The late Fr. James Schall, S.J., was a master essayist, in the grand tradition of English letters. In the introduction to one of his collections of essays, Fr. Schall remarks:
The chapters in this book originally appeared as essays in various journals. When someone sets out to write, contrary to what we might suppose, he never quite knows where it will lead and end. Often things that were written independently, on reflection, go together. That is the feeling I had with regard to the chapters in this book. When assembled, they did seem to belong together. On the surface, it is but a collection of disparate essays on various topics. And in fact, I happen to love collections of sundry essays even if they do not seem to go together. But they can also, as I hope they do here, fall into intelligible and related categories and themes. They can broaden and deepen what went before. They can point to where we are going while yet retaining their inner coherence.
Edward Short’s new collection of “sundry essays” in What the Bells Sang is a delightful excursus that presents a broadly catholic panorama for seriously Catholic readers. Delving into such diverse subjects as the poetry of Thomas Hardy (from which the title of this collection is taken), the place of the family in Christopher Dawson’s understanding of history, the artistry of Winston Churchill’s writing, and the simplicity of his beloved St. John Henry Newman, Short emphasizes Catholic themes and gives us an insight into how the Faith influenced his Catholic and non-Catholic subjects.
Of course, Short is best known for his insightful and engaging books on Cardinal Newman, such as Newman and History, Newman and His Contemporaries, and the soon-to-be published Newman and His Critics (Bloomsbury). Newman devotees will be pleased that the last section of What the Bells Sang contains a number of pieces focused on various aspects of the saint’s life and work.
Particularly fascinating is the essay “Newman and the Grace of Simplicity,” in which Short attacks the notion of a “false Modernist Newman” presented by those who maintain that “Newman’s thinking (especially with regard to the development of doctrine) can be cited to reconcile the Church to the modern world’s most egregious moral errors.” This is a false Newman, who had no sympathy for the “impious project” promoted by Modernists, viz., the belief that the Church should not be at odds with the world but rather should accommodate its errors. As Newman said in a sermon, the world hates the Church because “it finds a whole catalogue of sins brought into light and denounced, which it would fain believe to be no sins at all; … It finds itself in danger of being humbled to the earth as a rebel, instead of being allowed to indulge its self-dependence and self-complacency. Hence it takes its stand on nature, and denies or rejects divine grace”
Short provides an “inner coherence” to his essays and reviews by grouping them into chapters entitled Poets, Moralists, Historians, Novelists, and Biographers. One of the Poets treated by Short is Rudyard Kipling, the “Unheralded Christian Poet.” Lamenting that space limitations forced him to leave Kipling out of his recent The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse, Short says he wishes to atone for this omission by devoting an essay to the now “outré” British writer. He begins by reflecting on that “infamous” poem of Kipling’s, “Recessional,” noting that “Many readers over the years have oddly misread the poem. Despite its recognition of the perils of power and its calls for humility, they have contrived to see it as an endorsement of empire. Written at the end of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, the poem is not an endorsement, but a chastisement of empire.” According to Short, an
added twist here is that no author ever endeavored more to please than Kipling—his mastery of the various forms in which he worked shows this—and yet, despite the elaborate pleasure he offers his readers, especially those of his readers in positions of power, he is not heard. His warnings fall on deaf ears.
By no means an avatar of jingoism, Short says that Kipling, “who, by all accounts had a very bad brush with Calvinism as a child, speaks most eloquently in his poetry” of man’s fallen nature:
Whenever he goes into his prophetic mode—a mode he handles rather well—he always returns to the pride and vanity of man. He is fascinated by Original Sin. He is fascinated by the failure of man. He is fascinated by how this failure risks involving man in a kind of final failure.
And in reality, it is Kipling’s “summons to virtue and hope”— exemplified in his popular poem “If”— that grates on his modern, stuffy critics, a summons seen by detractors as “simple-minded and crude, the implication being that the complexity of our moral nature was somehow lost on him.” Rather, poems such as “The Deep-Sea Cables” show that “Kipling realized all too well that it is our shared susceptibility to the wrecks of sin that beckons us to true communion and redemption, not our ideological affiliations.” And, as Short points out, Kipling recognized that “what we need to know about Christianity in the straits in which we find ourselves is not extensive or unduly nuanced. We are at odds with the majesty of our Creator and the sooner we recognize the fact the better.”
Turning to the Moralists chapter, Short’s essay on “C. S Lewis and Samuel Johnson: A Study in Affinity” is particularly fascinating. Short explores the formative influence that Dr. Johnson had on Lewis, noting that they were both “unabashed moralists” and that Lewis “was always appreciative of the power of Johnson’s insights into the abiding moral truths of life, those inescapable, consequential truths to which so many of us pay lip service, without ever taking to heart or heeding.”
