Questing verse

The Living Law

Jesse Keith Butler, Darkly Bright Press, 2024, 106 pp., £16.08

Jesse Keith Butler’s debut volume The Living Law exhibits an extraordinary mastery and inventiveness of form, comprising poems in traditional metres (with an unusual predominance of the anapaestic), as well as free verse, not to mention prose poetry. The matter spans country and city life, family, travel, work and leisure. Some poems address their themes directly, even polemically.

Religious themes predominate, with poems on a range of subjects depicting and evaluating experiences from the somewhat aloof persona of a man whose faith grants him access to a truth beyond this world. For example, ‘The Boatwright’ contemplates the postmortem fate of the speaker’s unbelieving brother, and cleverly as well as touchingly finds the same wiggle room as many a liberal theologian, granting the minimum and the maximum an orthodox believer may, that “if there’s open water beyond this life […] I know you’ll find your way.”

The overall sensibility is conservative, however. Witness ‘Whatever is Born of Fire’ with its generalised anti-modern nostalgia that evokes Eliot’s ‘Choruses from The Rock.’ Developing out of a vignette of returning to the family home, the aspiration bursts forth:

We can try to turn back—

     We could maybe turn back—

          And seek a strange new trajectory—

But here as elsewhere one is aware of a problem that Butler has not dealt with. Just as a descriptive passage featuring “heavy clouds” filled with “life-giving rain” in a scene that “tears the veil of time” is built upon cliché, so the notion that we might in some sense return to a pre-modern, religiously-based culture lacks authenticity, with what might be ‘strange’ and ‘new’ about this proposed trajectory left unexplored.

At his most glib, Butler is capable of promulgating intellectual clichés like:

Rock on, rock on Voltaire, Rousseau

‘Cause Revolution’s all we know

We’ll line them all up in a row

To build the Kingdom here below

(‘Rock on, Rock on Voltaire, Rousseau’)

Many poems in the volume depict a moment in nature in which a moment of afflatus supervenes in the manner typical of much nature poetry, in which a vision is beheld and, as Wordsworth put it, “we see into the life of things.” This lyric mode is so entrenched that it is hard to practise with any convincing originality. It is, of course, a heritage of the Romantic movement whose poets sought to imbue mundane subjects with the ‘visionary gleam’ of a religious ardour that even then had largely ceased to be evoked by Christian subjects. Thinking over the progress of English verse, it is interesting to note the peculiarity of Butler’s proffered contribution, since the latter often consists of injecting explicitly religious and Biblical imagery into a naturalistic setting, as in the prose poem that begins ‘“Look, he says, the friggin’ Rocky Mountains!”’ and culminates in a vision out of Genesis where

my eyes stream with tears and […] I wish I had a voice big and inhuman enough to sing along. […] It’s the creatures on the ladder that are singing, I know that now, and they’re both ascending and descending on a ladder whose end vanishes between the stars (‘The Ladder’).

There may be antecedents for Butler’s technique here. One thinks of his fellow Catholic Robert Lowell, who in his early work might juxtapose a vision of a Mary who “twists the warlock with her flowers […] her whole body an ecstatic womb” against the narrative of a drowned ancestor. Explicitly religious imagery has never died out, of course. But in Lowell’s case the depiction of Mary dramatises the repressed sexual content of Catholic iconography in a way that renders it uncanny. In Butler’s poem the narrative is delivered with the simplicity of a child reporting a Marian vision.

Butler’s use of form is virtuosic in a way that disdains to hide itself. Although The Living Law contains prose and free verse as well as iambics, the metrical refrain throughout is anapaestic: a metre not to be handled by those afraid of formal obtrusiveness. The cantering rhythm advances past the syntax, so that artifice is foregrounded to a surprising extent. The effect is often strident, as for example in the title poem, in which:

something cuts through the dull resonance

and draws us to join a reciprocal dance

and love the

                          living

                                       law.

The situation is a bus trip on which an old lady loses her glasses and the other passengers pitch in to help find them. But the subject is infused with a numinous light and music that give the weary speaker a sense of his place in the divine order of things – though the notion of him and his fellow passengers ‘dancing’ on a Greyhound is perhaps unintentionally funny.

I have hinted that the religiosity of these poems is sometimes their downfall. I say this not out of any dogmatic hostility to Butler’s religion and in full awareness of the importance of Christian belief to some of the greatest poetry in existence. But successful poetry must offer something new – not necessarily drastically new, but at least individual or peculiar to the speaker, the author, or the context of writing. If it does not, it merely restates, likely in hackneyed language, conventional sentiments derived from an outside source.

In the longish poem ‘The Lawgiver’ Butler re-narrates in truncated form the main incidents of Moses’ career in Exodus. We learn for instance that, “I stayed forty days as your fire filled my mind,” and “I cast your bronze serpent and lifted it up” after “the destroyer turned back at the doorway’s blood-smear.” It is a retelling with little embellishment. One thinks, in contrast, of Pound’s famous poem ‘The Goodly Feere’ with its surprising depiction of Jesus as the tragic hero of a border ballad. Whether one likes the depiction or not, at least Pound adds a fresh dimension to his subject. ‘The Lawgiver’ rather timidly imitates the form of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, suggesting an analogous attempt at resituation. Is Moses to be understood as a Hebrew Beowulf? But the formal exercise seems to have been carried out gratuitously, without significance. And this blandness extends beyond the narrative recapitulation to the equally derivative notions Moses enunciates, which might come from a prayer book of any denomination:

Your grace has brought me to the sabbath of your year

Ground me in sound judgment and knowledge of your law

[…]

Without your correction I’d be wandering still

And so on. The linguistic possibilities of imagery and symbol are foreclosed at the same time as discursive ones. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to say what the author of the Psalms, for instance, has already said without using either the same or inferior language. It is as if someone out of utter devotion to The Bard were to rewrite Hamlet, more or less in the style of Shakespeare, changing nothing essential in regard to plot or characterisation.

Now, take ‘The Lawgiver’ and place it beside Vigny’s romantic depiction of the same subject in his great poem ‘Moïse.’ Hardly blasphemous or wildly revisionist, Vigny has a clear contribution to make to Moses as a human archetype. We imagine that we learn something new and previously un-adumbrated about God’s representative. Not how faithful and pious and prophetic he is, which we already know, but, for the first time, of his divided nature, half earthly, half heavenly, and the pain and weariness of such eminence, analogous to that of a romantic poet. Vigny’s Moses is an imaginative reinterpretation; Butler’s is merely an homage.

‘The Lawgiver’ is followed by the interesting ‘Villanelle of the Elect.’ If Butler’s use of anapaestic metre, internal rhyme and alliteration are a marching rhythm calling Christian soldiers to spiritual warfare, the repetitious form of the villanelle is serviceable to his ends in an analogous way. Surely that of election is the most puzzling and disturbing of doctrines, and one that requires circumspect treatment by anyone who would sympathetically present it in any of its denominational forms. Yet in what should be his most intellectually and spiritually rigorous exercise, Butler opts for a form highly ill-adapted to discursive development:

If Esau had hope, it was quickly deflated.

The subtle supplanter had him by the heel.

But Jacob was loved, and Esau was hated.

Nothing about the scenario, so puzzling and upsetting to the moral sense, is explained or even explored. Again, we have a simple retelling without augmentation or exegesis. It is cleverly done, but constitutes an overly deferential, and therefore superficial, approach to the material.

At his most accessible (at least, to the reader who lacks his convictions), Butler seems almost to entertain an aporia with regard to the certainties that elsewhere drive his poetry. In the sonnet ‘The Return,’ for example, the speaker addresses the city of Vancouver with the words:

The Hip on FM sing escape’s at hand

For me, the travelling man. Let this last mile

Stretch out to fill a year. Anchor my grand

Illusions to your stubborn facts awhile.

Those ‘grand illusions’ are probably the usual worldly ones: a failed relationship, dreams of wealth and career success or other appurtenances of this world that, 2,000 years later, is still doggedly imagined by some to be ‘passing away,’ as the Apostle Paul assured his followers—but interpretation must have some latitude.

Although I have expressed some reservations about his approach, it is bracing to discover an emerging poet whose sensibility stands provocatively outside the mainstream. Formal poetry is increasingly associated with curmudgeonliness, and Butler does nothing to challenge this perception; on the other hand, he writes with conviction and an evident desire to say something true and permanent. At the same time, there is something quite contemporary about The Living Law. It speaks to a certain subculture for which a necessarily selective rejection of modernity is expressed in a return to traditional forms and subjects, a defiance of writing seminar orthodoxy in favour of a certain literary populism – if it makes sense to speak, as A M Juster does in his blurb, of ‘a broader audience of poetry lovers’ in this day and age.

