A Paterian Imaginary Portrait of Robert Southwell, English Martyr and Poet: Selections from the Journal of Father John Deckers, SJ

Nicole Coonradt

11 June 1580 Naples

All talk here is of Fr. Campion and Fr. Persons since their recent departure for England—the much debated great Enterprise to minister to our poor and most wretched recusant cousins in England is underweigh! In all good faith, we hope, furthermore, those fallen apostatizers among them may yet be saved from doom. Rumor has it that Fr. Campion had hesitated because he had been cautioned not to be found in the company of boys and women in order that he may better avoid suspicion. But how can he “help souls” if he is not to have contact with those most in need? We hear that there are spies everywhere and that somehow (the post is not safe!) a letter was intercepted that has alerted the English authorities to their imminent arrival. All the ports are now closely watched by pursuivants. We hear they will attempt entry, at separate places and times, disguised as jewel Merchants. The coded language to be used in any correspondence about the Mission will adopt this guise as well, especially between England and the Continent. We are all eager to hear of their safe arrival. I will write to Robert, still in Rome, later.

12 June 1580

I have just dispatched my letter to Robert at the English College. I know how in need of friendship he is at this difficult time—difficult for all of us concerned about the Mission, but he most especially because of his dear family ever long in danger. And his admittance into the Society has been put off again. How I long to be at his side to cheer him; that I might render to him the sympathy for which his most delicate soul pines. I have been reading over again the poem he sent me in his last letter and feel much affected by the closing lines:

Favour my wish, well-wishing works no ill;
I move the suit, the grant rests in your will.

July 1580

We have just received word: our Merchants arrived safely on English soil 24 June—the Lord be praised! I wonder how Fr. Campion must feel to finally return to England after being absent for more than a decade? If only his homecoming were under more auspicious and felicitous circumstances! It must—in many ways how can it not?—seem to him a bittersweet time, the isle more hostile than welcoming; a place almost unknown to him, so dangerous it has become. To think that after his celebrated tenure at Oxford that he must now conceal his famed identity is certainly lamentable. Does England not understand he is one of Her own and a most precious Jewel at that?

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
Matthew 13:45-46

We pray for their success constantly. And daily, I expect to receive a letter from Robert. I continue my studies and look forward to taking Orders in the fall—God willing! Would that Robert were here with me to share this journey; but he must make his own way. May Christ strengthen him!

10 August 1580

Robert writes to me that he continues to feel anxious about admittance into the Society. He has been, at least, able in Rome, to partake of the art there—something he cannot but help as it surrounds one so completely—this, I know, is more than a comfort to him; yet it seems equally to torment him in some way that I, being less poetic than he, am neither able to capture nor to understand fully. England has been so starved: not only for the Blessed Sacrament, but also for Art. The destruction of the Holy Houses there and all their treasures is a trespass not soon to be forgiven by Heaven! Perhaps to someone like Robert, that is among the saddest and most cruel aspect of Reform—the loss of such beauty and its ties to England’s past. He writes,

I do not always have time, but when I do, I am more filled with amazement than I can communicate to you when I feast on the paintings and sculptures that surround one in Rome. In keeping with the directives of the Council of Trent, some of the treasures have been removed to elsewhere to reduce what even many of our brethren in Rome had begun to consider ostentatious. And yet, it is still almost too much—like an excess of beauty that threatens to sicken the beholder! Like gorging oneself on too many sweetmeats! Such beauty hurts the eyes though one cannot help but look! Even so, Michelangelo’s Adam is a wonder to behold, as is his David, in his cold, hard perfection. Can he really be made of marble or do those fine veins pulse with warm human blood as do our own? Could a man be so perfect? And yet how like a god; how God-like! I feel moved to write about it, but I do not think that prose is the best mode of expression; only poesy might capture such depth of feeling and connect it to some other meaning, something better and beyond these volatile emotions. I have told you before, my friend and confessor: these feelings frighten me. My feeble attempt is enclosed herein, with love from your most devoted friend; I am, as ever yours, in Christ, R—

I will save the poem to read later, after Compline, when I may expect adequate time for contemplation.

11 August 1580

O Robert! Perhaps you are mistaken in seeking a life in the priesthood. You have a peculiar talent—though as yet like a diamond in need of the fire that hardens it and perfects it—which may be better realized, put to better use, elsewhere. What is it about that island, the England of the Southwells and Campions, that has the power to produce such sensibility, such poetic minds? England needs you more than you know, my fine, talented friend. If you are anything like Fr. Campion, your skill with the pen may be highly valued to shelter souls from this Tempest.

Reflections on David Composed for J.D.—My Dear and Most Valued Friend in Naples

Fair shepherd boy you tend your flock,
	Yet little do you know:
That God above will call on you
	His strength through you to show.

To trust in Him as He chose you,
	Is but to choose His Love;
To face the foe, Goliath vile,
	Fulfills God’s will above.

As David did not lonely toil
	But placed his faith in God
So in Him I will all my days—
	Make Him my staff, my rod.

For no one walks the path alone
	Though pilgrims all are we;
And helping souls along the way
	Brings comfort now to me.

Just as each talent He bestows
	To Him it must return;
To glorify the One True God
	Should each devout soul burn.

Whether it be in words or deeds
	 In ink or marble cold;
We all must render back to God
	His greatness to behold!

25 August 1580

We have had a visit from Milan, from Archbishop Borromeo, and he tells us that the Church is now printing Spiritual Testaments to be secreted into England, along with waxen Agnus Dei, a number of small Crucifixes, and most important: The Consecrated Host. These are the “gems” of the “trade.” Though I hail from Brussels, I feel closely connected to the struggle in England—perhaps even more so with my affinity, my brotherly affection for Dear Robert and a desire to help his people; most specifically his family. I am to be ordained in October and will pray to God that I may be an instrument of grace, wherever He sees fit to send me; though, should it be His will, I will gladly travel to England. As our great founder, Ignatius of Loyola, sought ever to do Godly deeds—in putting on Christ’s Mantle (just as Saint Paul and Augustine before him), to come to the aid of his fellow man, ever dreaming of Knightly Adventure—so I long to be a Soldier for Christ! God grant that Robert may be my brother-in-arms if such an Election he eventually makes!

17 September 1580

Today is Saint Lambert’s Day, which used to be, Robert tells me, one of the favorite feast days of the English, but that was long before his time, before his grandfather, Richard, and great-uncle, Robert (my dear friend’s namesake), began the Southwell family pattern of betrayal, “introducing not a few bars sinister into the House.” In remembering and then praying about this Blessed Feast Day, I thought it ironic that Lambert was martyred for upholding marital fidelity—run through the heart with a javelin in the Church while he prayed at the altar—all for challenging his adulterous king and attempting to maintain the sanctity of marriage. England has by and large outlawed the great Feast Days, except where they may be secretly observed in some of the more remote shires, but they would do well to pay heed to this one in particular, since their present struggle is the result of “The King’s Matter” and the black desires of a man who not only turned his back on so many earthly wives, but on Christ’s Sacred Wife: The Church. As the King severed heads, so too, did he cut off his own Head! And where is the Body now? In commemoration of Saint Lambert’s sacrifice for “true love over false,” Robert sent me a poem he calls “Love’s Servile Lot.” I particularly admire these early stanzas,

Love mistress is of many minds,
Yet few know whom they serve;
They reckon least how little love
Their service doth deserve.

