I see it more clearly on the second read: the recurring instructional themes Lewis explores in this novel for his readers are the fear of death, arrog...moreI see it more clearly on the second read: the recurring instructional themes Lewis explores in this novel for his readers are the fear of death, arrogance, and an optimistic (rather, hopeful) cosmological "worldview".
On the former theme, readers of Richard Beck, Kierkegaard, Stringfellow, Arthur McGill, or Ernest Becker will find familiar ground happily recursed in excellent fiction.
On the later theme, those familiar with George MacDonald and Novalis' "Hymns to the Night" will find a gladsome companion here.
One also gets (especially near the end) a variety of warnings against arrogance -- a theme eagerly taken up again in "Perelandra".
Other major themes appear, as well, of course, but the most obvious of these are the more academic or sociological critiques of imperialism (of many kinds) and humanistic utilitarianism.(less)
I found a copy while wandering through a second-hand bookshop. I had never read Newman, but I recognized the name because he is the brother of Francis...moreI found a copy while wandering through a second-hand bookshop. I had never read Newman, but I recognized the name because he is the brother of Francis William Newman, who was a fellow student of MacDonald's mentor A.J. Scott. I knew already that both Newman brothers were remarkable, but very different from one another.
Francis was a Godward-hearted iconoclast -- a believer by temperament but a skeptic by disposition -- who, despite his willingness to vocalize doubts and dissenting theology, would faithfully slip into the back row at Scott's sermons, behind Maurice, Erskine, Carlyle, Thackeray, Ruskin, and MacDonald (who apparently always took the front row). By the time of his death, many thought Francis long an atheist. But at the end, in answering the presumption, he spoke clearly that his hope was in Christ -- a point helpful to remember in reading him, just as it is in reading the Psalms.
His older brother John, on the other hand, was drawn to order and orthodoxy -- and likewise defected from the Anglicanism of their youth, but in the opposite direction: to the Roman Catholic Church. His sincerity and devotion made him an attractive Christian figure both before and after that conversion, and we see an excellent glimpse of his depth in "The Dream of Gerontius". Of the sermons, too, I've read, he sounds quite a lot like MacDonald and Scott, with his direct manner of speech and emphasis on the sweetness of simple obedience to Christ, and against superficiality, vanity, and dishonesty.
I wish there was more available of Francis' later thought (especially), but John has remained quite a popular voice to this day.
The two brothers really are a fascinating study in contrast: two types -- two ways to seek Christ and truth so different from one another that the temptation to allow the difference to create absolute disunity is almost unbearable. Indeed, I find it very sad that the two brothers were not very comfortable with each other. But it reminds me, whose sympathy lies more with the younger brother, to always look out for a branch for empathy to light upon, and to always look for a man's sincerities.
In the bookshop, I picked up this anthology and flipped, funnily enough, straight to the astounding poem I've already mentioned and had half of it read before I left the aisle. There is a great deal more to be found in it, and throughout the anthology.
Here is an excerpt from "The Dream of Gerontius":
I am going [...] I am no more. ‘Tis this strange innermost abandonment, (Lover of souls! great God! I look to Thee,) This emptying out of each constituent And natural force, by which I come to be. [...] As though my very being had given way, As though I was no more a substance now, And could fall back on naught to be my stay, (Help, loving Lord! Thou my sole Refuge, Thou,) And turn no whither, but must needs decay And drop from out the universal frame Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss, That utter nothingness, of which I came: This is it that has come to pass in me; O horror! this it is, my dearest, this [...]
[N]ow it comes again, That sense of ruin, which is worse than pain, That masterful negation and collapse Of all that makes me man; as though I bent Over the dizzy brink Of some sheer infinite descent; Or worse, as though Down, down for ever I was falling through The solid framework of created things, And needs must sink and sink Into the vast abyss. And, crueler still, A fierce and restless fright begins to fill The mansion of my soul. [...]
Novissima hora est (view spoiler)[Latin: "It is the final hour" (hide spoiler)]; and I fain would sleep, The pain has wearied me... Into Thy hands O Lord, into Thy hands....
[Soul of Gerontius:]
So much I know, not knowing how I know, That the vast universe, where I have dwelt, Is quitting me, or I am quitting it. Or I or it is rushing on the wings Of light or lightning on an onward course, And we e'en now are million miles apart. Yet... is this peremptory severance Wrought out in lengthening measurements of space, Which grow and multiply by speed and me? Or am I traversing infinity By endless subdivision, hurrying back From finite towards infinitesimal, Thus dying out of the expansed world?
Another marvel: someone has me fast [!] Within his ample palm; ‘tis not a grasp Such as they use on earth, but all around Over the surface of my subtle being, As though I were a sphere, and capable To be accosted thus, a uniform And gentle pressure tells me I am not Self-moving, but borne forward on my way.