How The Napoleon of Notting Hill can educate us

In an 1874 letter to members of the Augustinians of the Assumption, Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, who founded the congregation in 19th century France, spoke about the “radical denial of the rights of God” in the post-revolutionary period. Society then – as now – did not understand the order of things and did “not want the truth to serve as its bedrock.” And he observed that “ever since society ceased to rest on this doctrinal foundation, we can see…the resulting turmoil.”

Like other thinkers and figures of the time, d’Alzon recognized that the disenchantment of the world caused profound disorder. His solution to this was to “proclaim everywhere in the world the rights of God, of Jesus Christ and of his Church.” To do this, the Assumptionists had to focus on education in all its forms. Elsewhere, d’Alzon had written that “humanity needs to be taught, but first we need to give humanity a heart of flesh, as Scripture says, to replace the one becoming like stone in its chest.”

I open with d’Alzon for two reasons. First, I am indebted to the Assumptionists and d’Alzonian thinking; I was educated by the Assumptionists at Assumption College in Massachusetts, now Assumption University, and briefly considered a vocation to the congregation. Secondly, I believe his observations on the turmoil of the modern period have much to teach both intellectuals and artists.

D’Alzon can help us approach art because art, good and bad, has an educative dimension to it, particularly a moral one. To demonstrate this, I’d like to take a moment to compare him to T.S. Eliot. In Religion and Literature, Eliot observes that modern literature seems to express “no higher ideal to set before us than [absolute liberty].” It has been “corrupted by…Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” If we are exposed to this and do not think seriously about what we are reading, then, Eliot says, we will receive an improper formation, one that puts us at odds with the Truth. Emmanuel d’Alzon would likely agree with Eliot and has, in fact, used artistic language to talk about the seriousness of human formation. He has noted that the soul is “like a block of marble” that like the sculptor’s block can be chipped away meticulously until it becomes a work of art.

A good example of a novel that can shape the reader and demonstrate where we moderns have become unmoored is G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. In the aforementioned essay, Eliot identifies Chesterton as a propagandist, used in its original sense to mean propagation of the faith. But despite its rather overt sensibility, the novel works quite well for my purposes.

It’s apt to describe The Napoleon of Notting Hill as a story about education and ideas – in particular, the Christian idea.

Before the novel – which is set 80 years after its publication date – begins in earnest, Chesterton’s introductory note runs through a litany of modern “prophets,” each of whom has offered a particular vision of what the future might look like – from H.G. Wells saying “science would take charge of the future” to Edward Carpenter’s assertion that “we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do.” These are all attempts at what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the Eschaton.”  [Editor’s Note: From A New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin, 1952: “The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” The term “immanentizing the Eschaton” would become a satirical way of describing utopian thinking.]  

That so many people would strive for utopian solutions makes sense, because, like d’Alzon, Chesterton would have encountered similar disordered thinking. Ideas take root and spread. All these “prophets,” having jettisoned God, still needed to find ultimate meaning, in the form of capital-s Science or something else. But the order of things cannot be separated from God, and human life cannot be reduced to a series of predictions and numbers. Reality is deeper than ideological fads, and life is not a series of “cold mechanic happenings,” to quote from Chesterton’s poem he includes as an epigraph. Instead, it’s all bound by joy.

The novel opens in a London “almost exactly like what it is now.” Chesterton’s third-person narrator tells us that the people of this time have “absolutely lost faith in revolutions” and instead have accepted “Evolution,” in the sense that any changes must be done “slowly and safely,” as in nature. This flattening of the human spirit had resulted in the death of democracy, because “no one minded the governing class governing.” England, seemingly a world-bestriding colossus, because it seems to have conquered Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicaragua, was “now practically a despotism, but not a hereditary one.” The narrator tells us that “someone in the official class was made king.” The passive voice there suggests the passivity of the population, and indeed, in the next sentence, the narrator says that “no one cared how; no one cared who.” We then learn that, unsurprisingly, “everything…had become mechanical.”

Into this comes Auberon Quin, a comic figure whom the narrator describes as godson of “the King of the Fairies.” Apparatchiks of the regime arrive at Quin’s house and, to the shock of the people present, announce that he has been named king. Later that day, King Auberon makes a humorous speech in which he announces his desire to save “from extinction a few old English customs.” He suggests a form of local patriotism, in which each borough of London “shall immediately build a city wall with gates to be closed at sunset.” These places will be “armed to the teeth” and will “have a banner, a coat of arms, and, if convenient, a gathering cry.” Intellectuals turn “purple with laughter,” while others are “purple with indignation.” Most have their “minds a blank.” But not one Adam Wayne, who is there watching with “burning blue eyes.” He takes Quin very seriously.

It makes sense that Wayne would take Quin seriously. A mechanized, flat world is an inhuman world. People float through it like seaweed in the deep, because they have been given nothing to believe in. This is a world that isn’t foreign to us, but nor was it foreign to Chesterton or d’Alzon. The latter, in discussing his vocation to the priesthood – he founded the Assumptionists and became a religious later – observed that France had become a “decrepit machine.” Because it was “dangerous to try to repair,” he reasoned that the best approach would be to become a priest and press on the culture “with all the weight of the rights it had no authority to give.”

For d’Alzon, humanity is “deeply wounded” by “indifference and ignorance,” both of which “imply a total lack of faith.” His solution to this, as was mentioned, was to provide a serious education, one that would “penetrate” the world with “the Christian idea.” It would otherwise be in danger of collapsing. D’Alzon’s description of France and of his vocation should remind us of what Chesterton says about England in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are striking similarities of language: machine, indifference, a loss of faith.

Another point of comparison: the reactions to d’Alzon’s decision to become a priest mirrored the reactions to Quin’s speech. He was from an aristocratic family. People were shocked that, as they saw it, he would renounce his inheritance to become a priest. In an 1830 letter, D’Alzon had chided a friend for not wanting “at all to be reasonable,” going as far to say, “I scare you in a priest’s robe.” In the same letter, he offers his thoughts on the state of France. In addition to describing France as a “decrepit machine,” he observed that “sovereignty did not exist any more in the Palais Bourbon than at the Tuileries.” This was a “society that was so sick, one could have influence only in separating oneself completely.”

The England of the novel is also a sick society and one that truly lacks sovereignty. In effect,  Quin is providing a kind of education. The fact that he views things as a joke fits his character as a “Fairy.” But fairy tales themselves – and Chesterton wants to link The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the fairy tale tradition – discuss very serious things. In his essay “Fairy Tales,” [Editor’s Note: Included in his 1908 book, All Things Considered], Chesterton points out that “if you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.” He closes the essay by observing that fairy tales find “the great mystical basis for all Commandments.”

Quin’s speech, then, awoke something in Adam Wayne. To use d’Alzonian and scriptural language, you could say that Quin replaced Wayne’s heart of stone with one of flesh. And because his kingship sets off the events of The Napoleon of Notting Hill –Wayne decides to lead a rebellion, and this inspires others – we might say that Quin has effectively brought about a re-enchantment of the world. Indeed, Wayne says as much, both at the beginning of the novel and at its end. He says Quin has given him a desire to “fight for something greater,” noting that “this leadership and liberty of Notting Hill is a gift from your Majesty.” Wayne has been reminded that the purpose of human life is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict has noted,” is one of “greatness.” And he thus sees that there is a “mystical basis for all Commandments.” Now fully awakened, he believes these things are worth fighting for.

For Emmanuel d’Alzon, this was the exact purpose of an education, which he called a “great and magnificent work.” Through this, “we refashion the being of our students.” D’Alzon hoped the world would “receive [the Christian idea] by individuals who will be taken up with it.”

Adam Wayne was taken up by this idea of Quin’s, and it reshaped the world as it is. He brings it from a mechanized, empty flatness to “fairyland” and “elfland.” It leads to a re-enchantment and, à la d’Alzon, reorders the being of the world.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that both Wayne and Quin function as a dual symbol of “fairyland,” which, as Chesterton observes in “Fairy Tales,” is “a world at once of wonder and of war.” Wayne remarks that he and Quin “are not two men but one man.” He continues, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

It is not merely that you, the humorist, have been in these dark days stripped of the joy of gravity. It is not merely that I, the fanatic, have had to grope without humour. It is that though we seem to be opposite in everything, we have been opposite like man and woman aiming at the same moment at the same practical thing. We are the father and mother of the Charter of the Cities.

In effect, he is saying that the complete picture of the created order is a place “of wonder and war.” This is the full picture of human life. Quin and Wayne broke the mechanized imposter that, demiurge-like, was posing as the created order and made things real again.

How, then, does The Napoleon of Notting Hill educate the reader, both then and in the present? Chesterton deliberately sets the novel in a London not far removed from the one of 1904 and peppers it with real places, in addition to references to real people. The reader from 1904 would then be able to recognize his world in the text. Then, if he is attentive, he would start to ask questions: are things detached and mechanized? Where do we find meaning today? What is the cause and purpose of my life? Am I ordering my life toward good and appropriate things? And so on. We do have a real-life example of this. According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, was inspired by the novel to seek Irish independence.

