Poems by Robert Hugh Benson


A Note of Introduction
by Wilfrid Meynell

Robert Hugh Benson

THE death of Robert Hugh Benson in the October of 1914 came as a grief and a loss which even war-time and the long roll of heroic dead could not diminish or obscure. Yet those who were bound to him by ties of spiritual as well as personal affection had at least this consolation, that such ties are of all the most enduring; and that he who had brought them on earth very near to Heaven would in Heaven be very near to them on earth. And to that intimate company were joined a multitude who knew him only by what he had publicly done and written and spoken, and whose feeling was fitly represented by a girl who, hearing he had gone, was silent and then said, "One feels as if one had lost a near relation" -- something closer than a friend. Even so there was this reprieve -- he was a relative who had left to all of us a legacy, an example for an inheritance.

For, if it seems that the loss of the active man of fine talents is the irreparable one, let this at least be our comfort that his activities go on to a continual harvesting. Robert Hugh Benson, dying at the age of forty-three, achieved more in that short span than it is commonly given to the longest career to put to its account. The eleven years of his Catholic life, judged by its labours, might be called, in the poet's phrase, eleven years of years. A complete subjugation of the will was his note; and one of its evidences was the unflagging labour of his pen, which he was therefore able to pledge to half-incredulous publishers in advance, with a certainty of performance. What that exacted drudgery cost a man whose business was in some sort his sensitiveness of apprehension, and who had, as it were, to yield to his moods in order to make his "copy," perhaps only writers of his own standing can appreciate. Certain it is that no such strain can be made without imminent danger of a snapping. A kite may flap idly in the air with a long bedraggled life that achieves nothing. But an air-machine, such as those with which the author of the "Lord of the World" filled our atmosphere, has, with a higher and purposeful flight, a more disastrous downfall. The small hitch deals out death and destruction. Mgr. Benson knew that the high flight meant the annihilating fall, and, looking into "the bright face of danger," he did not shrink from the track his sense of duty and service marked out for him. Why should he have shrunk, believing what he believed, and being, besides, logical? It was characteristic of him, as a man who was at once all things to all men, and nothing to any man, that, only a few months before the end, when a lady asked to read his hand, he gave it to her; and, on being told that he would die before he was fifty, exclaimed, "What good news!"

When Robert Hugh Benson, after days at Eton and Cambridge, after ordination, parish experience and an attempt at Community life as an Anglican, entered the Catholic Church, he was only thirty-two, and had given little or no public sign of the mental and spiritual development possible to him. It might have been not unreasonably supposed that he would depend for his importance on the paradox of his position -- that of the first son of an English Primate, barring only Toby Matthew, to become a Catholic. He might count upon a success of curiosity; his lot that of a handy substitute to open a bazaar the day her ladyship was so provokingly lacking. The boyish manner of the young blue-eyed, blond-haired neophyte perhaps favoured the notion of his abandonment to such a fate. And it is the test and triumph of Mgr. Benson's achievements that his origin was swiftly forgotten in his own originality, and that he became far too eminent in himself to be thought or spoken of any more as his eminent father's son.

These activities, that did not rely an mere impulse, and that, therefore, cost him dearly, were all-embracing, public and private, undertaken always with one purpose -- helpfulness to others. To this end, difficulties existed only to be overcome. One of his brothers tells of Robert Hugh that, in childhood, he was afraid to enter a dark room, and, on being asked why, said, " I see bÄbÄblood." That shrinking from the unknown, translated in after-life into a thousand and one reluctances to confront strange things, strange places, strange faces, he utterly extinguished in himself just as he fought down hesitations of manner, and never allowed defects of delivery to lessen by one his appearances in the pulpit or on the platform. Conferences could never be dead things when he was there to give them life -- to give them literally, as we now reckon, his own life. The absence in him of all desire to shine, of all the vanity which severe moralists like Manning sensitively suspect in the popular preacher, allowed him, nevertheless, on any serviceable private occasion, to talk about the last thing he wanted to think about, himself. The multitude of people he instructed into the Church -- men of the world, noble-hearted women not a few, undergraduates whom they called "Bensonians" at Cambridge -- heard from him about his own ways and byways into the Heavenly Jerusalem. They knew that as an Anglican clergyman he had heard confessions constantly, and had regarded the confessional then with exactly the same reverence and sanctity that a Catholic brought to it; and that he had told his rosary like any nun. They knew that he had already turned aside from the Higher Critics to the man in the street, for whom "The Religion of the Plain Man" was afterwards indited; and, in this relation, it is worth noting that he just lived long enough to see Professor von Harnack, confident interpreter of ancient documents, giving a grotesque travesty of current ones which the said Plain Man who runs may read. Nor did Mgr. Benson refrain from acknowledging, even to those who classed it with Wardour Street literature, that "John Inglesant" obtained a powerful hold on his young imagination, and ranked among the commanding influences that brought him into the Church. His matured taste turned otherwhere perhaps; for he came to the opinion that Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven" was the most valuable auxiliary of the missionary priest in his work for the conversion of England.