Further, though both were steeped in classical learning, Short notes that “Another noteworthy aspect about these two superb critics is how they always wrote for the general reader, not the specialist.” A prime example, according to Short, is Lewis’s Mere Christianity, originally radio talks “which, stylistically, he deliberately pitched to appeal to a general, not a mandarin audience.” And Johnson, “Unlike so many men of his time, and indeed of ours, … actually went out of his way to sing the praises of the common man, realizing, precisely because of his own great learning, that learned men could have blind spots every bit as blind as anyone else.”
And did Lewis form the Inklings—some whose illustrious members included J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Lord David Cecil, and Hugo Dyson, et al.—as an homage to Johnson’s Club, which itself comprised some of the most brilliant minds of the English 18th century—Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell? “The similarities between the Club and the Inklings are striking, especially when one considers how inclined both Johnson and Lewis were to surround themselves with talented, learned, witty friends,” Short says.
Among the essays making up Short’s section on Historians is “The Distilled Wisdom of Edmund Burke,” which is a review of the Everyman Library edition Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings. Short sums up this piece with a quote from William Hazlitt:
I am not going to make an idle panegyric on Burke (he has no need of it), but I cannot help looking on him as the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons. What is said of him is, I think, strictly true, that ‘He was the most eloquent man of his time; his wisdom was greater than his eloquence.’
Though seen as the “father of conservatism,” Burke also knew that “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its conservation.” And, as Short notes, the “‘pattern of private life’ should furnish the model for the state again and again. We begin our public affections in our families. … No cold relation is a zealous citizen.’ Indeed, for the family man in Burke, a tender, liberal, gregarious man, whom friends and family alike found delightful company, it became almost axiomatic that:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
Born in Dublin of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father Burke, like Johnson, had Catholic sympathies. Once during an election campaign, as an example of how “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny,” Burke referred to the anti-Catholic laws of England: “A statute was fabricated in the year 1699, by which the saying mass (a church-service in the Latin tongue, not exactly the same as our liturgy, but very near it, and containing no offence whatsoever against the laws, or against good morals) was forged into a crime punishable with perpetual imprisonment.”
In his survey of Novelists, Short gives a brief reflection on “The Catholic Apologist in Evelyn Waugh.” He notes that “After converting to Rome in 1930, Waugh spent the rest of his days trying to see himself and the world sub specie aeternitatis.” Contrary to the later animadversions of his grandson, Alexander Waugh, “there was nothing make-believe about his Catholic faith.” For, according to Waugh, his life after conversion was
an endless delighted tour of discovery in the huge territory of which I was made free. I have heard it said that some converts in later life look back rather wistfully to the fervour of their first months of faith. With me it is quite the opposite. I look back aghast at the presumption with which I thought myself suitable for reception and with wonder at the trust of the priest who saw the possibility of growth in such a dry soul.
Waugh unabashedly addressed Catholicism in his both his non-fiction and his journalism, but above all in his novels such as Brideshead Revisited, Helena, and The Sword of Honour, all of which were “studies of grace,” according to Short:
Waugh shows how the life of faith actually takes root in a world hostile to but transformed by grace, the supernatural being always present in the natural world. Sebastian Flyte, Helena and Guy Crouchback all find themselves in a world radically fallen, and yet it is their persevering, grace-endowed faith that sustains them.
In the Biographers chapter, Short provides a review of Michael Trott’s “Thomas William Allies: ‘A Soul Temper’d with Fire.” Allies was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1850, and thereafter dedicated his life to promoting Catholic education, engaging in Catholic apologetics, and writing church history.
For Short, one of the most attractive features of the Allies biography is the light shed on the personality of Cardinal Newman. “Here is a book that anyone interested in Newman, the English Church, conversion, Ultramontanism, Catholic education or the misadventures of Erastianism will find riveting. Full of bitter wit, out-of-the-way archival learning and instructive tough-mindedness, it extenuates neither the sacrifices nor the frustrations Allies endured to defend a vision of the Church that is as worth considering today as it was over a hundred years ago.”
Short is a gentleman scholar who really should be better known. What the Bells Sang displays Short’s wide erudition and charming, pellucid style—reading this collection of essays and reviews, one feels he is sitting down with a friend over a cup of tea, discussing interesting and profound themes, personalities, and ideas.
What Joshua Reynolds once remarked of Dr. Johnson is equally applicable to Short: “He cleared my mind of a great deal of rubbish.”
What the Bells Sang: Essays and Reviews
By Edward Short
Paperback, 506 pages
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