The will she robbeth from the wit,
The sense from reason’s lore;
She is delightful in the rind
Corrupted in the core.

She shroudeth Vice in Virtue’s veil,
Pretending good in ill;
She offreth joy, affordeth grief,
A kiss, where she doth kill.

A honey-shower rains from her lips,
Sweet lights shine from her face;
She hath the blush of virgin maid,
The mind of viper’s race.

She makes thee seek yet fear to find,
To find but not enjoy;
In many frowns some gliding smiles
She yields, to more annoy.

With each new verse he sends me—“trifles” he calls them—I see him firing his poetic talents!

1 October 1580

Clearly cognizant of my upcoming Ordination in the Society, Robert writes to me that he feels increasingly lost. In his grief over rejection, he feels like “a widow” for having been passed over for his intended “espousal” and feels himself “shunned as an abortion.” He tells me that if he cannot join the Society that it would be better for him if Christ would just let him die. I fear he is too melancholy for his own good! It comes of his poetic nature I am certain, but he must be coaxed away from such dark and dangerous despair. I have written to beseech him to stay the course. Christ is testing his faith and he must rise to the challenge; he must remember Ignatius! His letter closed with an appeal to Christ:

Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!

Perhaps I should write to the Superior General in Rome with an appeal of my own that my troubled friend be watched closely as he continues his novitiate.

13 October 1580

Today I received a letter from Robert in reply to mine. He yet seems very much affected by my having concluded my novitiate, especially as he seems ever frustrated in his own attempts to enter the Society. But perhaps it is best that he is made to wait. This is not a commitment to be taken lightly—or rashly and for the wrong reasons—and we must place our deepest trust in both God and His ministers to know what is right for us in His own time. And, as I suspect, God may have other plans for Robert’s talents.

We had, in fact, first been brought together for “devout conversation” under the guidance of Robert’s Spiritual Director, Fr. Columb, a countryman of Robert’s who hails from Devonshire.

I recall Robert confiding in me, on one of our earliest meetings at Douai, and among those intimate conversations we regularly enjoyed about our dreams and fears, that he, at that time, had felt torn between the Jesuits and the Carthusians, the order which the poet in him has deemed fit to call “the bark of Bruno.” The indecision caused him “to be worn out by the incessant struggle.” As I reflect on it now, this seems to mirror the paradox of Robert: the Carthusians in their way of living, with their contemplative isolation, could not be more antithetical to the very public life of the Jesuits! Perhaps, however, as he told me on another occasion, he is thinking of the sacrifices of Houghton, Lawrence, and Webster in their resistance to the Henrician monastic ruination; they are not typical, but then Reform has taken its toll on all God’s servants. I also know that Robert was raised in the family home that had once been a monastery and it could be that regardless of which order he finally chooses, he wishes to atone for his family’s participation in the wretched confiscation of Church property; that by the holiness and innocence of his life he might make up for the faults of his predecessors.

Knowing Robert as I do, I can see the reasons for these seemingly different attractions on several planes. His forefathers have been so unable to stay the course of religious devotion (unlike those braver men of faith such as Houghton)—in this long and painful time of rupture, when Robert’s own beloved England is especially racked by the Storm of Christendom—that he must needs still feel not a little conflicted about joining the Jesuits, knowing that he will likely be sent to England to aid the Mission in his homeland—and mayhap wondering if he can submit to God’s will to accept that. Though we know we should embrace martyrdom, it is yet a frightening prospect! Sometimes, however, martyrdom of the heart is the more difficult. The Carthusian life here on the Continent would indeed be very much safer and easier by comparison; but Robert is not one to take the easy path in anything—indeed, he seems often to complicate matters well beyond what is necessary! And for a man like Robert, the contemplative life would not suit him entirely; he needs human companionship and human sympathy. I think he wants very much the opportunity to realize the Jesuit Mission “to help souls”—especially if it means saving some of his family and achieving at least a modicum of reconciliation. If anything, his anxiety will only fuel his desire to enter the Society. I must reply to him at once.

15 October 1580

Before I was able to send my intended reply to Robert, I received word that my father has fallen gravely ill. Most immediately, I am to Brussels to be at his side, and, if need be—since they tell me he is at Death’s door—to administer the last rites, Extreme Unction. Viaticum—food for the journey. I pray I will not be too late arriving! One of the difficulties in making such a trip now is the continued unrest in Brussels and throughout the Low Countries. While my status as a priest is not a problem there as in England, the way Fr. Campion and his party are continuously threatened, it seems that the grim and far-reaching schism means no one’s safety is assured. As the rainy-season fast approaches, travel will be difficult regardless. Post-haste, I will send word to Robert to alert him of my change in circumstances and request his prayers.

22 November 1580 Brussels

My father struggles for life, but the struggle is over for our governor, Willem Van Hoorn, who was executed yesterday. As yet, no one has said why, though it is suspected that he had conspired with the Northern rebels and was thus a threat to securing peace, though this is tenuous at best. As he has not sons to immediately replace him, a new governor will be chosen from among the Burghers. I have had no missives from Robert, though I have sent him two letters in spite of my sickbed vigil over my failing father. I will hope something awaits me on my return to Naples, which I anticipate will happen soon. If only my father would pull through! I fear the worst, though; his vague eyes seem to look into mine as those of a man already gone.

3 December 1580 Naples

Having buried my father, I am back in Naples, still under a cloud of grief. I try to console myself knowing that he will one day see our Heavenly Father, but realize more that the loss is mine and I must steel myself against such sorrows if I am to serve God rightly, for it was His will and my father died a good death, faithful to the last. Furthermore, he has left my mother and youngest sister in comfort with the town house, his business shares from the diamond trade, and few debts. I know, too, that part of my melancholy is the result of being cut off from regular conversations with Robert. We have not exchanged any letters in a month-and-a-half and I long to know his situation. And, I must admit, I hunger for another poem! When we were at Douai, our daily talks, first in Latin, as it was then our common tongue, were precious to us both and our time together seemed all too short. Though I no longer know the same mortifications we once practiced as part of our ascetical existence, my flesh seems yet to feel the sting and irritation of the haircloth shirt. At the time it gave us secret pleasure, perhaps because we knew that we each felt the same thing, that the burden of our physical suffering was shared.

