When John Henry Newman died in 1890, English papers around the world singled out different aspects of his life and work for praise or censure, but on one point they were unanimous. As the obituarist of the Colonies and India put it, “We question whether there is a living writer who had a command of the English tongue at once so eloquent and incisive, though often ironical.” The force of Newman’s style may have been universally acknowledged, but the content of the writing was rarely paid the attention it deserves. Then, as now, Newman had many admirers and many detractors, but few true critics. Indeed, for many, insisting on the beauty of Newman’s style was a convenient way of ignoring the style’s content altogether.
There is a parallel of this in the way that Newman’s contemporaries tended to take up religion. In one of his greatest sermons, “Unreal Words” (1839), Newman observed how profession could become an evasion not only of the practice but even the apprehension of religion. “Let us never lose sight of two truths,” he exhorted his readers, “that we ought to have our hearts penetrated with the love of Christ and full of self-renunciation; but that if they be not, professing that they are does not make them so.” Similarly, effusing about the beauty of Newman’s prose style can never be a substitute for grasping the matter that the style presents.
If there is a tendency on the part of some to separate style from content in Newman’s work—instead of seeing them, as they need to be seen, as indivisible—it might stem from the example of two other prose stylists of the 19th century, John Ruskin and James Anthony Froude, whose styles often have a life of their own, quite independent from their content. Certainly, one does not have to enter into Ruskin’s attack on Renaissance Venice to enjoy the majestic music of The Stones of Venice or Froude’s defense of Henry VIII to find the prose of his Tudor histories spellbinding. But one cannot arrive at a just estimate of Newman’s prose without entering into the truths that the prose was written to impart. Newman was a great stylist because he had great things to say.
Newman is amusing on this subject in his The Idea of a University (1873), where he writes of how
we read in Persian travels of the way in which young gentlemen go to work in the East, when they would engage in correspondence with those who inspire them with hope or fear. . . . They cannot write one sentence themselves; so they betake themselves to the professional letter--writer. . . . They have a point to gain from a superior, a favour to ask, an evil to deprecate; they have to approach a man in power, or to make court to some beautiful lady. The professional man manufactures words for them, as they are wanted, as a stationer sells them paper, or a schoolmaster might cut their pens. Thought and word are, in their conception, two things, and thus there is a division of labour. The man of thought comes to the man of words; and the man of words, duly instructed in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the page of desolation. Then the nightingale of affection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow of expectation.
In contrast to this “division of labor,” Newman was adamant that “thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one: style is a thinking out into language.”
One can open this superb anthology on nearly any page and find examples of how the brilliance of Newman’s style issues directly from the brilliance of what he has to say. On the worldly pseudo-Christianity that is as much a part of our society as it was of his, he speaks of “an existing teaching . . . built upon worldly principle, yet pretending to be the Gospel, dropping one whole side of the Gospel, its austere character, and considering it enough to be benevolent, courteous, candid, correct in conduct, delicate,—though it includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honor, no deep hatred of sin.”
Such a mundane religion puts Newman in mind of the far more unworldly Middle Ages, which his Protestant contemporaries were disposed to regard as lost in Roman error and corruption. For Newman,