But despite its references to early 20th century things, this is not a novel that is time-locked. We can read it and still be edified; the problems discussed by d’Alzon, Eliot, and Chesterton have persisted.

Consider Quin’s reflection during Adam Wayne’s initial audience with him at the beginning of the novel. He says that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” This madness consists of being obsessive about politics, caring for money, and thinking yourself right. These of course are perennial human concerns, but then Quin gets specific. He accuses people of trying to “spoil my joke, and bully me out of it, by becoming more and more modern, more and more practical, more and more bustling and rational.” This joke-spoiling and bullying has of course accelerated greatly since Chesterton’s time – leading to confusion and unhappiness, and eventually maybe even destruction.

As the American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once observed in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose, “in the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.” She continues: “It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

We can objectively call this true. The 20th century was one of theories, each of which, like Chesterton’s prophets, attempted to bring about utopia, but instead led to millions and millions of deaths. But this confusion has persisted. As Walker Percy observed inhis posthumously-published Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, ours is a “deranged age…because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

In 2017, in an essay for Crux on both d’Alzon and education, I pointed out that the Department of Education lists its purpose as “foster[ing] student achievement” and “preparation for global competitiveness.” I observed that we tend to see education as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Seven years on, the US Department of Education still lists its purpose as “preparation for global competitiveness.” Then, as now, these are buzzwords, but they also tell us something about how we view education:  a mere means to an end, a way to place people into a culture with only the basest of aspirations. When we are taught that there are no higher things, we will be led to believe that life is a mechanized existence, as described by both Chesterton and d’Alzon.

In a way, it’s all more of the same. Various techno-utopians have proposed that the solution to the human condition is to place us in a “metaverse,” where we’d live our lives in virtual reality. In City Journal, Jacob Howland has detailed the “destruction” of the University of Tulsa, where he holds emeritus status. Entire programs were eliminated or consolidated into minors: Greek, Latin, philosophy, religion. This, he pointed out, will result in students who are “credentialed, but…not…educated.” Sadly, his university is not unique.

But what are the results of this? A profound sense of malaise, particularly among the young.

Perhaps reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill – and having a good teacher discuss the novel with students – might provide a way forward for students who are feeling stifled by our deranged age. It would show them that the ideas that undergird our modern culture are ones that flatten the human spirit. They would not have to become revolutionaries or leaders of statelet neighborhoods, like Michael Collins or Adam Wayne, but perhaps they could be awakened to the idea that there is something profound about human existence. This is the purpose of good art and literature–to show people that there is a higher ideal than Eliot’s “absolute liberty” – because absolute liberty is  little more than nihilism.

I can speak to this. I felt a sense of aimlessness when I’d finished high school, with vague ideas about becoming a doctor or a politician, but then, while at Assumption, I received two gifts, which cannot be separated:  the Catholic faith, which I reverted to as a student, and liberal education. My professors – although not trickers or jokesters! – were my Quins. They awakened something in me and gave my life a telos. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberal education is often deemed a kind of lunacy. Quin and Wayne were seen as lunatics, but Auberon Quin notes that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” I am thankful that I pursued this “madness,” and was given access to the truth.

An education that featured books like The Napoleon of Notting Hill would send readers and students on a search, resulting in a deeper engagement with tradition, and helping settle the turmoil of our age. It might help sweep away the sadness and hopelessness that plague so many people today, by reminding us that the world is enchanted, and guiding us along “the starry streets that point to God.”

Keystone State – Pennsylvania’s place in old and new America

Image: Derek Turner

The widely-travelled American author Bayard Taylor wrote in 1866 about his native region:

The country life of our part of Pennsylvania retains more elements of its English origin than that of New England or Virginia. Until within a few years, the conservative influence of the Quakers was so powerful that it continued to shape the habits even of communities whose religious sentiment it failed to reach. [i]

In my boyhood years of the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent a lot of time in a rural section of Taylor’s Chester County, where my Quaker ancestors settled over 300 years ago, and where some close family members were still living. The farms there seemed well-ordered and prosperous, life moved at a slower pace, and there was a quiet, gentle, modest quality in many of the people whom I encountered. The rolling fields, haunted woods, and centuries-old homes always drew my attention. These landscapes were sometimes lush, and at other times they showed a stark beauty. Andrew Wyeth piercingly portrayed that latter quality in the adjoining Chadd’s Ford region, in “Pennsylvania Landscape, 1941,” and depictions of the Kuerner Farm.

During my teen years, I noticed that the east-coast Megalopolis was encroaching on this area. New housing developments, shopping strips, and busier roads presented glaring, distracting contrasts, but didn’t completely break the spell yet. I learned that utopia means “no place,” and is not a reasonable expectation where any humans go to and fro, but still there had been something special here, independent of but intertwined with my own nostalgia.

One day, around the year 2000, I was driving along an old, sunken Chester County road, a canopy of overarching trees above. I slowed to a stop when I saw a few horses walking across the way ahead. The riders, proceeding to or from a fox hunt, were dressed immaculately in scarlet coats, and they all politely doffed their caps at me as I waited for them to cross. Not a sight that one expects in most of today’s America.

Living a few hours away, in a congested, grimy, industrial city, I still had to remind myself that this rural spot wasn’t a utopia. Sorrow, conflict, poverty – these things, of course, are to be expected everywhere. But there was that pleasing blend of qualities that kept drawing me back to Chester County as an adult, long after my close relatives there had died. Along with the beautiful landscapes and the pleasant old architecture, there was an embattled, intangible something which had lingered on here and there. Compared with other places I had lived, there had been a balance and proportion – order along with freedom, well-preserved nature amid agriculture, and some communities that stayed within a smaller, more humane scale. Was it the same quality that Bayard Taylor had described?

William Penn in 1666

Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn probably wouldn’t have approved of fox-hunting, but he revered the fundamental liberties and rule of law—sometimes violated, sometimes renewed—which Englishmen had inherited since the days of Magna Carta and before. Penn had been a studious, reflective boy, and he acquired an appreciation for history and the classics. He was convinced that substantial elements of liberty, and law based upon consent, stretched back to the Anglo-Saxons, and then further back to some of the Britons who met Julius Caesar. He praised the English who had been “as resolute to keep, as their Ancestors had been careful to make those excellent Laws.”[ii] While urging the protection of that English constitution, along with his concept of “liberty of conscience,” Penn insisted that limits must also be established to preserve peace, civil order, and virtue. According to Penn biographer Andrew Murphy,

Penn’s radical argument for liberty of conscience always sat alongside a conventional, even austere, notion of personal morality. Denunciations of sin and vice went hand in hand with calls for the toleration of conscientious dissent, and the two campaigns mutually reinforced each other.[iii]

Penn’s liberty of conscience meant that English citizens should be allowed to freely seek, worship and meet their own obligations to God, as long as they were not acting treasonably. He worked tenaciously for many years on behalf of his ideals, getting arrested several times in the process. In an England with an established church, following decades of severe religious conflict, liberty of conscience seemed radical and threatening to some, but Penn was no revolutionary. He believed that while all were equal before God, society was naturally hierarchical due to human variation. Along with other Quakers of his day, he valued private property, family, and of course those English liberties. Although Whiggish, and hoping for a more meritocratic society rather than ranks based upon birth, he was loyal to Charles II, and developed a close, friendly, working relationship with Charles’ brother and successor James.

The young Penn had been groomed by his father to rise in the lofty circles of Charles’ court, but he disappointed his parents when he converted to Quakerism as a young man. Quakers were looked upon with suspicion by many Anglicans, and were among the religious dissenters in England who continued to be severely persecuted by Parliament, Anglican authorities, and some magistrates after the Restoration, although Charles and James favored toleration.

Along with that persecution, Penn was troubled by the licentiousness which came out in the open, after moral standards had loosened following Charles’s Restoration. During the social and political unrest which erupted against Catholics and other dissenters in 1678, he wrote to fellow Quakers in England that he feared God would punish the nation for rampant immorality. He also hoped that the virtues of his comrades and other “conscientious and well-inclined people” would “shine unto others, in these uneven and rough times that are come, and coming,” and that God would therefore show mercy. Like the Puritan John Winthrop, who had earlier led the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Penn believed that he and his fellow Friends “must show ourselves to be that Little City and Hill of God.” He urged them to resist worldly temptations, and act as good examples:

Let us be careful not to mingle with the crowd, lest their spirit enter us instead of our spirit entering them…. Yet can we not be unsensible of their infirmities, as well as we shall not be free from some of their sufferings; we must make their case as our own, and travel alike in spirit for them as for ourselves.[iv]

Within a few years, Penn had an opportunity to try to make those dreams a reality on a large scale, by forming the new colony of Pennsylvania.

