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Posts by Andrew Thornton-Norris

Moments of Vision: a Poem

By Andrew Thornton-Norris

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Moments of Vision

1. The Apophatic (After T.E. Hulme)

O moon hanging there not lighting up
The darkness but just leaving it obscure,
Reflecting light that’s hidden for a time:
You are the blessed sacrament that shines
Upon the darkness of their majesty.

2. Helen’s Face

The female body is the battlefield
In the war that’s taking place between
The Word, the world, the devil and the flesh:
The judgement cast upon it, lust that it
Betrays and crimes that are committed there.

3. The Hymn of the Nuptial Mystery

In intimate relation we are in
Eternal intimate relationship
Within our souls and beating in our hearts
The passion of transcendent being back
Together that we thought we’d left behind.

4. Lent

The Forty Days and Forty Nights is when
God’s Kingdom is the desert where we meet
Him in the hidden fasting and the prayer
That separates us from the world outside
And brings us to the peace of penitence.

5. Dead Souls

All beauty’s holy and eternal and
Destroyed by commodification,
Which brings it back to dust in an
Embittered fall from heaven earthward but
The hope of faith is in the Death of God.

6. The Flower Bed

When I went back to the place where I
Had slept and saw the mess of lying there
I felt forboding of the grave and rushed
To get away but now I see perhaps
One heaven sent and love to contemplate.

7. WWW

When the whole world and all its life
And history is here to hand and at
The touch or click upon a button then
The only way to turn to get away
Is inwards, walk into the world within.

8. Sapperton Tunnel

Between the catchment of the Severn and
The Thames, the way of life is different,
The valley sides that crumble down into
The houses flowing streamward down below,
Suggestive of the valley of the Wye.

9. The Passion of the Lord is the Birth of Love

As fires from tiny flames great cities fell
My love for you began with just a glance
A word and then the conflagration grew
Until the world was all aflame like stars
That fall from skies above into our hearts.

10. The Walled Garden

Narcissus, yellow archangel, and then,
Because of sympathetic magic, so
Called lungwort: metaphysicians of the spring;
But why are winter snowdrops purest white,
O winter what has happened to your sting?

Brief note for students

This poem deals again with the subject of central concern to me: the deepest longings of the human heart, for love, joy, and peace for example, their frustrations, and how these experiences are most perfectly responded to, of any available belief system, by Catholicism. Its form is ten titled sentences of blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter. I chose this form because this is roughly how the ideas for the individual stanzas came to me as a group all around the same time. The idea of collage, or collection of disparate elements arranged around an overall theme rather than a logical narrative or argumentative structure is a modernist technique employed in other arts as well. Here it is combined with the most traditional form of English verse. The overall title is from a collection of poems published by Thomas Hardy in 1917.He is the last representative of a peculiarly English late-Romanticism, described as the last words of a dying protestantism by John Powell Ward in his book, The English Line. That line begins with Milton and only Philip Larkin was to attempt its resuscitation, describing himself as an “Anglican atheist”. In Catholic terms, the title represents the moments of vision or contemplation when the pure of heart see God. It is therefore an attempt to redeem the Romantic form and subject through re-establishing the proper relationship of art to religion that I described in the last post.

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Redeeming Romanticism

By Andrew Thornton-Norris

The third idea that I would like to introduce is the one that combines those of the last two posts, the inculturation of the gospel into modern culture through the redemption of Romanticism. This represents a movement back from a religion of art to a religious art which recognises the Glory of the Lord.

Romanticism and the attempt to escape it through formal Modernist strategies is the inescapable condition of modern art. This is the consequence of the spiritual individualism that is the result of the reformation, and the political and moral individualism that is its consequence. The refusal to accept the external authority of tradition or of the Magisterium means that each man is an island adrift in his own futile attempt to reconstruct a value system that re-connects him with a community and with objective reality.

This is the modern condition and its aesthetic consequence is Romanticism. The legitimate natural impulse towards transcendental beauty has no external object towards which to be directed, and so is tragically misdirected within, towards the creative impulse itself, thus becoming a religion of art. This can be seen in Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s Rime, Beethoven’s Symphonies and Wagner’s Operas, as well as the whole movement from Impressionism towards Abstraction and Conceptualism in art.