10 December 1580

The long-awaited letter from Robert has arrived! He sends his condolences for my loss, wishing he could be in Naples to comfort me, to share in my grief. He also tells me that my loss makes his own heart-sick worry for his family ever more immediate, especially as his father has been lost in the Tempest, “his bark tossing relentlessly, threatening to capsize.” But he sends a poem, a most beautiful one, of consolation. It is aptly titled, “Life’s Death, Love’s Life,” and exhorts me in the final stanza,

Mourn, therefore, no true lover’s death,
Life only him annoys;
And when he taketh leave of life,
Then love begins his joys.
No words could ring more true! And in thinking of death, though we will leave this “darksome dungeon of the body,” Robert anticipates that when we two die, we will reunite in the world hereafter, prompting him to ask, “Why should not the result of our common desires put the finishing touch to our friendship?” How shall I answer him? They should! They should! But as he has already been dismissed once and his acceptance into the Society again deferred and uncertain, I wonder that he is not more careful. We have all along been warned of giving any reason for being suspected of “certain sins intolerable to the Society.” He reminds me that in the words of Christ in the Gospel of John, we are philos not doulos. Yet while we serve Christ, we do so through the friendship of the Society, by serving others, and denying the self. We must remember this. Ours, I shall tell him, must be a mission to help “cleanse the faith from ignominy and to restore it to its pristine glory.” But doesn’t even Cicero teach us about “the responsibilities incumbent upon friends”? I will make my appeal to God for the wisdom to know how to answer my friend.

15 December 1580

After praying about it for several days, I have sent Robert a reply, thanking him most heartily for the beautiful poem and the consoling sentiments. I try to assuage his worries about the welfare of his father. I then quote to him from Cicero’s De Amicitia about the ways that the bond of friendship is an illuminating force:

Virtue both forms and preserves friendships. . . . When it has put itself forth and shown its light, and it has seen and recognized the same light in another, it draws near to that light and receives in return what the other has to give; and it is from this intercourse that love, or friendship—call it what you will—is kindled.

But I also remind him of the dangers, for as Cicero warns,

Friendship is given by nature, not as a companion to the vices, but as a helper of the virtues, that, as solitary virtue might not be able to attain the summit of excellence, united and associated with another it might reach that eminence.

Furthermore, I tell him that as Christ is The Light of the world—the Way, the Truth, and the Light—that we might find comfort in knowing that, above all, we serve Him because he has befriended us first and that for all He gave for us, we must, in turn, in order to truly live like Him, be prepared to give our all for others, too. As a Society member, I remind him (taunt him?), I must follow the Jesuit motto to Love and Live, just as the title of his beautiful poem suggests.

But did I do right to also tell him that perhaps he was correct to be frightened by his feelings—for I know them, too—and that through the gift of Conscience God plays on our will, always giving us the push to do what we know to be right even as we seek Him. As Saint Augustine’s mother, the Blessed Monica, told her beloved son, “He who has given the will, will always provide the ability. He always does.” I hope my suggestion that we cease our conversations for a spell, as part of a new ascetic, will not come as too harsh, but I think Robert must make some decisions for himself, without my influencing him. I suspect, however, that my signing the letter “Fr. Deckers” might have hurt him not a little. O, Robert! What else could I say? We must be so careful—matters of great moment are upon us! We must not jeopardize the Mission!

24 December 1580

Two days ago I received from Robert his reply: “Dear Fr. Deckers,” he writes, “I agree with the wisdom of your suggestion and submit myself to your sage guidance. (Does he mock me?) Enclosed you will find two poems, my Christmas gift to you. Your servant in Christ, Robert.” One is titled, “The Burning Babe;” the other, “A Child My Choice.” They are both perfect! I have never received such a gift and I weep to read them. I long to hear how he is, to know his hurts and joys, to thank him for such a precious offering, but I have made that impossible, at least for a time—and yet I fear it will be forever. I should be rejoicing, it is Christmastide, the first coming of Christ remembered, God’s prophecy realized, The Word made Flesh—but instead I hear requiems and have not felt so melancholy since my father’s funeral.

31 July 1581

I have not had the heart to record many of my days since Christmas, but today we learned terrible news: on everyone’s lips is the capture of Fr. Campion. He was saying Mass at Lyford Grange and as he had been there the day before, on 14 July, the authorities had lain in wait. He is rumored to have hid himself in the dovecote. O precious Dove! Why did you not fly from that place? Now more than ever I feel the need to confide in Robert. I must break this silence and contact him. Is he still in Rome?

17 September 1581

I receive no word. But as my letters have not been returned, I will hope Robert has them. It is again Saint Lambert’s Day—how well I recall what a different day this felt last year. I will read again “Love’s Servile Lot” as a remembrance. I will pray for patience. I wonder if Robert has read Fr. Campion’s “Brag,” by which not one of us is not greatly moved. It was printed on one of the secret Jesuit presses in the North. It closes thusly, a part I have committed to memory as with any sacred text:

There will never want in England men that will have care of their own salvation, nor such as shall advance other men’s; neither shall this Church here ever fail so long as priests and pastors shall be found for their sheep, rage man nor devil never so much.

And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.

November 1581

We have had dreadful reports of Fr. Campion’s imprisonment and unspeakable torture. That any human being could do this to another is beyond my poor powers of comprehension. And to such a man as he! But to any man! Who would do this to a dog? In Nature, do animals treat each other thus? No, only Man is such a Beast! I shudder to think what our Dear Merchant endures. God help him! God help us all!

His public conferences went badly with the officials; how could they not? They all fear him and thus he received no fair debate—the thing we all desire most, that battle for which we have long been preparing. What a travesty of Justice! Though she is blindfolded, they now see fit to stop her mouth, and bind her scales! But by secret accounts, Fr. Campion still put them to shame anyway, with no books, no preparation, just his own brilliant mind and his sadly broken body—and Christ as his witness! He admitted his love for his Sovereign Queen, but refusing Her Royal Majesty’s bribes of wealth, title, and lands to renounce his “popish ways,” he is becoming an increasing threat to authority. Anyone who hears him speak is pierced to the heart by his eloquence and the Truth of his words. We have already heard rumors of several conversions in those who have witnessed this Noble Soul in his public defense. By one account, though he has been so severely abused, he still holds his head high with dignity and retains the bearing of a Great Man, that of the scholar—the Flower of Oxford, the Gentleman, the Soldier of Christ our Lord. My soul now burns with keen desire to join the Mission in England! O Robert! Write to me! I must know your mind!

December 1581

We hear Fr. Campion made his end with Grace and Dignity, in spite of the monstrous attempts to strip him of these. When sentenced he reportedly said, “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England— the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter,” and received his sentence with the Te Deum Laudemus. This is most fitting as it is the Ambrosian Hymn, the Saint whom Fr. Campion made the center of his eponymous Neo-Latin Drama: Ambrosia, which was performed in Prague but a few years past. Our brothers there were much moved by it. It was thought to have been secretly copied and sent to England, but we have as yet had no reports confirming its presence there. And now, like Saint Ambrose, Fr. Campion has also been made to stand witness for the Faith. How many gathered in hopes of touching the blood of this Martyr—to leave the site of martyrdom with a precious relic! A young man, standing very near, was baptized with the sacred blood as he remained looking on during Campion’s horrid dismemberment. It is reported that he converted on the spot, vowing to become a Jesuit! In death, Campion has become even more powerful to the Enterprise. O Pearl of Great Price!

I have received a small parcel from Robert. No epistle, only this poem—

Campion in Memoriam

I pray to you, most Holy One
In Heaven high above,
And contemplate Rare Campion
Dismembered all for Love.

How well he pleased his Majesty
When first she heard him speak;
Though bounty on his head she laid—
He turned his Blessed cheek.
Hunted was this Jesuit,
A Merchant in his Order,
Who secretly had served the Host
And baptized souls with water.

