Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 11. Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XII. The Oxford Movement

§ 11. Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua

With all the genius of the poet and the preacher, with all the severity and simplicity of the Oxford school which he led, Newman was yet, to the fingertips, and to the end of his life, an artist, and an incomparable master of his art. Hardly yet can his literary be severed from his personal and religious influence; but already two, at least, of his works have come to be ranked among the classics. His Apologia pro vita sua was written in 1864 in answer to an offensive and unprovoked slander from Charles Kingsley. An accusation that truth for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman catholic clergy was supplemented by a gratuitous mention of Newman, and, for this, the only substantiation offered was a reference to a sermon delivered when the preacher was still ministering in the English church. Newman showed that the sermon contained no words that could possibly express such a meaning. Kingsley, the most honest and fearless of men, yet would not make an honest withdrawal, and Newman, with just relentlessness, exposed him to the derision of the world. The exposure was completed by an intimate account of the mental history of the man who had been maligned. Between April and June, Newman put out an Apologia, in seven parts, which should vindicate himself and show his countrymen what manner of man he was. “False ideas may be refuted by argument, but by true ideas alone are they expelled. I will vanquish,” he said, “not my accuser, but my judges.” And this he did in a wonderful way. He sat down and wrote day and night—his fingers, as he said, walking nearly twenty miles a day—just as he felt, thought and remembered, often weeping as he wrote, but triumphantly achieving such a record as few men have ever made, so sincere, so thorough, or so convincing. From the day when his Apologia was published, Newman won a place in the heart of his countrymen of whatever religion or whatever politics, which he never lost till he passed away nearly fifty years later in an honoured old age. The supreme merit of his Apologia, no doubt, is its directness. Every page seems as if it were rather spoken than written. It has the merits of a letter rather than of a book. It seems to represent without omission or concealment the whole mind of the writer. And yet it is a piece of finished art, not conscious but inevitable, because the writer had become, half—perhaps altogether—unwittingly, a supreme artist. He could not write in any other way than as an artist: his art had become to him a second nature. Thus, then, when the English of his Apologia is recommended as a model, and as characteristic of its age and the tractarian movement, it must be remembered that its simplicity is largely the result of a long and strenuous mental discipline acting upon a singularly brilliant and sensitive spirit. Newman writes as nature looks; but it is not given to others, in untaught simplicity, to write as he wrote. The training ground of his Apologia was the long series of sermons, delivered week by week, saint’s day by saint’s day, at St. Mary’s, Oxford. Their simplicity seems even more certain than that of the personal vindication which followed them after twenty years. Their English is simple, clear and refreshing as pure water; answering to every changing thought of the speaker’s mind. The thought is as limpid as the language. There had been nothing like them in the English pulpit: the nearest approach was bishop Wilson, yet in him still lingered the savour of the old divines who, undoubtedly, said what they meant, yet relished it as it was said. Newman never seems to taste what he is saying, nor to write with any look backward at himself: he only speaks straight home. Yet all this would have been impossible, his unique and wonderful style would not have been created, if he had not been both a student and a musician and had not, almost all his life long, written thrice over everything that he intended to preserve. The ancient classics, the fathers in their solemn searching severity, the unearthly music of the violin—these taught him the mastery of language and to know when he had mastered it to express every vibration of his thought. Of his teachers in English literature, only two were prominent, Southey, whom he “worshipped,” and Crabbe, from whom he unconsciously learnt more than any other master, in power to register, remember and reproduce a single impression in singleminded words. And, ever at the background, a spirit which dominates but finds no complete expression which frail humanity can grasp, is the majestic infinity which sounds in the symphonies of Beethoven. In his later sermons, especially in Sermons for Mixed Congregations (1850), his style was much more ornate, his eloquence less restrained, with an extraordinary vividness of description and appeal. He became more rhetorical, more obviously aiming at effect, with less of English reticence and with a vehemence more Italian or French.