Letter to a Friend: Coleridge Through Newman to Tolkien?

A letter I sent to a friend last year on the possible connection of Coleridge and J. R. R. Tolkien through Cardinal Newman:

Your prayers.

The Christianity Today article I forwarded last week on John Cardinal Newman’s literary imagination (‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave: A Biography that Stresses Newman’s Literary Imagination’) disappointed me in that the article didn’t mention Coleridge. It seemed to touch a nerve with you by asserting that “because of Newman’s particular blend of the literary and the theological, he may also be England’s greatest unread prose writer.” You wrote:

Confession time: I’ve never read any Newman. Not a line. I’m aware of him, naturally, but never read him. Really, he’s more a study for antiquarians of early Victorian Theology (I have a friend here in Divinity who’s looking at Newman, among others). I note, rather wryly, that the praise “master of sarcasm” predates–ah, Wilde, Bierce, Wodehouse, Shaw, Chesterton, Beckett, and so on. And seems to overlook Swift and Mencken. Among others. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all surprised that students in a Swedish MA programme have never heard of Newman.

Again (I’m on deadline, so I’m thinking about this a lot), I fail to see any ‘smoking gun’ in the article that convinces me Newman is of anything more than marginal importance in literature. I’m reminded of the illustrious example of Robert Southey, hailed in his day as the greatest poet of the 19th century.  And now nobody reads him, and nobody cares. Newman, recently canonized I think, will probably fare better. But I’m not about to herald him as the second coming of Walter Scott.

(No idea what that last sentence means, to be honest, but it was a lot of fun to write.)

I would be interested in seeing more of the Newman/Coleridge connection though, as it’s possible they actually knew each other.

Given the hosannas to Newman from James Joyce, Auden, and George Eliot, I was led to disregard your dismissal of Newman as a brief fit of chronological snobbery and to follow up on our shared interest in the curious Coleridge connection possibilities. I read the Wikipedia articles on Newman, about whom I knew nothing (and, perhaps, post Wiki, I know less than nothing with any surety?), and found these hints of the Bard of Ottery St. Mary on the Cardinal’s literary imagination.

(1) Newman’s coat of arms as a Cardinal featured the Coleridgean motto ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’ and (2) he wrote a novel, Loss and Gain, as a vehicle for his philosophical and theological views as they evolved, something of a fictional Apologia. The best part of the Wiki explanation of this work’s merits was the concluding word:

Mrs. Humphrey Ward referred to Loss and Gain, along with Sartor Resartus, The Nemesis of Faith, Alton Locke, and Marius the Epicurean, as one of the works “to which the future student of the nineteenth century will have to look for what is deepest, most intimate, and most real in its personal experience.”[15]

Read any of those?

Note that Newman used his motto as epitaph with one other epigraph:

The pall over the coffin bore the motto that Newman adopted for use as a cardinal, Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”),[45] which William Barry, writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), traces to Francis de Sales[3] and sees as revealing the secret of Newman’s “eloquence, unaffected, graceful, tender, and penetrating”. In accordance with his express wishes, Newman was buried in the grave of his lifelong friend, Ambrose St. John.[3] Ambrose St. John had become a Roman Catholic at around the same time as Newman, and the two men have a joint memorial stone inscribed with the motto Newman had chosen, Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth”),[46] which Barry traces to Plato’s allegory of the cave.[3]

I think Coleridge a more likely source than de Sales and “phantasms” a probable mistranslation of “imaginibus” Ah, Wiki!

The answer, I think, for you the confessed Tolkien-admirer more than me, stranger to his shrine, is in Newman’s near direct influence on the formation of Tolkien’s imagination and understanding of same.

I was in a Barnes and Noble Sunday afternoon while my wife did her weekly grocery shopping at the Rochester Wegmans-opolis and, as is my wont, was shopping the discount bins. I found a copy of Frances Yates’ Theatre of the World for $1, Woodham’s White Magic and English Renaissance Drama for $.50, The Oxford Companion to English Literature for $3, and, next to it, Humphey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, also $3. I confess of the three finds I was probably least delighted by the last but I was happy to include it in my take. I started reading it on the long drive home from Rochester to Constantia and was startled to learn what I’m guessing is old news to true Tolkienites — he grew up, for the most part, under the care of Fr. Francis Morgan at the Birmingham Oratory, the community founded by Newman in 1848 and his home until his death in 1890.

If you are not familiar with this, as I was not, you can read about the influence of his Oratory experiences here and here and here, and, I assume, in books like Chestertonian Stratford Caldecott’s The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien, an exploration of the implicit Catholicism of LOTR. Incredibly, Hilaire Belloc was also a veteran of the Birmingham Oratory.