In 1681, as Penn was devising Pennsylvania’s initial constitution and laws, he wrote to settlers already in the colony that, “whatever sober and free men can reasonably desire for the security and improvement of their own happiness I shall heartily comply with.”[v] “Reasonably” was key, and his government would have a significant role to play in buttressing morality. In his Preface to the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, Penn stated, “Liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery.” His first set of laws for Pennsylvania stated that “offenses against God…, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and unreligion, shall be respectively discouraged and severely punished.” Such offenses included foul language, drunkenness, fornication, gambling and other activities, as well as crimes such as assault, murder and treason. Clearly, government was to have a punitive role, as well as positively encouraging virtue, yet everything hinged on the nature of the people. Penn also wrote in his Preface, “Let men be good and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill they will change it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it.” This was echoed years later by the American founder John Adams, who wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[vi]

Penn elaborated on why government should circumscribe human behavior: “There can be no pretense of conscience to be drunk, to whore, to be voluptuous, to game, to swear, curse, blaspheme, and profane,” since such behaviors “lay the ax to the root of humane society, and are the common enemies of mankind.”[vii] Not all of us with a traditional bent will agree that all forms of gaming contribute to the undermining of a society, but many of us would agree that Penn’s general principle is sound.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, there were “comparatively few crimes against morality or order” in Pennsylvania and Quaker New Jersey before 1755:

At the same time that the laws of the Quaker colonies were comparatively mild as regards capital punishment, they punished very harshly acts of disorder in which one citizen intruded upon the peace of another In Pennsylvania, penalties for crimes of sexual violence against women were exceptionally severe. The lash was used abundantly… Something of this Quaker testimony of peace and order entered permanently into the cultural fabric of the Delaware Valley…. Rates of violent crime remained comparatively low. [viii]

English Quakers were not the only inhabitants of early Pennsylvania. Before Penn’s proprietorship, along with Indians, there were Dutch, Finns, Swedes and English Anglicans present. Germans, Welsh and Irish soon arrived. Penn was beleaguered by political discord that arose in his new colony, even within the Quaker communities. His own sometimes combative and disorganized nature didn’t always help matters, nor did his need to spend much time away in England, defending his proprietorship and handling other concerns. Factions formed, ethnic and religious strife occurred, and conflict with neighboring colonies flared and continued for several years.

Is it a stretch to say that Penn’s principles, along with those of his fellow Quakers, helped encourage and maintain that “arcadian” quality that I witnessed? The ethnic and religious troubles in early Pennsylvania subsided eventually, as the English and Protestant culture took root and maintained its predominance for a long while, with that special Quaker influence that Taylor emphasized. In the American colonies, cultural variations among discrete groups of English colonists such as Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Borderers clearly resulted in regional differences, which continued long after the American Revolution.[ix] The distinctive cultural aspects of the Society of Friends shaped, and were shaped by, Penn’s thought and actions. An important element of the liberty which Quakers offered, and with which they differed from others such as the Puritans, was what Fischer called “reciprocal liberty,” meaning that “every liberty demanded for oneself should also be extended to others.”[x] Penn’s liberty of conscience was one example of this general principle. And along with Quaker political and religious tenets, so many of their social characteristics continued, from their early years in England on into the 20th century. Penn’s appreciation for independent farmers, and a Quaker concern for the responsible use of one’s property, had an impact on the landscape of rural southeastern Pennsylvania. As I studied the Quakers of the 16th and 17th centuries, I was struck by how profoundly they had influenced my parents’ and grandparents’ ways and manners, as well as my own beliefs and preferences ranging from taste in dress to thoughts on social rank to yearnings for quiet, for social peace, and for order.

Historian Bruce Catton remarked that America has long had a significant “rowdy strain” in its population.[xi] This seems true, but from America’s early years onwards there were also those many quieter colonists, who made their own long-lasting cultural impact.

Today, in the counties first established under Penn’s proprietorship, other, rowdier cultural influences sometimes shout down the quiet, modest ideals of the Society of Friends, and the ordered liberty inherited from England. Yet not all the land is covered by concrete. And not all the words of William Penn have been thrown down the memory hole, at least not yet. In 2023, government bureaucrats tried to get rid of a statue of William Penn in a Philadelphia park. A public outcry ensued, which pressured politicians to stop this cultural vandalism for the time being. And although Bayard Taylor’s hometown of Kennett Square has changed substantially, his beautiful home, Cedarcroft, still stands.

Until a few years ago, I sometimes visited a grand, old oak tree on the grounds of the London Grove Meeting House, where Quakers had gathered since 1714. The tree was standing when William Penn was in North America, and I was saddened when I learned that it toppled in 2023. It was partly the loss of a beautiful, stately, historic, and gracious old tree that tugged at me. But was this also an omen, to be considered along with the rampant cultural destruction of recent decades? Then I learned that over the years, many people had collected acorns which that old oak had sired. And after its fall, more people traveled to the meeting-house grounds to collect more acorns, from this tree which had already nourished so many spirits.


i Taylor, Bayard, The Story of Kennett, 1866, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8680/pg8680-images.html#link2HCH0024

[ii] Penn, William, England’s Present Interest Considered, with Honour to the Prince, and Safety to the People, 1675, The Political Writings of William Penn, introduction and annotations by Andrew R. Murphy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/murphy-the-political-writings-of-william-penn

ii Murphy, Andrew, William Penn: A Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018: p. 133

[iv] Penn, William, To the children of light in this generation, called of God to be partakers of eternal life in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, and Light of the World, 1678, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11856.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[v] Penn, William, “To the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania,” April 8, 1681, The Papers of William Penn, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, Vol. 2, p. 84

[vi] Adams, John, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” Oct. 11, 1798, https://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/john-adams-religion-constitution

[vii] Penn, William, An address to protestants upon the present conjuncture in II parts, London, 1679, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A54098.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext

[viii] Fischer, David Hackett, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 586, 589

[ix] See Fischer for a very interesting, thorough examination of this

[x] Fischer, p. 603

[xi] Catton, Bruce, This Hallowed Ground, New York: Vintage Books, 2012

Clever and cheerful, like a lizard in the sun

Friedrich Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch (1906)

Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Dawn (Winter 1879/80-Spring 1881)

Friedrich Nietzsche, J.M. Baker Jr, Christiane Hertel (trans.), Stanford University Press, 2023, paperback, 530pp, $28

The thirteenth of nineteen volumes in the Stanford University Press edition of the German-language Friedrich Nietzsche Sämtliche Werke covers the notebooks from late 1879 to early 1881, at a time when Nietzsche was writing Dawn (Morgenröthe, 1881), the second book of his “free spirit” trilogy. Even a well-informed Nietzsche reader may draw a blank at that, as it is the least widely read of his books. These notes relate to a critique of the generation of morals, particularly the topics of dissimulation and self-deception, the subjects of Dawn. The title refers to the potential rebirth of modern man, freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian religion and worldview, led by great self-actualised men – the Übermenschen.

The philosopher succinctly summarises his primary concern in this period so: “The greatest problem of the coming age is the eradication of moral concepts and the cleansing from our representations of moral forms or colors that have crept into them and are often difficult to recognize.”[i] He meditates on the nature of morality and how it arises and if some different system of values can govern man’s conduct. Christian morality divides people (according to their characters) into obedient slaves or mindless enforcer. Both act from character, rather than making value judgements based on personal and social good. The claims that Christian morality has the right to be considered normative (as per Pascal) are spurious, Nietzsche contends – as outlined in many of his published books. “[…] Christianity takes no pleasure in the human being.”[ii]

Nietzsche rails against misguided egalitarianism, democracy, socialism and (of course) Christianity, which he sees at the root of modern European man’s slave morality and the ultimate cause of many of civilisation’s parlous state. He sees a levelling of people as a rebellion against natural inequality and exceptional men. It makes men manageably pliable. However, Nietzsche opens the door to individualism for its own sake – the myth of meritocracy, which allows the collectivised minority to seize its power and advantages and (ultimately) its supremacy, as Gaetano Mosca argued. There are few autobiographical comments, but these are indirect and brief, so only the reader averagely acquainted with the philosopher’s life will be able to glean anything from them.

He wonders at the alienness of Judaism, which has been incorporated into European thinking through Christianity, and notes that the words of the Old Testament are (perhaps paradoxically) more accessible to us than the ancient Greeks and Romans. He repeatedly describes morality as Asian – i.e. derived from the Semitic people of the Near East – and finds it unfitting for Europeans; he also adds that he considers Stoicism Semitic. Valuations determine both our personal responses, interpersonal relations and society as a whole; if moral valuations can be altered, or the whole system abolished, then human capacity is freed. Nietzsche is no Panglossian optimist, but he sees human capacity as much greater than what the constricting morals and customs of his day permitted. Incorrect valuations wage war against each other, distracting and confusing; these conflicts demonstrate the faulty foundations of morality and must be seen clearly.

