American Aristocracy: Gods of Copley Square – Centerpiece 5
Boston, historically, has always been pre-occupied with two things. Faith and Learning; equally about the impact of each on the other. Although William Barton Rogers’s revolutionary concept of scientific and technological education at MIT was the cornerstone of Copley Square in the 1860s, equally formative in laying down the DNA of the square as an idea as well as a place was Phillips Brooks’s vision in the 1870s and ’80s, which seized at least equal stature in the new Brahmin acropolis. So much so that central to this gathering force-field of idea and place was what can only be called the spiritual life of Trinity Church, somewhat as ‘outsiders’ like Henry Adams and Bernard Berenson saw it, but chiefly as it matured under Brooks’s own hand, he being the largest factor in what made Copley Square in his time a transatlantic religious mecca.
The most prominent evidence abroad of that legacy may be the memorial to Brooks in St Margaret’s/Westminster on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, where Brooks was the first American invited to preach. Others may think of the Virgin of Chartres, Virgin that Henry Adams, famously its laureate, first studied surely in Trinity’s Madonna of the Tower. Most important of all, however, is that Anglican liturgy par excellance, broadcast by the BBC worldwide every Christmas — perhaps you just saw it — the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. In that liturgy has long figured the beguiling setting by H Walford Davis of Phillips Brooks’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Never mind what you think of Brooks’s poem, the mystical experience — for that is what it was — that Brooks recounts in connection with his writing of the poem is striking:
I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem . . . when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Saviour’s birth, as I heard them a year before.
It is easy to miss what Brooks was saying: surrounded by strangers voices, it seemed as if [he] could hear – not remember, but hear – voices, not just of strangers around him, but of “those [he] knew well” from Christmas Eve a year before; voices, he added, that “came wandering to me halfway around the world.”
It was that night, the best evidence suggests, after riding through the fields around Bethlehem during his stay in the Holy Land in 1865, that the young Boston Brahmin priest-poet, then a Philadelphia rector, was moved to write the most famous of his verses, which, interestingly, he never seemed to urge on his Boston parish after becoming rector of Trinity. If databases of published music lists are to be believed, “O Little town of Bethlehem” was first sung at Trinity Church, Copley Square, in 1903, more than a decade after Brooks’s death, at a Christmas carol service for children, for whom in his Philadelphia Sunday School he wrote the poem in the first place.
When or why that carol service became an adult service I do not know. Nor entirely understand. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” seems to me not Brooks’s best poetry. Still, it has also been set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and no less than Winston Churchill, in a dark time during Word War II, when he first heard Brooks’s carol – at church with FDR on Christmas Day in 1941 in Washington – declared in one of the volumes of his wartime history, The Grand Alliance, that in a world full of war he had “found peace” in singing it. So have many. In 2010, seventy one years later, historian David McCullough penned out of his own family history a thoughtful small book keyed to Churchill’s American visit: In the Dark Streets Shineth: a 1941 Christmas Story.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” is perhaps the undergraduate course in Trinity’s spiritual life.The graduate course is more challenging. It also involves a mystical experience, very much long ago and far away, but an experience which ultimately sparked the writing of a very different and far more compelling literary work. Trinity Church, inevitably, brings Bethlehem to mind. Less obviously, however, there is about Trinity a rumor of Narnia.
Of course, Brooks’s Christmas poem, which I never fail to point out was written for children, is not different in that respect from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. Indeed, Brooks, in his day and of his work, might well have agreed with Lewis when the Oxford/Cambridge literary historian and celebrated fantasist wrote in perhaps the best of the Narnia chronicles, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, this dedication to his god daughter, Lucy Barfield:
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
When Lewis himself was young he couldn’t get enough of fantasy fiction. One such he read, at age nine, was the haunting refrain which as it turned out echoed throughout the rest of his life: “I heard a voice that cried, / Balder the beautiful / Is dead, is dead, / And through the misty air / Passes the mournful cry.”