I’m sure this influence can be over-stated and probably has been by those with a devotional regard for JRRT (his education, I’m obliged to note, was much more King Edward’s School than the Oratory). What interests me in it is that the Coleridge-Newman regard for conscience and imagination seems, if not explanation for Tolkien’s remarkable affinity for myth and languages in his youth, then what made his enthusiastic exploration of same not only possible but something that would have been encouraged and thought admirable rather than dangerously eccentric.

And, as you know, this interests me less as a Tolkien matter, about whom I maintain my studied indifference (lacking as I do the decades to catch up to speed with Tolkien literature), than with the Inklings and Tolkien’s relationship with Lewis, Barfield, and Williams, an Ulster Anglican, an Anthroposophist, and recovering occultist (?) respectively. Prof Wood notes:

Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla assured me, when I visited in her Oxford home during June of 1988, that this rigorously religious upbringing turned her father into a very spiky sort of Catholic, one who would not have thought very highly of a Baptist like me! He was a pre-Vatican II believer who scorned the vernacular liturgy (longing still for the Latin mass) and who had no desire for ecumenical unity. Like Chesterton, Tolkien regarded the Protestant Reformation as a terrible mistake, and he looked upon the great Anglican cathedrals as stolen Catholic property! In uncharacteristically harsh language, he called Anglicanism “a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.” Tolkien would thus deride his friend C. S. Lewis for being an unrepentant Ulster Protestant! (Yet Ms. Tolkien also said that, whenever her father explored his imaginative world, this short-fused defensiveness about his faith fell away, as he was free to plumb the inexhaustible depths of what Lewis called “mere” Christianity.)

The last point I suspect is critical to Tolkien’s affinity with the men his “spiky” Vatican 1 beliefs would otherwise have brought him to despise. The Coleridge-Newman connection and specifically the Coleridgean ideas of imagination are common and important to Barfield, Lewis, and Williams as well.

Despise Newman if you must as antiquarian reading, a judgment I think that is near consensus among academics and serious readers alike who are not Catholic, but as a Tolkienite and like me, someone curious about what makes the fiction of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien so powerful, I think Newman’s Loss and Gain may deserve a visit (free online). Certainly Tolkien must have read it and, I suspect, with the atmosphere and priorities of the Neri-esque but Newman shaped Oratory, may have been the means of transmitting the Coleridgean ideas of imagination, conscience, and the power of story that shaped the young Tolkien’s ideas of same and made him a fellow in an otherwise uncongenial group. Perhaps, too, as a vehicle for philosophical and theological reflections it planted the seed of what became the signature fruit of Inkling literary trees.

Your comments and corrections, please! And I ask your forgiveness in advance if this is a very tired subject familiar to all Tolkien devotees. I worry that I am treading very near to the Personal Heresy here, especially when writing about an author that (a) I know little about and (b) who once said, “One of my strongest opinions is that investigation of an author’s biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works.” My hope is that in revealing/exploring the Coleridge vein in the Inklings, to include Tolkien, we arrive at a much clearer understanding of the imaginative rather than devotional Gospel/theology they were smuggling contra the empiricists.

Which seems, a la Eliade’s thesis, the reason their books have the power they do and the Ancient Mariner effect on the human heart. I look forward to reading what you think.




  1. Steve Morrison says

    Evidently, Tolkien was an honorary vice-president of the Newman Association (which I hadn’t known until I did a bit of googling just now). I haven’t seen very much in print about the connection between Tolkien and Newman, though a quick check of my library shows some mention of Newman in an essay by Joseph Pearce called “Tolkien and the Catholic Literary Revival”. I don’t have too clear a memory of reading the essay, though I must have, but it seems to be an attempt to place Tolkien in the tradition of Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh and Greene.

  2. There is an article in Tolkien Studies 8 from 2011 about the influence of the Birmingham Oratory on Tolkien: ‘“Wingless fluttering”: Some Personal Connections in Tolkien’s Formative Years’ by José Manuel Ferrández Bru.

    The focus is, naturally, mainly on the people who lived in the Oratory at the same time as the Tolkien boys, but Cardinal Newman is mentioned, along with the information that Tolkien’s guardian, Fr. Francis Morgan, ‘since his return to he Oratory [after finishing his education at the University of Louvain in Belgium] as a novice he served as personal secretary to Cardinal Newman’

    In The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia Bradley Birzer writes in the entry for ‘Catholicism, Roman’

    At the Oratory, importantly, Tolkien absorbed Newman’s profound presence and shaping of the institution. Newman had been the most famous Catholic of the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century, with his Apologia and his Idea of the University serving as core texts in the Catholic world. Additionally, Newman was a devout follower of St. Augustine, who served as a significant influence on Tolkien as well. Tolkien was also intimately famil­iar with the teachings of Saints John and Thomas Aquinas.

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