Nietzsche is ever aware of the need for geniuses; these exceptional men will lead, instruct and inspire. “To use and recognize chance is called genius. To use the expedient and familiar – morality?”[iii] He assesses the possibility of describing “an extra-moral view of the world” that is “an aesthetic one (veneration of genius)”. Tantalisingly, the fragment breaks off there. He is aware of the bad character and suffering great men cause and admits that “veneration of genius has often been unconscious devil worship.”[iv]“[A]rtists are usually intolerable as persons, and this should be subtracted from what is gained from their works.”[v]

Of the hundreds of entries (mainly in the form of notes and aphorisms) few extend longer than one page. Every page has an insight into the human condition. “Compassion without intelligence is one of the most unpleasant and disturbing phenomena […]”[vi] There are oddities, such as the author’s contention that there is no instinctive fear of death, merely aversion to the pain of dying and the unknown and that the appetite for life’s pleasures acts as more of a stimulant. Hence there is no life-preservation instinct per se. Another bon pensée is “Clever and cheerful, like a lizard in the sun”, although Nietzsche never seems such a lizard – at least, not on this splenetic showing.

The style is brusque, the diction non-technical, with entries compressed to the extreme. Yet, he allows himself digressions and occasional exclamations. As the translator explains, this directness actually generates difficulties. Unlike his published works, which are models of clear prose and precise argumentation, the notes are littered with general words that can bear several specific meanings, introducing a degree of ambiguity that the translator must adjudicate. Many of these points were never subsequently taken up again by the author, so it is hard to know which meaning he had in mind.    

There are meditations upon the greats, such as Plato, Christ, St Paul, Martin Luther, Goethe, Napoleon, Schopenhauer and others, viewed in light of their limitations as well as their achievements. Napoleon was more intent on seeming superior to others than on being superior. Nietzsche was reading a biography of Napoleon at the time, so there are extensive comments relating to Napoleon’s conduct, character and significance. Wagner – his aspirations, his ambition, his vanity – is wrestled with at length:

Wagner courts being named the German artist, but, alas, neither the grand opera nor his character is specifically German: which is why he has not as yet become dear to the populace, but instead to a class of refined and over-cultivated people – the circle to which, say, in the last century Rousseau appealed.[vii]  

The appearance of these Stanford University Press translations keeps Nietzsche vitally alive, able to dazzle, surprise and shock. As usual, the annotation and index are accompanied by an extensive and illuminating afterword on the subjects of the texts. The critical apparatus is first class and the references well judged.


[i] P. 5

[ii] P. 262

[iii] P. 18

[iv] P. 47

[v] P. 95

[vi] P. 6

[vii] P. 163

On Dante’s politics

Reconstruction of Dante’s face, at the Anfiteatro de Villa in Costa Rica. Wikimedia Commons

Many Catholics have come to reject liberalism. They see the ruins of postmodern culture – its atomization, its rejection of the transcendent, its radical individualism – and identify liberalism as its cause. They argue our cultural decay is too great, and it requires radical solutions, and so they say we will be unable to reverse secularization unless we overthrow liberalism. Their solution to this is to put the Church in charge of the temporal order, a solution often referred to as “integralist.”

Dante Aligheri, author of The Divine Comedy, would likely take issue with this, because he was able to see first-hand how bad the Church was at governing. Dante was not just a great poet, but also a statesman and political philosopher, notably having written Monarchia, a text in which he discussed the nature of religious and political authority. Dante was also deeply involved in the affairs of the Republic of Florence, particularly with the clash between the White Guelphs, who favored less papal involvement and tended to welcome the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Black Guelphs, who favored the opposite. Dante allied with the White Guelphs, which ultimately led to his exile.

In short, Dante was unlike a lot of twenty-first century writers and poets who tend to have beautiful prose and lines but quixotic politics. Instead, Dante was a nimble and interesting political thinker who, through his belief that the medieval Church was too involved in temporal affairs and that the political and spiritual should inform each other, seemed to anticipate such twentieth century Catholic political thinkers as the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

Dante, by Adolfo de Carolis, 1920s

We can get a sense of Dante’s view of politics by doing a close reading of The Divine Comedy, a poem he intended to be viewed as a work of political philosophy. We’ll examine three sections of the poem: Dante’s colloquy with Boniface – Dante the poet (I’m phrasing it this way to distinguish the author from the character) and his presentation of the lowest circle of hell – and Dante’s argument in the Purgatorio that men behave badly when they are governed badly.

But before I begin in earnest, I’d like to turn to Ernest Fortin, A.A.’s seminal study of Dante’s politics, Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors, in which he presents readers with not only Dante’s thought but also a history of medieval political and religious thinking. Fortin argues that Dante’s chief political project was to understand how both Church and state relate to one another. He says:

Dante has no more pressing concern than to show that the emperor receives his authority directly from God and that consequently he exercises it by his own sovereign right and not in the name of the Church. His argument begins from the principle that man has two ends: one natural and the other supernatural. The knowledge required for him to attain them comes to him through two bodies endowed for this purpose by divine wisdom: the imperial authority and the Church. The first leads to happiness in this world through philosophical instruction, the second to eternal happiness through spiritual teaching.

Fortin, p82

In the Middle Ages, though, there was no clear-cut definition of Church and state, the Church claimed a significant amount of power for itself. Consider, for instance, the Papal States. And Dante’s contemporary, Pope Boniface VII, in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, argued instead “for the total submission of princes to the sovereign pontiff.” Fortin says the question of the “two powers” of authority “absorbed Dante’s attention in great part.” (p81) And because Boniface VII, through his papal bull, essentially merged these authorities, Dante viewed him with scorn. He referred to him as “the prince of the new Pharisees” and a “usurper.” (p89)

Fortin suggests Dante believed that the Church, essentially, was too focused on the temporal. But there is also clear historical evidence of this. Fortin reminds us that Rome had “a habit of forging political alliances for its own aggrandizement” which had “the double effect of giving a bad example to its own followers and of neutralizing any effort which the temporal power could make to moderate its subjects’ worldly ambitions.” (p88) In fact, according to Fortin, Dante sought to depict the medieval Church, particularly the papacy, as “Geryon, the fabulous beast on whose shoulders Dante and Virgil pass from the seventh to the eighth circle of hell.” Fortin says:

The monster is invested with the most extraordinary features: he crosses mountains, pierces the thickest walls, destroys powerful armies, and afflicts the whole world. What does he represent? Fraud perhaps, as the text suggests in speaking of him as a “filthy effigy of fraud.” Sins of fraud are in fact punished in the infamous Malebolge the two travelers are about to enter. But the author seems to have something else in mind. If there is any institution in the Middle Ages whose power penetrates everywhere, shatters weapons and fortresses, and makes itself felt beyond mountains, it is the Church. Could it be that in the monster’s features Dante sought to depict the abomination that the medieval papacy had become for him?

Fortin, p89

The answer, of course, is yes. Fortin writes that, in Dante’s description of Geryon, “there is no mistaking the description of the animal’s body, which recalls very nicely the papal vestments of the time, the sleeves of which were covered with ermine and the sides decorated with knotted strips and medallions.” (p90)

Dante’s view of both Boniface and the medieval institutional Church—and, consequently, what happens when the Church becomes too interested in temporal affairs—becomes clear in Canto XIX of the Inferno, where we meet the aforementioned pope. Boniface is in one of the lowest circles of hell, in a space reserved for the simoniacal. The character of Dante denounces him, saying that his “avarice afflicts the world” and that it “tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” (p140) This is essentially an inversion of what we would normally read in the Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” What Dante is saying here is that a Church that has become too focused on the here and now, a Church that has made itself “a god of gold and silver” (p140), is a Church that has diluted and even perverted its mission and so has become too interested in power qua power. 

Perhaps this is why Dante places Brutus, Cassius, and Judas at the lowest circle of hell, chewed by Satan. Brutus and Cassius, of course, betrayed Julius Caesar, leading to his assassination. And Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities, leading to his arrest and crucifixion. We might posit that this is Dante’s ultimate warning to the medieval Church—it has become like what it once stood against. Becoming too focused on political intrigue and power for the sake of power leads you to betray friends and confidants. It can even lead you to betray God himself. Ultimately, it all leads to damnation.

But this is something Dante too had to learn, since his involvement in the clash between the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs eventually led to his exile. Dante likely spent a lot of time reflecting on the nature of things, and perhaps he authored The Divine Comedy as a means of sharing his reflections and to correct certain errors he had perceived. In Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Fortin says that Dante intended The Divine Comedy to be a work of political philosophy, his “aim” being

…none other than to teach men how they are to live or how they might leave the state of misery in which they languish for a better and happier state, or, as the Comedy states, how one goes from slavery to freedom, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity. Moreover, Dante was convinced that of all the senses to be found in his work, none was more useful than its moral sense.

