The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 18. Newman
It is not quite an idle question whether, if Newman had been more secularly minded, or even if, retaining his actual temper, he had taken seriously to poetry, he would or might have been a very great poet. That Lead, Kindly Light (it is, perhaps, rather a misfortune that it is not more generally known by its actual title The Pillar of Cloud) is poetry and great poetry in one poetical way can only be denied by those (they have been known) who, not out of mere idle paradox but exercising such intellectual faculties as they possessed, have made the same denial in the case of Dies Irae. That, in another way, and looking rather at choice and grasp of subject than at isolated poetic phrase or musical cry, The Dream of Gerontius is poetry, and even great poetry, is equally certain. That the two or three fragments of early light verse show great faculty in that way likewise is true. On the other hand, there is the fact that, in the not very small volume entitled Verses on various occasions, composed during a long life, though there is “nothing base,” there is, also, nothing at all, except the things already mentioned, which is above the level of The Christian Year, and nothing, with the same exceptions, equal to Keble’s best things. There might be two different explanations of this: one is furnished by the rather curious, but, apparently, quite frank and genuine, preface to the volume. Surprise at critics having discovered merit in your work is a not very uncommon affectation; but it is not one of which Newman, considering both his faults and his virtues, is likely to have been guilty; and he says he felt it. But he goes on to make the much more curious excuse for republishing all his virtues, is likely to have been guilty; and he says he felt it. But he goes on to make the much more curious excuse for republishing all his verse, that he really does not himself know whether it is good or bad, and is of opinion that there is no criterion of poetry at all. In another man, this statement would probably be like the former, an affectation, or else a mere whim. But Newman’s mind, as is well known, was rather over-furnished with logic, and extremely under-furnished with the historic sense; and, no doubt, he meant what he said. To one who did mean it, poetry must, necessarily, seem an altogether inferior thing—supplying “the harmless pleasure of verse-making” (his own words) and, perhaps, the equally harmless pleasure of verse-reading, but not [char]—not serious. It was almost impossible that, from a man so minded, much poetry of any kind should come: we have only to be thankful that, as a matter of fact, The Pillar of Cloud and The Dream of Gerontius actually came.