JOHN HENRY NEWMAN—And His Contribution to World Literature
By Rosario Athié and Dixie Santana
John Henry Newman is recognized as one of the most important religious figures of 19th Century England. He is also well-known as an important literary figure. He is one of the classic writers in the English language, and his works are both original and elegant. Fedor Dostoyevski, in his novel The Idiot proclaims: “Beauty will save the world.” Newman contributed to the world of literary beauty with novels, hymns, and poems. One of the most important of these was The Dream of Gerontius which can be read here: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html
The poem is over one thousand verses long, and was written in 1865. Newman was 64 years old at the time and, beginning to feel a growing weakness in his limbs; thoughts of his own mortality were continuously in his mind.
The Dream of Gerontius is precisely that, a dream. Its title refers to advancing age and impending death. It is a text of great poetic value, but it also offers the sincere and poignant testimony of a man who begins to glimpse his soul’s final destiny. This is described through a profound observation into the deaths of family and friends, filtered through the lens of Newman’s considerable intelligence.
We are all mortal, but Gerontius represents Newman himself. The topic of death is seen from a religious perspective. It is not annihilation, but rather a passage to another state. Gerontius, the protagonist, once he has undergone death, is replaced by his soul, who converses with his Angel and debates against temptation.
The Dream of Gerontius is a timeless masterpiece of English literature and a literary monument to hope. There is a bilingual English-Spanish version published by Ediciones Encuentro in 2003.
In 1900, famed composer Edward Elgar set music to Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. A performance of the work can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Bg52cVVmTc, with tenor Wesley Rogers in the roles of Gerontius and the Soul of Gerontious, mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladenas the Angel and bass Kevin Deasin the dual roles of the “Priest” and the “Angel of Agony.”
(Ed. Note: Rosario Athié and Dixie Santana are university professors and translators of Ian Ker’s biography of John Henry Newman (Editorial Palabra, Madrid 2010)