Fortin, pps59-60

Dante, then, seems to have come to believe that the various disorders of the period were due to bad governance, which had handicapped human flourishing. And therein lies the paradox of the medieval Church, against which Dante had directed so much ire, in an attempt to get it to do better: the institution that should lead to human flourishing, since it was created by God Himself, in the form of Christ, was preventing it, because it had developed a horizontal gaze. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, Marco Lombardo says as much, telling Dante:

Misrule, you see, has caused the world to be malevolent; your nature is not corrupt, not prey to any fatal astral force. For Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns; and they made visible two paths – the world’s path and the pathway that is God’s. One has eclipsed the other; now the sword has joined the shepherd’s crook; the two together must of necessity result in evil

Purgatorio, XV1, lines 103-111

So Dante the author is saying that the various pathologies we can see in public life are not due to fate or to ‘the gods,’ but instead due to the misrule of the Church. It had “confounded two powers in itself,” which “must of necessity [have resulted] in evil.” (Fortin, p291)

Dante’s solution to this is to ask the Church, clerics and lay, to do better and to forget about its entanglements in political and worldly affairs. (Again, we can imagine that this is also self-directed, since Dante’s political projects brought him to his exile.) In the Paradiso, we observe that Beatrice counsels Christians to “proceed with greater gravity: do not be like a feather at each wind, nor think that all immersions wash you clean. You have both Testaments, the Old and New, you have the shepherd of the Church to guide you; you need no more than this for your salvation.” (p400) She warns Christians to not heed the summons of “evil greed” and to not be “like sheep gone mad.” (p400) And later in the Paradiso, in Canto IX, Cunizza da Romano says that “the pope and cardinals are intent. Their thoughts are never bent on Nazareth.” (p422) But she suggests things will change, noting that “the hill of Vatican as well…will soon be freed from priests’ adultery.” (p422)

Ultimately, it seems Dante wants the Church to be the Church and leave the governing to the nations – they can work together, but the Church had absorbed too much authority, becoming, as Fortin observed in his reading of Dante, a monstrous distortion of what it was and is supposed to be. In this way, Dante is not unlike John Courtney Murray, who had argued that the religious liberty of the United States was not a threat to the Church but would rather help it, in that it would allow people to pursue the good life properly, without coercion from an authority such as the Papal States.

Placing states in the hands of the Church means bad governance, which Dante demonstrates both in The Divine Comedy and other texts. Rather than bring about a kind of quasi-perfect state, wherein citizens would be totally directed toward God, who is Goodness, the power of governing would corrupt the Church, making it too interested in worldly affairs and thereby corrupt the people, who would become afflicted by all sorts of pathologies. So advocates of integralism might consider revisiting Dante Aligheri and his Divine Comedy. There they can see the results of their political-theological project. And then, rather than attempt to turn the Church into an empire, they might encourage it – its clerics, its religious, and its lay – to do and be better, so that they could go out and bring the peace and joy of the Gospel to the world yet again.

Anthony Burgess – The Professional

BENJAMIN AFER outlines an extraordinarily prolific and versatile author

Some weeks ago, I was offered a small commission by a respectable new journal to contribute a few thousand words on Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but reluctantly deferred owing to considerable concern that a short essay composed under the duress of manic end-of-year busyness would result an inadequate treatment of such a monumental work. But when I was offered some column inches in this journal on the subject of Anthony Burgess, I accepted without hesitation. After all, Burgess has long been one of my most-admired authors, and I have more than a casual familiarity with his work, having read and re-read a good deal of his fiction many times over.

This cheerful attitude quickly fell into a tense anxiety when I realised, sitting down to write, that the great scope of Burgess’s œuvre would make this a more complicated and technically demanding matter than any essay on Proust. For even if Marcel still has Anthony pipped on word-count (and that’s not entirely certain), the latter’s ability to write masterful works in so many genres, in so many different styles, on endlessly varying subjects, in both fiction, non-fiction, symphonic music and poetry means that there is ample material for several lifetimes worth of Burgess-study. Both authors can be poked in the ribs, so to speak, with that infamous jibe given by a member of the royal family upon the presentation of yet another volume of Decline and Fall – “Another damn’d thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Even Burgess’s socially mobile origin story is so uniquely mid-century that it requires hefty contextual explanation, and the subsequent biographical aspects seem to go on twisting and turning forever. We have Burgess the precocious Catholic schoolboy, Burgess the soldier, Burgess the lover, Burgess the adulterous scoundrel, Burgess the schoolmaster, Burgess the august television intellectual, Burgess the tax-dodging expatriate, Burgess the linguist, Burgess the Joyce expert, Burgess the librettist, Burgess the avant-garde composer, satirist and poet. At least Proust remained mercifully confined to his bed, doing little else but huffing Escouflaire [Ed. Anti-asthmatic medicines] and “scribble, scribble scribble.”

Indeed, this systematic under-appreciation of Anthony Burgess seems to be less a consequence of any mediocrity on his part and more a consequence of sheer befuddlement on the part of lazy critics, academics, and other taste-making ne’er-do-wells. There is no adjectival hole into which the man or his work can be easily pigeoned. As G.K. Chesterton said of the Christian ideal, Burgess has not been tried and found wanting. He has been found difficult, and left untried.

John Burgess Wilson (later confirmed into the Catholic Church with the middle name Anthony) was born in Manchester, in February 1917. His mother, Elizabeth Burgess, died less than two years later of the Spanish Flu, and his father Joseph took up with Margaret Dwyer, the landlady of the pub in which he played the piano as an evening job. Though Joseph Wilson was by trade a shopkeeper dealing mainly in tobacco and alcohol (which kept the family out of poverty during the long depression years – “the poor always found money to drink”) Burgess always recalled his father as a frustrated composer, skilled enough to play all the favourite pub tunes and provide spontaneous accompaniment to silent films in the local picture house, but otherwise an archetypical mute inglorious. His self-description was always that of a composer who wrote books rather than a writer who dabbled in music.

Despite his father’s apparent gifts, Burgess remained ignorant to music as a whole until hearing a prelude by Debussy on his home-built radio. The attitude among lower-middle class Mancunians of the interwar years, both at home and at the Xaverian College to which the bookish young man had earned a scholarship, held against teaching music to young people – there was no realistic prospect of any money in it – so, undeterred and with characteristic bullheadedness, Burgess taught himself to play the piano at the age of 14.

Moreso than the solitariness of his schoolyears and the often-warlike relationship between himself and his stepmother (later given brilliantly repulsive illustration in the Enderby novels), Burgess was always quick to recall the Catholic, and particularly Irish, aspect of his background. At least one journalist joked that to hear Burgess talk of his home city, one would suppose that Manchester was a suburb of Dublin. With echoes of the late-century “Troubles literature” that familiarised many British and American readers with the largely self-generated Cagot-apartheid between denominations in Northern Ireland, Burgess recalled in print and on television interviews the automatic jeering and separation between “Cat-licks” and “Proddy-dogs” in Jazz Age Manchester, long before the children on either side of the dispute had any rational grounds to do so. Burgess’s father often took him aside and cautioned “Son, don’t give allegiance to any Hanoverian Protestant monarch. Your last monarch was James II.” It was taken both as a sort of nostalgic joke and as a deadly serious reminder of where the lines lay in the Britain of that era.

Once again hobbled in his ambitions to become a composer when the music department at Victoria University [Ed. Now part of the University of Manchester] turned down his application, he was instead taken in by the literature department in 1937, and a female economics student called Llewela “Lynne” Isherwood. Burgess was able to finish his degree before the inevitable call-up for National Service.

To put it plainly, the army did not suit him. He was constantly being arraigned for disciplinary offences and, most commonly, for overstaying his married leave. Despite his best efforts, the army promoted him to sergeant and found a place for him in the Educational Corps. Burgess’s flair for language earned him a posting in Gibraltar, working as a debriefer on behalf of stranded Dutch and French expatriates. A brief lock-up on the other side of Spanish border following an ill-advised tirade on the diminutive height and not-so-diminutive portliness of General Franco would be given its vicious counterpoint in an incident made famous by a disturbing quasi-literation in A Clockwork Orange: Lynne, still back in England and pregnant with the Burgess’s first child, was beaten and raped by a gang of marauding American deserters under the cover of the blackout, losing the baby as a consequence. Burgess, for reasons unknown, was denied home leave to see her. The horrifying inability to protect his wife or even comprehend the reasons for such an act seems to have given succour to Burgess’s mystical-Catholic belief in the existence of a pure evil that stalks out potential in every human being. Try to find any trace of rational-choice doctrine or liberal social-excuse theory in the following passage:

All right, Dim,’ I said. ‘Now for the other veshch, Bog help us all.’ So he did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could slooshy cries of agony and this writer bleeding veck that Georgie and Pete held on to nearly got loose howling bezoomny with the filthiest of slovos that I already knew and others he was making up. Then after me it was right old Dim should have his turn, which he did in a beasty snorty howly sort of a way with his Peebee Shelley maskie taking no notice, while I held on to her. Then there was a changeover, Dim and me grabbing the slobbering writer veck who was past struggling really, only just coming out with slack sort of slovos like he was in the land in a milk plus bar, and Pete and Georgie had theirs.

