spiritual tradition was maintained. Between Margery Kempe and John Donne, between Julian of Norwich and George Herbert, there was “the same living stream, the same lineage”;the religious prose and poetry of the seventeenth century “grew directly from fourteenth-century doctrine” so that the “Caroline divines continue and develop this tradition.” 6 George Herbert’s work, albeit expressive of a life of ill health and retirement, has all the serenity of the early mystics. It may seem curious that Protestant devotion and expression should spring directly from medieval Catholicism, but it is part of a larger continuity. One of the arguments of this book is that a native spirit persists through time and circumstance, all the more powerful for being generally unacknowledged.

Anecdotal evidence in any case suggests that a Catholic sensibility did not wholly disappear in the centuries subsequent to the Reformation; John Milton’s family were Catholic, and it has been supposed that William Shakespeare’s father was a Catholic recusant. The great composers of the sixteenth century, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, were both unreformed Roman Catholics. In turn their plangent English music of loss affected twentieth-century English composers such as Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; Vaughan Williams’s Job and Warlock’s Corpus Christi Carol are, in particular, evidence of a strong religious sensibility even if it is expressed as “a plaintive liquescent chromatic harmony of unutterable desolation.”Is it advancing too incautiously to suggest that the chromatic harmonies attendant upon transition and loss, so central to the genius of English music, are affected by the work of those sixteenth-century English composers languishing in internal exile?

Here may be mentioned the Roman Catholicism of Edward Elgar, whose declaration of faith in The Dream of Gerontius, “Sanctus Fortis,” is one of the most memorable and moving passages of twentieth-century music. All the yearning and nostalgia of Elgar’s passionate nature lie somewhere within it, and the best commentary upon the entire oratorio comes from William Byrd’s preface to his Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety published in 1588: “To sacred words . . . there is such a profound and hidden power that, to one thinking upon things divine and diligently and earnestly pondering upon them, all the fittest numbers occur and freely offer themselves to the world.”

In twentieth-century music, also, there has been an abiding interest in the nature of Catholic drama. Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde was based upon a Chester mystery play and was first performed in a parish church in the summer of 1958; his canticle Abraham and Isaac was a setting of a miracle play from the same area. Peter Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Blis was inspired by a thirteenth-century song. This consummation of modern and medieval may be found in Harrison Birtwistle ’s opera Gawain, based on the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which like its medieval counterpart renders the scenes of physical dismemberment, in one of which a severed head sings, “comic . . . by their sheer theatricality.” 8

John Dryden described the Catholic communion as the “milkwhite hind, immortal and unchanged,” but it is perhaps more significant that in The Hind and the Panther he chose to write a beast fable established upon medieval models. The real continuity lies in theme, cadence and form rather than in public professions of devotion. The Catholicism of Alexander Pope emerges forcibly in his self-created role as a social and political satirist, but more apposite is the fact that he chose to translate the poetry of Chaucer. As Hippolyte Taine attested of Pope’s verse, “the old imagination exists . . . nourished, as before, by oddities and contrasts . . . it needs a succession of expressive figures, unexpected and grinning, to pass before it . . . it prefers this coarse carnival to delicate insinuation.” The author of The Dunciad, in other words, possessed a Catholic imagination.

Thomas Chatterton’s school in Bristol was built upon the ruins of a Carmelite convent, and so it is not inappropriate that in his Rowley poems he resurrected the world of medieval Catholicism. William Morris was described as possessing a “medievalised mind and turn of thought,” like so many of his contemporaries. From where else did Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King emerge? It is a question of affinity.

Throughout this study there will be signs and tokens of what Hippolyte Taine called “the old imagination”—whether in the music-hall or in the pantomime, in the writings of Tolkien or the novels of Anthony Burgess, in the tradition of “magic realism” in English fiction or in the paintings of Graham Sutherland. The allegories and bestiaries of the medieval English imagination re-emerge some centuries later in George Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as in the beast fables of Beatrix Potter and A. A. Milne. In similar fashion, the comic transvestism of the mystery plays continues to flourish in the contemporary pantomime. Mummers’ plays continued into the modern era, while the dancing of the mystery dramas was sustained in the “jig” at the close of Tudor plays and the more ceremonial steps of the seventeenth-century masque.

No study of the English imagination can ignore the fact that the medieval English theatre was revived to striking effect in the twentieth century. A study of this curious phenomenon has suggested that “more medieval drama has been produced in the twentieth century than in its own time” and in the closing decades of the last century there was “a performance of almost every extant medieval text.”9 The lacuna of five hundred years might as well not exist. The Catholic culture of fifteen hundred years could not wholly die. Its inheritance is buried just below the surface of our own time.

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