To Lyford Grange he took himself,
Hid in the dovecote bower,
From thence was prized this Holy Wight
And thrown into the Tower.

For many a day and lonely night
He languished sore with hunger;
Till torture bent him front to back
His steadfast will to sunder.

A shadow of a stronger self
The Traitor took the stand
With Truth and Justice as his aims
And only Christ to hand.

Far from the parley he had sought,
The Flower held his ground
And shamed sly Fortune’s subtlety
With words that still resound.

Yet though he was all humbleness,
Eloquence and wisdom,
The Missionary fought in vain:
The Bench ne’er would heed him.

Execution was his sentence!
By lowly hurdle mean
Through muddy streets he traveled thence:
To Tyburn’s scaffold lean.

And woe the sight a gruesome one
’Neath Winter sun’s cold glare
The faithful Briton, Campion,
Hung turning in the air.

They cut him down, that Saintly Soul,
While life within yet ranged;
The people watched, both young and old,
And many minds were changed—

When there, as if by Alchemy,
They mined the Precious Gold:
The still-beating Purest Heart
Of faithful Martyr bold!

Aeterna Christi munera
Et Martyrum victorias,
Laudes canentes debitas
Laetis canamus mentibus.

March 1582

Robert and I have resumed correspondence, and for this I am greatly relieved; but we are more guarded, more careful than we once were. It will not do to be impetuous! And our letters now must employ the code, especially if we write about the Mission in England. Robert has written to me greatly anxious for his family,

Merchants, at one time, may rejoice over the amassing of wealth, at another to bear patiently the loss of some small bark. A strong suspicion for fearing that they may have withdrawn from this line of business is occasioned by my never hearing of their having the same success as some others have had, who have persevered and still persevere, even with occasional loss, knowing full well that in the end it is more lucrative than any other sort of enterprise.

Moreover, he tells me that certain “gems” and “jewels” have again been secreted over for the benefit of his family and others. He specifically wrote to Fr. Persons that he might endeavor to “enrich” the Southwells at his first opportunity and then apprise him of their success in the business. There is a new urgency to Robert’s desire to enter the Society. I know every day of waiting is a torment to him, especially as the delay occasions also the greater delay in helping his family and kinsmen when every moment seems to speak of doom. But he seems to have come to terms with his test and is meeting it with all necessary reserve and dedication. Fr. Agazzari, Robert tells me, has been much impressed with what he calls his “steadfastness” of late and a “quieting” of his spirit. Robert feels nearer to achieving his goal. Time will tell.

March 1583

Robert sends word that he has been assured Orders in the Society by this time next year. He sounds jubilant, though still guarded—I think he worries that if he is too ecstatic that he may again be put off, and at this stage such, I fear, would be the end of him. The poem he sends mirrors his happy state. It is called “Content and Rich.” These two stanzas, especially, sound hope-filled—

In lowly vales I mount
To Pleasure’s highest pitch;
My silly shroud true honors brings,
My poor estate is rich.

My conscience is my crown,
Contented thoughts my rest;
My heart is happy in itself,
My bliss is in my breast.

He continues in his studies at the English College there; he will be more than ready to assume a post once he is ordained. My prayers seem nearly answered! I will offer praise and Thanksgiving unto the Lord!

October 1583

Robert’s letters now frequently mention Robert Bellarmine, who has caused such a stir in England that the Queen has arranged for a group of scholars from Cambridge to prepare refutations to his works. As with Fr. Campion, it is his intellect and great wit that will aid the Mission. Robert continues, however, to worry about the role of Art in the face of the challenges to it from Reform. He told me once that he sees poesy as another way of both meditating on Christ and praying. Because all Art is from God, nothing can come into existence without God being in it. He has intimated to me on more than one occasion his plan to write verse that mirrors our Ignatian Spiritual Exercises—that in this way he might use his talents for the Mission and bring the experience of the meditation and intense visualization of the Exercises to England by allowing the reader to Feel the Life of Christ—His Nativity, His Passion, and His Ascension. Robert tells me, “God, who delivering many parts of scripture in verse, and by his Apostle willing us to exercise our devotion in Hymns and Spiritual Sonnets, warrants the Art to be good, and the use allowable.” I have no doubt as to his ability to realize such a project. God verily calls him to it!

July 1584

Robert has been Ordained and is now a fellow member of the Society of Jesus! After briefly serving as Repetitor, he has taken the position of Prefect at the English College in Rome and will begin his new life helping souls by tending their minds. But I know how he aches to return to England and join the Mission there among his fellow Jesuits and his kinsmen. His letters are filled with code! He says that his great work we discussed for The Exercises (he has made this an Election!) must begin with the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin; he says Christ cannot be conceived without the Sacred Vessel, the Mother of God. He thus sends me the first in his series, “The Conception of Our Lady.” It is but three lovely stanzas, only eighteen lines in all, yet it is a work of art indeed, that offers to the reader Mary, who “Shall bring the good that shall our evil mend.”

1585

The news from the Mission in England is that by Act of Parliament, anyone who is ordained abroad may not return to English soil—on pain of death. If this has only just been made law, how is it that Campion, et al. were equally condemned previously? It seems everything is treasonous now. Nothing and no one is safe.

2 April 1586

Robert writes to me that his request to return to England has been granted. Reinforcements are most needed as the persecution and suffering increases. This is the moment for which we have both prayed and longed, but inwardly dreaded! Fr. Weston, one of our newer Merchants with whom Robert became acquainted in Rome, is already in England as the new Superior, having arrived last year. He has reported on those fellow priests who were recently discovered, arrested and imprisoned for their participation in exorcisms, which the State deems a “popish superstition.” But we have heard credible accounts that “out of many persons demons were cast. The intervention of heaven was undoubted, and incredulous onlookers were astounded.” Fr. Weston reports that on several occasions he witnessed this with his own eyes, but, of course, Cecil the Evil would not publicly believe any of it and blames it on “fraud perpetrated by the wily priests to trick the innocent.” Nonetheless, Cecil is reported to have been duly frightened by the accounts; furthermore, many who have either witnessed the exorcisms or hear tell of them have been reconciled to the Faith.

The greatest trouble Robert will face is spies. As Fr. Weston has repeatedly confirmed, pursuivants are a hazard everywhere—one can never tell who the honest folk are; one must trust wholly in God. Fr. Weston, in a published letter, writes that under the control of Cecil and the Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s most feared officials,
Catholics now see their own country, the country of their birth, turned into a ruthless and unloving land. All men fasten their hatred on them. They lay in ambush for them, betray them, attack them with violence and without warning. They plunder them at night, confiscate their possessions, drive away their flocks, steal their cattle. Every prison, no matter how foul and dark, is made glorious by the noble and great-hearted protestations of saintly confessors and even martyrs. In the common thoroughfares and crossways watchmen are abruptly posted, so that no traveler can pass peacefully on his way or escape stringent scrutiny.

It is into this danger that Robert flies. He goes not blindly, but bravely with open eyes, and not alone but, like David, with God at his side to battle Goliath!