And always at the end of all recountings came the profession: -- "Every single day of my life I thank God more and more that I am a Catholic." Every single day, too, that thankfulness was made manifest in more than speech. His labours, easily within the recollection of all who read, need here no enumeration, if he was not composing a novel with a purpose, he was compiling a prayer-book or writing a mystery-play, or a comedy for the professional stage, which ecclesiastic rule would not permit him to see performed; or he was talking at street corners -- the vanguard indeed; or he was preaching a course of sermons in Rome or London, or, as at the last hour, in Salford; or he was instructing and receiving converts, or going far afield to baptize somebody's baby to please a young mother, or conferring with an aged invalid to please a daughter; or lecturing, or writing verses, which are in themselves a revelation of his character, a revelation which in this volume is now publicly made; or he was eagerly investigating psychic phenomena; or, in what to him were hours of idleness, devising a scheme for a Catholic colony, or carving, or decorating with his own hand his interesting Hare Street House at Buntingford. There he learned tapestry weaving; and to complete the panels that record The Dance of Death, he designed yet one more in which Death meets Robert Hugh Benson.

Of his services to charitable institutions we need make no record except this -- that he had an impersonal partiality for -- all of them. Yet one may be named apart, the Homes of Mr. Norman Potter, since it was for their benefit that he put into the market the autobiographical and heart-searching poems here printed. They are very intimate; and as such are proper to poetry even in the case of a writer who had not specially studied the mechanism of poetry as his medium. Under cover of poetical convention, he is able to bare himself, equally in the lines written before he became a Catholic in 1903, and in "The Priest's Lament" of a later date. In "Christian Evidences" he gets back to his intuitions; to that which made him, ardent investigator though he was, ever in closer touch with the simple than with the scientific -- back to that witness within himself which Christ promises and gives to all His own; while in "Visions of the Night" we are at close quarters with that apprehensiveness which, while it imposed suffering, also conferred insight -- the insight by which others learned to see. One passage in "Savonarola Moriturus" is especially self-revealing, and that for a reason it is now no breach of decorum to set forth. A year or two before his death he talked with a neophyte on the sacrifices one might have to make for the Faith. "And are you sure you would make them all?" he was asked. His reply was that he would like to say "Yes," but that he dare not answer for what he might be made to yield under bodily torture. The first four lines of the second stanza of the Savonarola poem are the more poignant for this modesty of the author's own estimate of his powers of endurance, powers which he thenceforth put to sharp apprenticeship and test, passing out, not vanquished, but victor.

Of his novels I do not here attempt an appreciation. As a ruthless writer, where ruthlessness comes into the scheme of a man's salvation, as it had been in that of his own, let him be ranked. In the spiritual warfare he gave no quarter. Whether he was cruel, besides, in the burning of The Coward, who makes indeed cowards of us all; whether he views woman as no more than an adjunct of man, an accident for the hindering or the helping of his salvation; whether Dorothy is properly killed so that Roger Mallock may prove his vocation; these, and many more, are the problems that palpitate in his pages, and that men and women, according to their varied experiences, will variously adjudge. Of his historical novels in general he was inclined to say very much what he said of "Come Rack, Come Rope": "I fear it is the kind of book which anyone acquainted with the history, manners, and customs of the Elizabethan age should find no difficulty in writing." If in this class, the author proved conspicuously his industry and his facility -- uncommon but not rare faculties -- then in "Initiation" and other studies of current life he was nothing if not individual. In these he was of his age and no other; he was himself and no other. Nor were the sensitivenesses of these books without their effect on the whole of his productions. When in historical romance he described a martyrdom, we have also his own comment on it: "It seems to me, who have never been on the rack, that I have succeeded pretty well in writing down what the rack must have felt like, and the mental states it must have induced. When I had finished writing that scene, I was conscious or very distinct, even slightly painful, sensations in my own wrists and ankles." Obviously there was an apprehension, necessary for one class of book, which greatly benefited the other; and the experience of the hero in "Initiation" could not have been conveyed, had not the author himself gone under an anaesthetic in a nursing home; and again endured another ordeal without an opiate, "to learn what pain really was" -- a sharp lesson of sixty hours. Similarly the description of the headaches of the hero (how real a hero!) in "Initiation," the most vivid description of its class in all English literature, could only have been written by one who had himself suffered them, and suffered them with a sensibility that is fortunately the iron crown conferred upon only the very elect.

To be so capable of suffering and yet to face it, and, as we might say in the instance just given, to waylay it and embrace it -- that is one of the many marvels of Mgr. Benson's quickly-ended -- or never to be ended -- career. Fit with his perpetual sense of detachment was his death far from his home. Failure of the heart was the final paradox in the history of a man whose heart had never failed him before, were a hurt soul to be healed, or an uncovenanted kindness to be done.

"He maketh His ministers a flame of fire." Knowing the minister, we infer the flame. But with many -- and notably with Robert Hugh Benson -- there is the double and responsive signal -- the flame proclaims the minister. And because he sought every breeze that fanned that fire, and because he made haste to diffuse the light and the warmth till he burnt himself out, his very ashes shall be held as a sacred trust.

W. M.

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