These are not horrors to be explained away by some bunk about absentee fathers or inadequate youth-group opportunities. The bucking refutation of modern sociological ideas in A Clockwork Orange is, in my view, the true cause of the furore later kicked up around the hitherto modestly known book when the Stanley Kubrick film appeared. As Burgess himself noted, the Russell-esque socially liberal literati, who normally kept their safe, snobbish distance from those poor working-class underdogs whom they supposedly championed, took great personal offence at the character of Alex – an obviously intelligent, strategically minded-young man with two loving parents and an orgasmic appreciation for “lovely Ludwig van.” They were forced to see, not as they usually did a violent, irrational sub-species in need of a good Pygmalion-job, but instead a character they themselves identified with.

A Clockwork Orange takes the territory explored by Dostoyevsky via Raskolnikov to a logical end by removing even the pretence of a reason for what Alex does. Unlike the would-be Übermensch Raskolnikov, there are no delusions of grandeur to Alex. His material needs are well-satisfied, and he delights in the pleasure of violence itself rather than violence as a means to an end like robbery or survival. He indulges in evil acts more or less for their own sake. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but simply fails to consider why such a contrast should impede him. More chillingly to the modern progressive mind, Burgess takes a firm stand on the human necessity that Alex be able to choose to live in such a way. A further insult is levelled at the intelligentsia by the way in which their “Ludovico Treatment” gives us a stronger feeling of nausea and repulsion than any of the crimes committed by young Alex, because the former is a hideous restriction on any moral choice that renders the victim an eponymous clockwork orange – only superficially organic and alive. By contrast, the ultra-violence and juvenile thuggery of the Droogs is all-too-human. Their lives are an expression of forces that cannot be created or destroyed; merely redirected; a fact so wonderfully illustrated by Burgess when a wretched, suffering, “reformed” Alex is torturously worked over by two policemen, whom he suddenly recognises as former members of his gang.  

Although A Clockwork Orange is the title most people will conjure in their minds when they hear the author’s name, for Burgess, the success and media frenzy around the book became a case-study in the ancient artist’s headache: the inability to choose which of your works becomes a public ‘favourite.’ Though the creation of Alex’s “Nadsat” argot is a deservedly acclaimed feat, Burgess was always quick to point out that he considered the work a minor one of his own canon, a jeu d’esprit knocked off in a couple of weeks. From the release of the film to his last days, he was continually badgered by obnoxious phone calls from tabloid papers and crusading members of the public asking if he felt personally responsible for that week’s nondescript heinous act of violence, particularly if the act in question involved sexual extremism. 

But Burgess, ever our dogged professional, was never one to pass up the opportunity to turn a unique life experience into fine prose. Picture a corpulent, dyspeptic middle-aged English poet-cum-lecturer staggering around a New York apartment borrowed from some ten-a-penny feminist academic on sabbatical. He’s naked. He’s staggering towards a telephone which, when answered, usually delivers a barrage of ranting phone calls from angry citizens who are eager to denounce him for what began as a film adaption of Hopkins’ poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, which has evolved to become a salacious piece of exploitation. The poor chap did not produce, write, or contribute to the project in any meaningful sense, but nevertheless his name has appeared all over the credits. A talk show has phoned asking him for an appearance that night:

[…] Some boys have been attacking some nuns. In Manhattanville. I’m shocked you didn’t know. I assumed–

“Nuns are always being attacked. Their purity is an affront to the dirty world.”

“Remember that. Remember to say that. But the point is that they said they wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t seen the movie. That’s why we’re—”

I see. I see. Always blame art, eh? Not original sin but art. I’ll have my say, never fear.”

“You have the address?”

“You ignore art as so much unnecessary garbage or you blame it for your own crimes. That’s the way of it. I’ll get the bastards, all of them. I’m not having this sort of nonsense, do you hear?” There was silence at the other end. “You never take art for what it is – beauty, ultimate meaning, form for its own sake, self-subsisting, oh no. It’s always got to be either sneered at or attacked as evil. I’ll have my bloody say. What’s the name of the show again?” But she had rung off, silly bitch.

Enderby went snorting back to his poem. The stupid bastards.

Enter Francis Xavier Enderby. On the back cover of my copy of the excellent Vintage Classics edition of ‘The Complete Enderby,’ is a snippet of praise from Gore Vidal, who pronounces the Enderby series to be “even finer comedies than those by Evelyn Waugh.” I cannot really disagree with this, devotee of Messrs Pennyfeather and Boot though I am, but my first point of comparison would not be to anything by Waugh, but rather to the borborygmically-challenged elephantine Catholic Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

The Enderby novels (Inside Mr Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament and Enderby’s Dark Lady) belong to that august class of comedic books which can be called, without hyperbole or cliche, achingly funny. Concerning the declines and falls of a minor poet who writes in his filthy lavatory and lives off a small annuity left him by his detested stepmother (Burgess leaves little speculation room for biographical critics), Enderby appears to us as a kind of innocent shrew of self-supported masculinity, unsociable and fragile as he may be. His livings, though squalid, are secure, and his muse is to be reliably found in the WC whenever he wishes to call upon her. Any aspiring writer or artist will know what a screamingly enviable position this is to be in.

But alas, the forces of polite society, modernity, Ludovico-toting medical-establishment quacks and (shudder) females and marriage all conspire to destroy what precious little Enderby has in life. Like any master of the picaresque, Burgess knew that the plot is wholly superficial; what keeps the humour alive and glowing is the flavour of each situation the protagonist finds themselves in, and how they go about the inevitable extrication into the next one. Enderby’s numerous literary and menial vocations, alternate personalities, disconcerting love interests, expatriate nationalities and endless personal problems are navigated deftly enough by Burgess, though with a little slowing and self-indulgence at various points. 

It feels a little wrong to reserve so little space for the “serious” masterpieces. Like everything Burgess wrote other than A Clockwork Orange, the major novels remain ignored and little-read. Napoleon Symphony is a controversial, rather Freudian portrait of l’Empereur composed along the lines of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which in itself might be the only work of art famous for who it isn’t dedicated to. Earthly Powers deserves its own treatment entirely, but suffice to say it is a heroic send-up of a man Burgess fervently envied for his wealth and literary celebrity – the repressed homosexual author, intelligence agent and fellow Riviera-expatriate W Somerset Maugham. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that the novel’s famous first line (“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”) is such savagely accurate parody because it is so much better than anything “poor old Willie” ever wrote in his life.

There is so much more to Burgess than can be covered in a small essay such as this. He began his career, for example, with the superb Malayan trilogy, concocted when he was a colonial civil servant in the 1950s with a terminal diagnosis (obviously proved to be wrong) and a moody, alcoholic wife to support as best he could. The switch from “John Burgess Wilson” to “Anthony Burgess” was to accommodate the fact that in those days, it simply wasn’t on for respectable government men to write funny novels.  But Burgess knew which career beckoned most.

What I admire most about him was the sheer professionalism he brought to the craft of writing. There is nothing bohemian or “artsy” or, God forbid, “Bloomsbury” about his character or life. This is borne out in his habits – come rain, come shine, come hangover, he would swing his way to the writing room at nine o’clock each morning to set down his 2,000 words. Other writers chided him for this (“written your weekly novel yet, Burgess?”) but this was so obviously spurred by shame and jealously. There really never is any excuse for the loose manner in which so many scribblers comport themselves; writing is not some gentlemanly pastime but a profession, with all the great and grim caveats that label entails. When encouraged by his publishers to try a word processor, Burgess rejected it not for any romantic attachment to typewriters or pen-and-ink, but because the keys could be pressed all to easily – “the slam of key against platen is like the hammer to the anvil, you can hear that work is being done.” Ite, missa est, Mr Burgess.

The Agony of Sin

JON BISHOP is an MFA candidate at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he studies poetry. He lives
in New Hampshire


This deepened dark has set my mind to prayer.

I fill my fallen soul with sins each day

And purge them from myself before I sleep

And ask my God (oh, God!) to fill the air

With not my faults but with His grace and say

How He has seen me pull up from the deep,
Like haggard birds that soar across the sun

To flee the coming cold. They wait for May,

As I await my Lord to save His sheep.

We know He’ll come again when days are done, And all of Hell will
weep.