25 April 1586

In less than a fortnight, Robert and Fr. Garnet will begin their journey for England. I will dispatch later today what will more than likely be the last letter Robert will be able to receive from me for some while. I hope to yet receive some final message from him as well, but as he and Fr. Garnet busy themselves with plans, this may be too great a hope. How I wish I were going with them, but I have not yet had any orders of transfer. I had long hoped we would be brothers-in-arms, and now it is Robert who will travel on without me. Waiting for news of the Mission will be even more anxious now that I know Robert will find himself ever in harm’s way. God protect him!

June 1586

Robert and Fr. Garnet left for England 8 May. I do not know if Robert received my letter, his having been composed at roughly the same date as my own, I will hope they crossed paths. Enclosed I found a precious offering, the next in Robert’s poesy sequence: “The Nativity of Christ.” This treasure begins,

Behold the father in His daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatched therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The Word is dumb, the Mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and Force doth faintly creep.

How I fear for your safety, Robert! May God watch over you as you minister to your dear, beleaguered England!

October 1586

We have just had news of the Babington Plot. Fr. Ballard and some twelve others were arrested for plotting against the English Queen in supposed conspiracy with the imprisoned Scottish Mary, in whom for so long the Catholic hope for the crown and respite had lain. They have all been executed and Mary is to stand trial for the conspiracy at Fotheringhay Castle. This does not bode well for the Mission! The last I heard any news of Robert, he was in London; perhaps he is safest there.

20 February 1587

Mary Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay on 8 February; all Catholics mourn her loss; she was England’s dearest hope. A manuscript is circulating of a poem, written in her memory, by none other than Robert Southwell. It is called “Decease, Release.” Here, an excerpt—

Some things more perfect are in their decay,
Like spark that going out gives clearest light;
Such was my hap, whose doleful dying day
Began my joy and termed Fortune’s spite.

Making matters worse, Fr. Weston has been arrested and imprisoned. We hear that Fr. Garnet will assume the position of Superior in his stead. Fr. Weston had ministered to Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, a cousin of the Queen, and he, too, has been imprisoned for the past two years in the Tower. Robert now serves as the Countess of Arundel’s Chaplain and for her husband, as part of his careful work, he has written An Epistle of Comfort.

June 1588

We hear nothing but whispers about the possibility of help from Spain. I pray that it be so, that they may indeed come to the rescue. Robert, somehow, has managed to send me something curious. It is an especial sonnet, not the Petrarchan sort, but a bit different. He says this form is being made popular in private circles by a young poet named William Shakespeare, reportedly from a recusant household in Warwickshire, and, by marriage, a distant cousin of Robert’s. It is also rumored that he made the acquaintance of Fr. Campion whilst tutoring Catholic children in the same area. As far as the Protestants are concerned, it is a hotbed of papist activity. Robert says this is but an imitation of the promising young Bard, but I find it yet another treasure; a dear part of my long absent friend. It is a kind of coded appeal for Spain’s aid!

Is this the same moon that you look upon
With plastered face all decked in whitest robe?
These borrowed beams does Cynthia now don
With grave attempts to shine on all the Globe.
Yet those on distant shores are free to gaze
On fair Apollo’s steady burning face
That does but truest hearts ever amaze
To fill them with eternal saving grace.
So think on us who live in Winter’s grip
Who long for Summer though it be denied
To stand in brilliance and with warmth equip
Our frigid frames make suffering subside.
Should you but chance to travel to our aid
With hearty welcome you shall be repaid.

August 1588

Woe unto us: The Spanish Armada has been defeated—another hope dashed! The English Queen is making known to her realm that the Protestants believe God’s hand defeated the Spanish; that it was God’s will the Armada was destroyed. Never! The State is now harsher than ever to her Catholic subjects. Word came from Rome that Aquaviva received a cautious letter from Robert in which he speaks of the increasingly ill treatment of his countrymen. Copies have been distributed to all the Jesuit forces.

The constancy of the Catholics is such as is always admired in a people naturally inclined to piety, but the fury and cruelty of the enemy is not to be regarded as a disgrace on the nation, but as the outcome of the pestilent heresy, which does violence not only to religion, but to the laws and restraints of nature.

May 1592

We have just received a copy of a long poem by Robert’s cousin-friend, Shakespeare, called Venus and Adonis, but rumor has it that the Merchant has chastised his coz and challenged him to use his talent for a higher purpose and more serious matter. I have not yet seen this copy, but my Brothers say it is quite bold and lust-filled. I wonder that it has not been burned, but some say it is a coded account that speaks of England’s plight, someone of the Old Faith subject to seduction and abuse by the Mistress of Love, Venus, who is meant to be Queen Elizabeth or perhaps her church. They call her the “Virgin Queen,” but no one believes it for a moment! I am curious to see this poem; surely this is not the same code of the Mission.

June 1592

What I have long feared: Robert has been arrested, betrayed by his friend Bellamy’s daughter, Anne, who it is believed was arrested and then raped by the vile animal Topcliffe and tortured to extract the information about Robert’s whereabouts. O Robert! Yet I treasure the last missive he was able to get off to me, in which he says bravely,

I am devoting myself to sermons, hearing confessions, and other priestly duties. Hemmed in by daily perils, never safe for even the smallest space of time. But, I derive fresh courage from my very difficulties: and the multitude of terrors, which keep following each other, prevent any from lasting long, and blunts them almost all.

Six years and now this! But that is thrice longer than Fr. Campion and others have had. I will not give up hope!

1593

We have no news of Robert except that he is kept in solitude. But we have heard that cousin Shakespeare has, it seems, responded to Robert’s challenge with another long poem called The Rape of Lucrece. Though it looks back to antiquity and crisis in Rome, some say it is a mirror of England’s struggle. The fair, chaste bride Lucrece being a symbol of the Church, raped by the foul and dreaded Tarquin, who betrays his host, before taking her own life in shame. It is the shame of the ravaged Bride; Truth rent by the Tempest of Reform. A far more serious story than the erotic Venus and Adonis, I wonder if Robert has heard of this; if he knows (should the rumors prove honest) that even in prison, he has so influenced the Mission. Perhaps the Queen may repent and free him yet. O Robert, do you hear my prayers?

1594

Three years Robert held out; three years of God knows what! It does not bear thinking on, though it has haunted me since I learned of his arrest. Robert’s An Humble Supplication to Her Majesty—the last, best hope for the Queen’s mercy on his blessed soul—was perhaps never seen by the Queen. But like Campion and their fellows, in death these brave Soldiers of Christ have become more powerful, as they are ever more precious! O pray for us in Heaven!

I am reminded now of the curious account Robert told me of his youth. As if to rival a fanciful fairy-story, he was, when a very small boy, captured by Gypsies! What frights he knew he scarce remembered save the painful longing to return to his rightful home. It seems his life began in captivity just as it ended. It was his kind, devoted Nurse who made his rescue; just as Christ, our Rescuer, now nurses Robert in Heaven: he has made his Homecoming; we all await our own. I feel certain now that Robert was right when he spoke of the Afterlife. My heart’s dearest friend, you are yourself evermore—

Like spark that going out gives clearest light!