I do not mean that these Romantic artists and the reactions to them are bad, quite the reverse, they are heroically good given the circumstances, just that they all contain a Romantic understanding of the universe, which turns art into a quasi-religious experience or act. This is damaging to both art and religion, because it expects too much of art, the replacement of religion, and thus contains flawed religious assumptions. Romanticism by the way is simply the flip-side of the Rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the endless movements that succeed them like the tides are more or less restatements of these basic positions.

The loss of the transcendent object of beauty, The Glory of the Lord (“the beauty of his Wisdom”) is the central theme of the work of Hans Urs Von Balthasar and his attempt to restore it for us. This is how Romanticism may be redeemed, and the integrity of modern art restored, through the re-establishment of the proper relationship of religion and art. The recognition that neither art nor the human person are worthy objects of worship reminds us that this is the idolatry natural to those who have not been effectively schooled in religious truth. The answer and the way to practice art successfully in this context is to re-accept the Magisterium which as always is our redemption.gustave-dore-paradiso-canto-34-1868-trivium-art-history

Integralism and Literature

By Andrew Thornton-Norris

The second idea that I would like to introduce is that of culture as the incarnation of religion. In his 1948 Notes towards the Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot described the “culture of a people as an incarnation of its religion,” adding that this way of looking at culture is “so difficult that I am not sure I grasp it myself except in flashes, or that I comprehend all its implications.” It is something we will constantly return to, but first an introduction to the political, moral and aesthetic culture of modernity and the Catholic critique of it.

In a modern liberal society the balance of rights is all in favour of the individual and against that of the community, which reflects the bleak atomised anthropology beneath the political philosophy portrayed in the satires of Michel Houellebecq, the leading contemporary French novelist. This hell is the consequence of the English, American and French revolutions and their imperial influence, the so-called Enlightenment, and the philosophy that underpins it. Its aesthetic consequence is that “anything goes” and the only criterion of value is popularity or elite approval. The hierarchy of values established by tradition, the community of ages or even the communion of saints, is rejected.

All art and literature is the formal incarnation of philosophical, political and spiritual assumptions, whether conscious or not, and this is the reality underlying contemporary literature and other modern movements of thought and feeling. Our purpose is to examine those assumptions and to establish a consistent position, given that Liberalism and its philosophical and anthropological foundations are inconsistent with the Magisterium, as are its moral and aesthetic fruits. That consistency is to be found in an anti-Liberal political philosophy, the Latin Classical tradition and the inculturation of the gospel into modern culture through the redemption of Romanticism. This subject is addressed in my Spiritual History of English and the forthcoming Pontifex course based upon it. For anti-Liberal or Integralist political philosophy see The Josias and for the redemption of Romanticism, by the reintegration of its legitimate impulses into the tradition, see my Pontifex course and the introduction to my book of poems “The Walled Garden.”

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Introduction and Inculturation

I am delighted to have joined Pontifex University’s faculty, overseeing its teaching of literature. By way of introduction I thought I would set out some basic ideas that have attracted me to the study and practice of this subject and to working with Pontifex.

An important distinction from other literature or art history courses is that both David Clayton and I are practicing artists. So the theoretical issues which concern us are those which come up when faced with an empty space in which to make our contribution to the great inheritance of the Western tradition of art and literature. And of course the primary concern for us in the modern secular West is the relationship of our art to our faith, and therefore how our art in theory and practice relates to the theory and practice of the art of the secular world around us.

The first thought I would like to entertain is the one that I address in the final chapter of my book, “The Spiritual History of English.” This is my analytic work, considering the spiritual and historical circumstances in which we find ourselves, which I will be establishing a course around. My existing Pontifex course “The Romance of the Soul” is my synthetic work, suggesting a theoretical and aesthetic response to these circumstances, based on the current mind of the Church, and especially the Theology of the Nuptial Mystery, which has developed in the context of the sexual revolution in modern society. My poems are collected in my book “The Walled Garden.”And the thought that I address in that final chapter is the one of “inculturation.”

The modern artist or writer of faith has to inculturate his faith and work into the culture and the artistic forms of modern society in exactly the same way that a missionary has to inculturate his message into that of an alien culture. For that is exactly the circumstance that we face today, an alien culture, albeit one formed historically by our faith; and our challenge is to make our work “relevant,” comprehensible and attractive to the modern consumer of that work, without diluting its content or alienating ourselves. This is the subject I will be addressing in these blog posts and in my courses at Pontifex, and I look forward hopefully to you joining me there.