John Henry Newman’s longest poem, The Dream of Gerontius, is a spiritual work rich in theology. Composed at the time in which he had the presentiment of an impending death, the reality of Last Things was very present to the author.
The poem, written in 1865 when Newman had been a Roman Catholic for twenty years, conveys the religious truths he had come to fully embrace. However, for Anglicans these truths, such as prayers for the dead and the belief in purgatory, presented a difficulty.
Newman composed many short poems, especially in his youth and his travels through the Mediterranean. These poems were the vehicle for him to express deeply held religious beliefs and sentiments. For his composition of these verses and The Dream of Gerontius, he may rightly be considered a minor religious poet.
The Dream of Gerontius was written in iambic pentameter, the meter frequently used in English poetry consisting of alternating units of unstressed and stressed syllables. The work became widely known from the oratorio composed by Sir Edward Elgar in 1900 employing Newman’s text.1 One of the choruses in the poem also became well-known in hymnals as Praise to the Holiest.2
The poem begins with the death of Gerontius. A priest goes to the bed of the dying Gerontius, along with fellow Christians, to pray for their brother. From the very beginning, Newman will depict the important Catholic belief of the Communion of the Saints, which includes the Christians on earth, the angels and saints in heaven, and the souls in Purgatory. The Virgin Mary is invoked a few times, and Newman’s devotion to the guardian angels is also clearly displayed.3
Gerontius’ guardian angel is a protagonist accompanying Gerontius throughout his journey to the Day of Judgement. The angel calls Gerontius “his charge,” and at his death exclaims: “my work is done/ my task is o’er” because the crown is won. He leads Gerontius’ soul to Christ’s throne for judgment.
Newman’s description of Judgment is perhaps the most novel part of the poem. A central part deals with the anticipation of a soul’s personal judgment and, later, that soul’s very judgment by its creator. Newman probably drew these convictions from his reading of a book by St. Catherine of Genoa on the nature of Purgatory. However, the poem deals more with Judgment than with Purgatory. Catholics believe that Judgment of a keen awareness before our Savior of the many offenses we have committed against him, who was so brutally treated and who died for our sins.
1The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Andrew Davis performed Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1997. Here is a recording of the concert https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj3n9QGii2k
2One version can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snf1FiBSLvY
3At www.cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com there is a reading of most of the poem in nine segments with brief commentaries, and a concluding essay from which this is an adaptation.
“There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinn’d,
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight:
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.”
Thus, for Newman, purification begins with judgment and it continues with Purgatory. The soul is hailed: “Oh happy suffering soul! For it is safe.” The soul, embracing its deserved punishment, pleads with its angel: “Take me away;” it wishes to be purified in Purgatory. The poem ends with the soul entering Purgatory sustained by the prayers of the blessed souls in Purgatory.
Throughout the verses there is no inkling of any doubt or uneasiness about the religious truths on the part of the author. His beliefs are expressed with great simplicity and confidence. The verses do not elicit sadness. Rather, they manifest the greatness and justice of God, and the immense and merciful love of Jesus Christ who died for men’s sins. In various stanzas, choirs of angels extol God’s love, and his saving work: “Praise to the Holiest in the height,/And in the depth be praise: In all His words most wonderful; Most sure in all His ways!”
Pope Benedict writes about judgment in the encyclical Spe Salve:
“Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.”
In these beautiful verses, Judgment and Purgatory are thus revealed in their true light as a merciful design of a God who purifies the soul for its final union with him. They are a meditation that invites the reader to praise God and prepare for his own judgment with firm hope in God’s mercy.
In 2010, Cardinal Newman was proclaimed Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. The life and writings of this talented writer and holy priest continue to teach and inspire men and women today. The Dream of Gerontius is a good introduction to Newman’s writings. It incorporates his deeper understanding of Last Things as a Roman Catholic, while building on his life-long teaching of God’s holiness and man’s call to communion with God.