A Novel Vocation: A Conversation with Ron Hansen

The post-war boom in fiction was a moment of hope for the state of Catholic culture. Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark were being sent up the same flag poles that flew pennants for Saul Bellow and John Updike. Catholics even managed to capture back-to-back wins of the coveted National Book Award with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1962) and J.F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban (1963).

But then it seemed that once Catholic fiction had its moment, the light began to fade and with it any hope of a true Catholic renaissance in literature. While for consolation O’Connor, Percy, Powers et al, have been enshrined in the pantheon of contemporary fiction, it seemed everyone was ready to don black arm bands, write up the obits and send flowers.

Fortunately for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Nebraska-born and Catholic-raised novelist Ron Hansen dismissed reports on the death of Catholic fiction as greatly exaggerated. [Read more...]

The Splendor of Form

James Matthew Wilson

In his recent short essay, “Lisping in Numbers,” David J. Rothman has made an attractive and well-founded argument not merely for the centrality of verse to poetry, but for its constituting the formal property that makes a given matter to be poetry rather than prose.1 Rehearsing a familiar qualification, Rothman tells us that verse, while not the sole essence of poetry, is essential nonetheless. The practitioner of free verse, who inevitably has a bad conscience about his avocation, may immediately hear the integrity of his art called into question. But, exercising both charity and a knowledge of literary history, Rothman comes, at the end of his essay, to indicate that a great deal of what is called “free verse,” and is sometimes belittled as “prose,” in fact conforms to something like a principle of versification. For, he proposes, any aural element in a poem that can be understood in terms of number, anything that can be counted, may conceivably be used as the foundation for verse.

In a list that attempts to include the span of what might be counted, and so count as verse, he begins with the “anaphoric versicles” of Whitman and ends with the “projective verse” of Williams and Olson. In this first choice, he is just and points out what is evident but not always obvious: verse, at minimum, entails formal repetition, including possibly the repetition of syntactical structures. The parallelism of the Psalms instances this most clearly:

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever;
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his mercy endures forever

We find here a movement that can be understood in terms of quantity, with words and sentence rhythms repeating in a readily discernible manner. English verse normally entails the repetition of metrical feet, but any kind of repetition governing expression may conceivably constitute verse. If this is the case, we should nonetheless note, as the poet Timothy Steele has on many occasions, that such a concession does not really help us to account for the indiscernible formal principles of much of what is called free verse in our day. For the language of such poems seem to be ordered to no quantitative scheme whatsoever. And thus, Rothman is less happy in his latter example, which seems an act of mercy at the expense of just reasoning. What repetitions are to be found in Williams—and there are many—disappear as soon as one’s eyes turn from the page. To make a Williams poem seem like poetry entails making it look like poetry, in the sense of typographically arranging it on the page so that one can see it thus. We can see these lines of Williams as verses:

Two W.P.A. men
stood in the new
sluiceway

overlooking
the river—
One was pissing

But in pronouncing them aloud—especially in the breathless fashion Williams favored—they lose anything that would distinguish them from prose. Whatever measurement the lines conform to evaporates in the speaking. While contemporary avant-garde poets, such as Charles Bernstein, and their academic masters have sought to celebrate the typographic as a hardnosed realm of freedom and class struggle, in some parochial last gasp of Marxist historical materialism, most of us wish there to be some rationale behind, and beyond, the arrangement of words on paper. When the enigma of such arrangement dissolves, it leaves nothing behind. One may call it nice language, even impassioned speech, but the appearance would seem an idle pretense—what was called, in the Augustan age, “false wit.” The printed text does not help us to discern a measurement of words, but seems a visual substitute for one.

If this is the case, then there must be more to verse than simply any kind of repetition. The repetitions and the zany line-breaks of Williams can be prescinded from the language of a Williams poem without changing the language itself. The syntactic repetitions of a psalm cannot; those repetitions are the language. We see that Williams’ formal repetitions, at first glance anyway, allow much more freedom than the psalm, because the repetitions such as they are do not do anything to the language, but only to the characters on the page. We see also that the syntactic repetitions of the Psalm do almost everything: what can be said in the psalm is closely determined by the form in ways that can make it seem formulaic—so much so, that even those who have never actually read a psalm tend to find its aural patterns familiar. Is there a way in which language can be informed by repetition without its being circumscribed in what it can say or in its range of expression?

Once again, an evident but not always obvious answer presents itself. A psalm might say, “Give thanks” six times, and we would clearly have the sort of repetition that might be described as verse. But what properties of language are, as properties, present in every verbal phrase regardless of what kind of phrase it is? They are two in number: syllables and relative stress, both of which can be discerned in terms of metrical feet. Rothman therefore has rightly directed us to the great quality verse, even if he has not adequately defined it. It is numbered, counted, or measured speech wherein the measure remains regardless of what the language says. Here lies the virtue that recommends accentual-syllabic stress (metrical feet) for the writing of English verse. By means of it, we may give language precise and discernible (audible) measure, ordering it, giving it proportion or form, without in any way limiting what that language can say. Number and measurement allows the form of verse to exist in perfect harmony with any matter of language.

Because the strict measurement of versification is entirely compatible with a complete freedom in regards to language and content, I am doubtful of the wisdom of those contemporary poets who engage in what Marilyn Taylor has called “semi-formal” prosody. According to Taylor, such poetry loosely adheres to the measurement of syllable and stress, but only in order to suggest that measurement before, in the words of T.S. Eliot, withdrawing from it. The poet hopes to gain a freedom or flexibility thereby without completely surrendering the aural qualities of verse. Is it not the case, though, that one only would need “semi-formality” if accentual-syllabic verse actually stunted the sort of language a properly formal poem might contain? But as a numerical abstraction, metrical feet do nothing of the kind. Does not the semi-formal un-measure the measured, rendering what meter remains as a kind of allusion to rather than instantiation of? If that is the case, then meter ceases to be a formal property and becomes part of the matter of the poem; it no longer affords us a way of ordering speech, but is reduced to a particular sort of language. Far from being an ingenious solution for those who would write poetry in an age of prose, semi-formal verse at once hints at and despoils the central mystery of poetry.

Allow me to restate my last claim. In the measuring of language and rhythm according to an abstract principle of number, we are in the presence of a mystery, and it is one that does not dissolve as soon as we learn to count a line of iambs: indeed, a mystery that has beguiled Western man since the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers. I do not mean specifically the meter of poetry, but the idea of number and measure as such, which may help us “see into the life of things.” I would like to explain why this mystery is so central to our history, and why Rothman’s essay reminds us that it is one particularly central to poetry. And yet, in conclusion, I would also like to suggest why his essay seems destined to convince few in an age such as ours.

We begin with the Philosopher. When Aristotle delivered the lectures whose notes we call the Metaphysics, his chief ambition was to correct the errors of three competing theories about the nature of reality. He began with the materialists, because he believed they were, in most respects, right. The materialists claimed that only that was real which was matter, and, indeed, it was matter that constituted the reality of a given thing. Aristotle replied, while all or most substances (real, separately existing things) are material, they are not merely material, but composites of form and matter. A rock is a rock and a tree is a tree because of some differentia. “Sure,” says the materialist, “the differentia is the shape of the matter.” “Exactly,” replies Aristotle. A tree contains matter in a given form, and a rock in another; this form is therefore other than the matter and is what defines a given quantum of matter as being in its nature arboreal or mineral. All material beings that have the arboreal form are trees; those that do not, have some other form, are something else. But, again, the materialists were mostly right: matter “matters.”

