Poems by Robert Hugh Benson



Last Days

CANON SHARROCK, of Salford Cathedral supplies the following account of Mgr. Benson's last days and death:

MONSIGNOR BENSON wrote on September 22 (1914) that he was unwell and, in view of the fact that he had promised to preach a course of sermons in Salford Cathedral during the month of October, bade me to be prepared for a telegram in case his medical adviser declared his condition serious. "I write this," he said, "in case you receive a sudden telegram, and I trust you will not imagine me either dilatory or perverse." He wrote a second letter, saying he had seen his doctor, who declared that the pains were symptoms of "false angina," and, whilst painful, were not of a serious character. He was permitted to continue his work.

I did not see him on October 4, the first Sunday of October, when he preached, as I was away from home; but I was informed that he appeared somewhat unwell. He proceeded on Monday, October 5, to Ulverston, and gave a week's mission there. On the Saturday evening of October 10 I met him at Victoria Station, Manchester, and was struck at once by his changed condition. He appeared incapable of moving with his usual briskness, and stopped every few steps to inhale deep breaths to alleviate the sudden pain. He was quite confident that the distress was only of a temporary character, as his heart had been pronounced quite sound. He found the ascent of stairs very trying, and mounted with great slowness. Every expression of anxiety on my part was met with great confidence that the pain, though severe, was of no consequence. In spite of all remonstrances and entreaties, he resolutely declined my request that he should rest and give up his work at the Cathedral and elsewhere for the month of October. With that politeness ever his wont he thrust my objections aside. He preached on the Sunday evening of October 11. His sermon was a little longer than usual, though I observed the absence, of his usual animation. On his return to the sacristy, he was obliged to rest for a considerable time in a chair. He soon recovered, however, and retired to rest somewhat earlier than usual, wishful to make up for the great loss of sleep he had experienced during the week owing to the pain.

After an awful night of pain and great restlessness, he decided to leave for London on Monday, October 12, by the early morning train. We had not gone many yards towards the station when he bade me stop the taxi, and drive to the nearest doctor, as he could bear the pain no longer. With great difficulty I got him back to the house, and sent for the nearest doctor, who came immediately. Examination resulted in the previous verdict being endorsed, and remedies were presented. It was deemed advisable to cancel all engagements for the present, though the Monsignor suspended his judgement in the matter. The pain yielded to treatment and a quiet day was passed. After two hours' sleep that night, the excruciating pain returned with greater violence and continued all Tuesday without cessation. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning saw no relief, and a specialist was invited to share the responsibility of the medical attendant. A long examination resulted in the endorsement of the previous decision, but the pain still continued for some time, and yielded to treatment about Wednesday noon. He then took to bed, and presumably was on his way to the recovery of sleep. He obtained broken sleep through Wednesday night. Congestion of the right lung began to show itself on Thursday, and in spite of the continued attendance of the specialist and doctor, by Thursday night was highly developed. Still no danger was anticipated, and his splendid vitality was deemed sufficient to throw off the indisposition.

Real danger became manifest on Friday, and Saturday saw little change. It was deemed advisable to prepare him for the worst eventuality, but he himself had full confidence in his strength of recuperation. He received the Last Rites with great devotion and all unbidden made his Profession of Faith with marked strength and vivacity. Sunday morning saw a change after a restless night which had tried the endurance of both doctor and nurse. He was never delirious, but his restlessness was acute. On Sunday morning I gave him Holy Viaticum. His piety and devotion were most touching. He made all the responses, even correcting me when my emotion caused me to stumble at the "Misereatur."

On Sunday morning he received a visit from his brother (Mr. Arthur C. Benson), which gave him great pleasure. He even then informed me that he would be quite well by Tuesday, "though," he added, "this hard breathing is a terrible bore." His mental faculties were as keenly active, as ever, and no tendency to mental exhaustion was observable. His strength appeared good, but it was only too evident that the terrible strain on the heart from the pneumonia was beginning to tell. Later on, in the evening, for the first time, I abandoned hope. He spoke continually to me of his friends, and gave me his many messages.

At one o'clock on Monday morning, having left him for a short time, I was hastily summoned by the nurse, at his request. Entering the sick room, I saw that the last call had come. He told me so himself, with the words, "God's will be done." He bade me summon his brother, who was in the adjoining apartment. The prayers for the dying were recited, and again he joined in the responses, clearly and distinctly. Once when I paused he bade me in God's name to go on. He stopped the prayers twice or thrice to give some instructions to his brother. He asked once for guidance as to the right attitude towards death. Once, as I paused, he uttered the prayer, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul," and joined with us in its completion. Conscious almost to the last moment, seemingly without pain, he breathed forth his soul without struggle at 1.30 A.M. on Monday morning. With his eyes fixed on the priest he died; it was just as if he had gone to sleep.

The Publishers are indebted to the Editor of The Tablet for leave to reproduce this communication and portions of the Prefatory Note from his columns.

Facsimile of Robert Hugh Benson's Writing
A letter written a few days before his death to
Mr. Norman Potter

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