The long road between London and Rome

Faith of our Fathers

Joseph Pearce, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022, 384pp., pb, £16.36

WILLIAM McIVOR is irreligious, but finds much to admire in an account of English Catholicism

Nobody can accuse Joseph Pearce of lacking ambition. Faith of Our Fathers attempts a history of Catholicism in England, and the cultural and social impact of the Church, from the earliest times to the present day. So immense a subject could fill a score of worthily turgid tomes, but this is a fleet-of-foot single-volume study that dances across almost 2,000 years of English history, giving tantalising glimpses, and a surprising amount of detail, into its subject matter. It will surely inspire readers to investigate further those historical periods, or cultural, social and philosophical areas, they find of most interest.

The author is a practicing Catholic, edits a well-known Catholic literary and cultural magazine, the St Austin Review, has written a number of well-received volumes about Catholic literary figures, and the Ignatius Press is a Catholic publishing house. Readers will not be surprised, therefore, to find that Faith of our Fathers is written from a joyfully enthusiastic Catholic standpoint.  As an equally joyful and enthusiastic atheist, this reviewer is not put off by such a fact – better this than tediously ‘unbiased’, dispassionate, indeed passionless, writing – but readers should be aware this history could have been written from other standpoints.

Faith of our Fathers covers three distinct epochs in England’s religious history: ‘Merrie England’ from the legend of Joseph of Arimathea to the coming of the Tudors – secondly, under Henry the Eighth the horrific persecution of the Catholic faith, that continued for nearly 300 years – and finally, as attitudes changed from the late eighteenth century onwards, the rebirth of the Church alongside a cultural blossoming brought about, at least in part, by a growing number of Catholic literary converts.

The earliest stages of ‘Catholic England’ date from the first century, with the supposed coming of Joseph of Arimathea. As Mr Pearce notes, it can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to distinguish myth from history in these early centuries, before England was indeed England, following the Anglo-Saxon incursions into previously Celtic lands. He argues, however, that what was significant is the fact that the myths were believed  – because the populace wanted to believe them, thus indicating a natural affinity between the mindset of the ‘proto-English’ and early Church teachings. This is, I believe, an important truth.

It is a curious fact that religions often migrate from their original point of origin. Broadly, Christianity shifted from the ‘Holy Lands’ into Europe. Islam moved westwards from the Arabian peninsula to the Arabs lands north of the Sahara, but not significantly into the lands to the south. Buddhism originated in India but made most progress in East and South-East Asia, leaving Hinduism dominant in Siddhartha Gautama’s homeland. Doubtless there are many reasons for these phenomena, but I would suggest that there is one major factor at work. The differing religions have their own distinct characteristics, differing greatly in what they preach and how they preach it. The various peoples on this planet also have greatly differing desires, as regards what they seek in a religion. Like plants which are found growing on the soil that best suits their needs, creeds take root among the peoples that most appreciate them and their values. That the early Church took root so readily in early England tells us much about both the early Church, and the early English.

The first part of Faith of our Fathers is uniformly interesting, but it is when we come to the second part that Pearce’s passion for his subject really shines through. The story of how Henry VIII fell out with the Pope, dissolved the monasteries, declared himself head of the Church in England and commenced the persecution of Catholics is well known, but the author’s passionate abhorrence of these events brings them vividly to life.      

Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries has considerable resonance for today’s world: wise leaders do not lightly get involved in wars, because of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’. Henry did not declare war on another country, but he effectively declared war on the Church and sought to win over nobles by bribing them with stolen Church land and property. The consequence was that said nobles gained greatly in wealth, and hence power, relative to Henry  ̶  surely not what he planned. There is an obvious parallel today: Vladimir Putin’s desire to unite ‘All the Russias’ was not inherently an ignoble idea, but the method chosen, the military invasion of Ukraine, has had the unintended consequence of creating an anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine that will last for decades, if not centuries.

Henry was, in due course, followed by the Catholic Queen Mary, or ‘Bloody Mary’, as Protestant Whig historians dubbed her. Pearce acknowledges that atrocities continued under her reign, this time against Protestants.  However, he points out that all the atrocities the medieval mind was capable of devising – hanging, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, racking, flogging, etc – were enthusiastically carried out by Elizabeth against Catholics, to an extent that made Mary took like a novice in the atrocity stakes. For example, following the Northern Rebellion against her rule, a merciless Elizabeth had some 800 Catholics hung, without trial. This led Pope Leo V to excommunicate Elizabeth from the Catholic Church. It is beyond my comprehension why this should have irked the Protestant Elizabeth, but irked she clearly was: anti-Catholic laws were then enacted which, by the time of Elizabeth’s death had led to the execution of 189 people, including 126 priests, who were found guilty merely of practicing the Catholic faith. At least they had a trial before their execution – so that’s all right then…

The Jesuit Fr. Edmund Campion, martyred in 1581

Other events during Elizabeth’s reign also illustrate the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. As Pearce points out, at the time of the Spanish Armada, Catholics were still, despite all persecution, likely a majority in England. Philip of Spain doubtless thought of his ‘special military operation’ (where have I heard that expression recently?) as liberating that majority from tyranny. Apart from the fact that the Armada was a naval disaster, it also meant that Elizabethan spin-doctors could portray it as a great patriotic triumph: a major foreign power had been prevented from invading England, thanks to gallant Protestant defenders. The further persecution of ‘traitorous’ Catholics could then be justified.

For almost 200 years after Elizabeth’s death, Catholics continued to be persecuted, until by the early eighteenth century there were no monasteries, convents, public places of worship, and fewer than 100,000 adherents, where once there had been millions. It makes for grim reading: one is left with the unpleasant feeling that the message – obviously unintended – of this section of Faith of our Fathers may be that brutal persecution simply works.

As said before, this reviewer is not a religiously minded person. Nonetheless it was with some relief that I came to the third section of Faith – detailing the ending of Catholic persecution, starting with the first Catholic Relief Act in 1778, which led eventually to the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act.

The nineteenth century saw a growing realisation of the bias of ‘Protestant history’. Pearce gives an interesting example: the fifteen-year-old Jane Austen who, “wrote her own ‘History of England’ which lampooned and satirized the anti-Catholic stance of conventional history books.”  As Pearce puts it, “In supporting Mary Stuart against the anti-Catholic Tudors the young Miss Austen was countering the pride and prejudice of her times and was exhibiting the sense and sensibility that would make her one of the finest and most perceptive novelists of the following century.”

The author argues that, as the nineteenth century advanced the Church started to experience ‘a second spring’, both culturally and theologically. He gives two exemplars: Augustus Pugin who designed the Houses of Parliament in a neo-Gothic style, and John Henry Newman, a major Anglican theologian and lodestar of the Tractarian Movement, whose conversion to Rome in 1845 caused shockwaves to run through the established church.

It is when we come to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we find Pearce on his ‘home ground’ as it were. (And I am not referring to his beloved Stamford Bridge!) Pearce’s first major work was Literary Converts, his account of a number of prominent authors, whose conversion to Catholicism greatly enhanced the standing of the Church in the literary world.  To what extent their conversion enhanced these authors’ contribution to English literature depends on their readers’ sensibilities; readers of this review can form their own conclusions.  However, their conversions undoubtedly greatly enhanced the standing of the Church in the literary world. Pearce is now well-known for his later biographies of numerous Christian literary figures, including Tolkien, Chesterton, Belloc and Solzhenitsyn.

The prominence of literary Catholics was one of the factors behind the growth of the Church, to the extent that Pearce can now confidently assert that the Catholic Church attracts more regular adherents than the moribund Anglican Church. A major reason for this, he argues, is that the Catholic Church has largely stayed true to its own eternal values, whilst Anglicanism has sought to find favour with ‘modernists’ by fawning on every passing fad, both religious and secular. It is here that I might venture a small criticism: ask a thousand people what they understand by the term ‘modernism’ and I suspect you will get a thousand different answers. We can make a reasonable guess what it means to Joseph Pearce, but for the avoidance of doubt it would have been helpful if he could have defined exactly what he means by the term.

One of the haunting memories left after reading Faith of our Fathers is the extent to which some people in medieval times – laity as well as clergy – faced the most agonising and degrading deaths, which they could have avoided by renouncing and denouncing their beliefs. Instead, they preferred to suffer the torments of the rack or stake. One is left to wonder what our present-day leaders – religious or secular – would do if faced with such deaths. Would they hold true to their beliefs?

This inevitably leads to another sobering thought: what would I, what would you do in their place? It has been this reviewer’s pleasure to have known Joseph Pearce for over 40 years. In that time, I have seen him stand up to threats, including that of imprisonment, that would have broken many others. He is of course human, so I do not know for certain how he would react if he ever felt his joints dislocating and his tendons snapping on the rack, as was the Elizabethan practice. But this I can say with certainty: of all the people I have ever met he is the person most likely to hold fast to his faith, regardless of the cost. His very personal journey equips him admirably to understand the doubts, fears and sufferings of all those over the centuries who sought to stay true to the faith of their fathers.