Bearing this in mind, he turned to another school, that of the Platonists, who said that essential form constituted what is real, and the particular beings of this tree or that rock were individual expressions of that essential reality. As everyone knows, Plato intended that the idea “arboreal” or “mineral” was itself an eternal substance that shared the reality proper to itself alone with this or that individual specimen by way of participation. This was an implausible theory, explained Aristotle. He recognized that forms were real and that without them there would be no things, material or otherwise, but he did not see why a form need be separately substantial. The form of a tree constitutes the essence of all given trees; it may be abstracted by the intellect from any given tree and therefore come into virtual being as an accident in the mind of another existing substance (the human being). But it explained nothing, he thought, to say that the form subsisted separately, and it even created a new problem: a given tree has myriad attributes, and so which attributes, exactly, would exist as separate, subsistent forms? In answering this question, we multiply to infinity the number of forms without getting any closer to what causes a real thing to be at all, or to be one thing rather than another.2

But here arises a curious turn in Aristotle’s dispute. Materialists recognize differences between one thing and another, even though they deny the theory of forms. Platonists, conversely, recognized some relationship between forms. “Tree” and “rock” do not just float in the heavens, but are intelligible in relation to each other as forms, independently of their individuals’ all sharing in matter. What principle exists beyond this material thing and another that allows us to distinguish them? “Why,” says the materialist, “number.” A tree’s matter may be quantified as “atomic ratio X” and a rock as “atomic ratio Y.”

One may similarly ask the Platonist, what principle exists beyond the forms themselves that allows us to relate them? The answer to this varies in different parts of the Platonic tradition and within Plato’s own dialogues, but one possibility introduced in his Timaeus is—number. The diverse ideal forms might ultimately be understood as diverse mathematical structures, which would seem plausible, since an actual pyramid is evidently a material expression of the ideal geometrical form of a pyramid. Perhaps the forms were rooted in a complex geometry. After all, numbers seem everywhere in material nature, and yet everyone knows that mathematics is itself highly abstract, finding its perfection only once removed from the contingencies of nature.

Materialists and Platonists alike were beguiled by what Aristotle understood as the Pythagorean temptation: number seems to be so ubiquitous that it may account for everything. Number gives us the recipe for forms or for material things, but it is itself always present; thus the Pythagoreans give us a third theory of the nature of reality: number, rather than matter or idea, is the first principle of what is.

But Aristotle demurs. Number is itself an abstraction from something and so cannot be a first principle. What, then, is first? Being. Far from number’s explaining and causing being, being evidently occasions the existence of number. This becomes plain when we consider the following: were I to say, suddenly, “two,” to a fellow on the train, it will lead him, if he is not frightened off, to ask, “Two what?

Being is the most abstract term we can think in reality. Number helps to make that reality intelligible by allowing us to conceive the relations between things: the ratio of number becomes the principle of all relation and distinction, whether between forms-as-ideas or forms-in-matter. Number at its simplest—i.e. the distinction between zero and one—makes it possible to describe the presence of difference within nature. But, being always comes first and stands beneath everything, stands even beneath the idea of difference, as that which makes anything a thing at all.

For Aristotle and for the western tradition writ large, this debate was not a zero-sum game. In the descendants of Plato and Aristotle, being and number jostled and combined in a fruitful intellectual synthesis. For St. Augustine, the highest reality was That Which Is, Being Itself—the God who named Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. And yet, St. Augustine also believed that a knowledge of number was the means by which we created beings born into a world of difference rise intellectually to the inviolable simplicity of being. In de Musica, he outlines a hierarchy of seven kinds of number that, in the words of St. Bonaventure, “ascend step by step from sensible things to the Maker of all so that God may be seen in all things.” We begin with the dazzling but sensible infinity of created things, abstract from them the numbers of mathematics, and proceed on up an admittedly arcane ladder until we arrive at that Unity of Unities, which, because absolutely indivisible and immutable, is beyond all number.

As Umberto Eco detailed many years ago, this synthesis of number and supernumerary unity led, in the Middle Ages, to two ostensibly competing theories of beauty. The Aesthetics of Proportion contended that something was beautiful to the extent that it comprised perfect quantitative ratios. Weight, measure, and order were the conditions of beauty, and beauty was merely a “certain fitting relation.” In contrast, the Aesthetics of Light proposed that that was beautiful which showed forth the perfect unity of what Plotinus had called the “Idea-Form” and what Pseudo-Dionysius called “the Good,” a pure radiance “uncontained” by form. Just as pure light seems to illuminate all without limiting itself to a particular shape, so did beauty show forth in a pretty face, a well-turned phrase, a heroic virtue—or, in the mind, as Beauty Itself.

Is an artwork beautiful because all the pieces are in place, or because the pieces themselves manifest something infinitely beyond themselves? In fact, this is a false alternative. The western tradition has generally concluded, not “either/or,” but “both/and” to this proposition. Being’s light gives form and number to all things; number makes light “visible.” Number helps make the perception of being possible; the abstraction of number makes even that which is beyond all division intelligible and pleasing to us. And yet, number neither defines nor exhausts the refulgence of reality; it rather serves as a guide as we enter into being’s mystery and fullness. St. Thomas Aquinas provides the most pithy definition of beauty we may know: splendor formae, the splendor (intelligible radiance) of form (proportion).

Aristotle synthesized form and matter, number and being. Before him, Plato’s dialogues articulated both light and number as first principles. Indeed, variations on these propositions speckle the whole history of western thought, sometimes in surprising or less obvious terms, down to the present moment. How unsurprising, then, that, for a poem to be a poem, it must be measured, proportioned by number; and yet, it must also show forth a radiance beyond mere meter. And, how fitting that Rothman’s defense of verse should restore Pythagoras to his proper place, near the center of any discussion of art and beauty. The splendor of a poem must be given form—it must be counted.

But we are moderns, and modernity does not permit us to end on such a harmonious note. Our world is absolutely saturated in number and talk of number—as much as was the world of Plato and Aristotle. But ours lacks their synthesizing genius. In the public realm, only matter and motion are counted as real, and these, only because they are resolvable into numbers we can manipulate. Behavior is processed as statistics; thought as quantifiable chemical processes; society as the mere sum of economic transactions; morality as incarceration rates; education as graduation rates; wedded bliss as divorce rates; and the course of history as so many measurable biological modifications. In a world so beholden to the spirit of the Pythagoreans, it is curious the arts should be so patently typified by their explicit rejection of all number.

In Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, existential searcher Binx Bolling speculates that “romanticism” and “1930’s science” killed his father. He asks himself, “Does a scientifically minded person become a romantic because he is leftover from his own science?” Quantification is the key to the modern physical sciences. We are subordinate to it in the scientific method and in everyday life far more than we are to “empirical observation”—that phrase with which the supposed rationalist among us flatters himself. We do not believe in what we see or experience; we believe in what others can count and calculate, so much so that we readily dismiss our own experiences, if they seem to conflict with some publicly established measurement. And so, though nearly all of us have turned the reins of health and history over to the powers of the numeric, we nearly all feel something “leftover” that cannot be entirely dismissed, but which cannot be counted either, and therefore seems not to count as real. The leftover is us.

Like those ancients prey to the Pythagorean temptation, most of us only accept the numeric as real; and, while our world of quantity may overwhelm, it does not satisfy either intellect or will. The typical fallout of this unhappy circumstance is for one to turn “romantic,” that is, to elect for a conception of the beautiful or the “poetic,” as light without form, love without reason, being without quantity. If the quotidian world must be a quantified world, then we want our art to be a refuge of inarticulate unity, of light and color without matter. Our view of the arts is romantic, even when it lacks the divinization of imagination and emotion typical of the romantics of the Nineteenth Century.

To be a romantic, in brief, means to be one who accepts the Aesthetics of Light in opposition to the Aesthetic of Proportion. Rather than availing themselves of the venerable and fruitful synthesis of being and number, romantics cling to some species of the former in vehement opposition to the latter. Even materialists of the avant-garde, such as Bernstein, think of their typographical high jinks as a resistance to absorption within the orders of modern rationality and the accounting of modern “capital.” And so, while I understand the dismay many writers and artists in our day feel about counting, I think their works tend to display a pathetic resistance to, rather than a successful transcendence of, the maniacal quantification of modern life. If resistance is all we may have, then so be it; but I think the hoary examples of Aristotle, St. Augustine, and indeed the broader western tradition provide us resources for correcting-by-transcending the worst excesses of our age.

Unfortunately, when an artist or a poet sees through the partiality of this romantic love of radiance without form, he sometimes resorts to a mere aesthetics of proportion, as the neo-classicism of Seventeenth-Century or the academicism of Nineteenth-Century France is often thought to have done—and as contemporary metrical poets from Steele to Dana Gioia are sometimes accused of doing. This can result in an austere formalism that may be preferable to the meaningless and anti-intellectual “lights” of many modern romantics, but it may also confirm those romantics yearning after a greater artistic fullness in their resistance to the rational beauty of measure. They may come to believe, contrary to Augustine and Bonaventure, that number take us nowhere—and certainly it cannot help us ascend to That Which Is.

I am sensitive to the warning against “classicizing” reductions of true art to the conscientious obedience of formal conventions found no less in the Art and Scholasticism of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain than it is in the criticism of a contemporary poet such as Deborah Warren. Such writers would de-emphasize the centrality of numbers to poetry in specific response to those historical moments in which poetry has been almost reduced to a mere courtly calculation. If one judges a work of art only by what can be counted in it, then one has left aesthetics behind and entered into mathematics. And yet, the records of poets themselves through literary history suggest that there is great virtue and joy in the mastering of difficult “numbers,” and that this virtue makes possible a still greater discovery and achievement. We should not merely identify number with form but, following Plato, recognize it as a readily intelligible principle within a larger formal pattern. On this point, it worth noting that St. Augustine thought the understanding of meter more proper to the scholar of liberal arts seeking true knowledge than to the musician seeking only to practice an art: the counting of verses is always an act of abstraction that helps us to understand what ought to be a rich totality.

I suspect that, at present, most of those who take an interest in poetry are too anxious to see poetry as a therapeutic refuge from the mechanical and rationalistic regime of everyday life—one which really has gone off its hinges!—to avail themselves of the fuller tradition to which they are heirs. Nevertheless, for those of us who continue to see poetry as a means to truth, and truth as a property of being and reason, it is heartening to hear a defense such as Rothman’s. We are reminded that the equipoise of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas is still ours to accept. Poetry is an expression of number, that is, of those orders and proportions that make the world and the works of man intelligible. And poetry is more than that. But the counting of metrical feet is one rung on the great ladder by which we ascend to That Which Is. The innermost need of human nature is just such an ascent. To recognize the role of meter—of number and measure—in art is to put the beautiful back in conscious contact with our human need and the highest reality alike; it renews art and beauty even as art and beauty come once more to play a role in our fulfillment and in the revelation to us of a reality they can only intimate.


1. [Rothman’s essay appeared as part of the Symposium on Form published as a complete issue of Think Journal 3.4 (Spring 2011). A version of the present essay was originally published as a part of that symposium.]
2. [St. Thomas Aquinas rightly explains that Plato’s theory of forms does indeed explain something, though it does not solve the problems that most concern Aristotle. Namely, the theory is one solution to how knowledge is possible when there is an absolute difference between matter and intellect. If, as Plato believed, the intellect could only properly know ideas and, therefore, could not know the material in itself, then some theory of forms is inevitable. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the mind can convert the matter into intelligible ideas through the intellect’s acting upon what is received from the senses. This does not reduce the absolute difference between matter and intellect, but indeed is part of a larger explanation of how spirit and intellect are not only superior to matter, but have an easy commerce with it, as does a potter with his clay. Intellectual forms precede material things, giving them form and purpose. In turn, the form and purpose in material things remains always potentially intelligible to the perceiving intellect.]

Mirror Sonnet: How to Rise From the Dead

Annabelle Moseley

“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord. I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.” (EK 37: 5-7)

And like a funeral in New Orleans,
where jazz sounds are synonymous with death
or like the painted skulls among the scenes
of Mexico’s Day of the Dead—each breath
Ezekial took as he prophesied
resounded over those dry bones and shook
them with God’s heady music. Homicide [Read more...]

Cambridge, January 2001

Sally Thomas

     Seagulls surf the wet
Updrafts over roofs
	A hundred miles inland. 

Every weather's a weather
	Of gulls, a scream against
The bottle-blue or cloud-

	Mottled sky, the one
Constant besides rain
	Spittling the window: 

[Read more...]

Candlemas 2013

2013 CandlemasDappled ThingsFeature

A Novel Vocation: A Conversation With Ron Hansen Joseph O’Brien

Fiction

Dragon Kaye Park Hinckley
A Paterian Imaginary Portrait of Robert Southwell, English Martyr and Poet: Selections from the Journal of Father John Deckers, SJ Nicole Coonradt

Essays

The Bell-ringer Soojin A. Kim
The Splendor of Form James Matthew Wilson

Poetry

Kayaking Daniel Patrick Sheehan
Wings Anthony Zick
Hannah in the Waiting Room Annabelle Moseley
Mirror Sonnet: How to Rise From the Dead Annabelle Moseley
How to Go Like Lazarus Annabelle Moseley
The Sacrifice Annabelle Moseley
Mirror Sonnet: Forest with One Tree Annabelle Moseley
Cambridge, January 2001 Sally Thomas
Thomas Sara Simboli
The Perfection Paul Hostovsky
Conversations with My Son Paul Hostovsky
Grace Paul Hostovsky
That Light Paul Hostovsky

Visual Art

Barn Collapsing Lyle Novinski
Public Life Lyle Novinski
Pentecost Lyle Novinski
Incarnation Lyle Novinski
After Rain Lyle Novinski

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