If you know “The Funeral of Balder” in The Lovers of Gudron by William Morris, you will know why that refrain can arise so easily within sight of the three spectacular lancets of Morris glass that lights up so grandly Trinity’s North Transept with Christmas glass, really, the Virgin and Child the centerpiece of each of the three lancets, though always discreetly urged as part of the historical narrative and not, as in the Madonna of the Tower, an icon on its own. (Which reminds that the visitor to Trinity within sight of the LaFarge/Lathrop Madonna and Child would do well to spare an Ave for this image, to atone, as Henry Adams might have said, for so many years of neglect of this most historical icon, the first according to John La Farge in what he called called American Protestantism.)
Back to the Morris glass, the art at Trinity that brings Narnia most to mind mainly because of Morris’s influence over C. S. Lewis, and over his friend and colleague, J. R. R. Tolkien as well, was huge, something that we are not now quick to see because we forget that when Phillips Brooks lovingly commissioned this glass in 1880 William Morris was as much renowned for his literary work as for his design work. The Well at the World’s End – now there’s an evocative title – a book by Morris designed like this glass at Trinity by his dear friend Edward Burne-Jones – is a case in point.
Both the artistic and the literary gifts of Morris are pertinent here. Richardson as well as Brooks passed time with Morris at Merton Abbey – so happily, Henry-Russell Hitchcock laments, that it was “a pity that [architect and designer] could not have collaborated.” In fact, as Gary L. Aho of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, pointed out in a paper given to the Modern Language Association convention in 1990, after that 1882 visitation Richardson – Brooks too? – encouraged his clients to purchase Morris and Company goods. Although Trinity is not unique in this respect – Richardson’s Glessner House in Chicago has been called “the most William Morris house in America” because the client followed the architect’s advice – even before the visits of Richardson and Brooks to Merton Abbey Trinity Church had become an outstanding fusion if not collaboration of Morris’s and Richardson’s work.
To look at those tiers of angels in Morris’s Nativity lancets at Trinity is to see how the artistic fuses with the literary in his work. There are no less than eighteen of these created spirits, their wings of every conceivable color, playing every conceivable musical instrument, hymning the Incarnation, and doing so, furthermore, against a gorgeous background of the lush green foliage of a paradisial-seeming world.
Not Narnia – not yet – but perhaps, shall we say, its pre-history, all Phillips Brooks could know of The Chronicles of Narnia, which like The Lord of the Rings, was written in the 1930s, decades after Brooks’s death. But the pre-history – of Narnia as well as of Middle-earth – is as fascinating and hardly less evocative. Did Brooks read Morris’ The Well at the World’s End? Certainly, in a letter home from England published later in his Letters of Travel, when Trinity’s rector wrote of meeting “Burne-Jones the artist” and “William Morris the poet”, the distinction was one he insisted on, even though he added at once that he had seen the poet “at his factory at Merton Abbey where he makes his beautiful things.”
It seems likely, so much was Brooks, an ardent Pre-Raphaelite, an admirer of Morris’s work. Certainly, no less than six pages of of Wayne Hammond’s and Christina Sculls’s J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide are devoted to Morris’s fantasy world as influencing Tolkien’s.
That world, of course, was not Christian. Neither, we tend to forget, was Narnia. Not officially. Though Narnia is famously rooted in Lewis’s Anglicanism, and Middle-earth no less so in Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism, both are only implicitly Christian. Indeed, if what “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the Narnia tales have in common is that all were written for children, which was the first stage of something, what is very different about Brooks’s work on the one hand and Lewis’s and Tolkien’s on the other, is that Brooks’s work, written almost 150 years ago now, is explicitly Christian; Lewis’s and Tolkien’s not at all. That was the second stage.
Which is where Balder comes in. A “beloved Norse god,” literary historian Douglass Anderson writes, he was “treacherously slain through the wiles of Loki” – you get the idea; there is no need to dwell on the details. Think Aslan, the lion who is the Christ figure in the Narnia series. “Generally recognized as a loose Christ figure,” Anderson continues, Balder is given “an honorable Viking funeral on a burning ship.” So it is with “all pagan gods, who were only ever shadows of the real God and his angels,” Anderson writes in his introduction to Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction, an anthology of his editing which celebrates particularly the work of Tolkien and Lewis and of Morris’s as well.
Why some people might prefer “shadows” to what others would call the real thing is surely increasingly obvious, now that we can see the late 19th-century and 20th-century as the run-up to the post-Christian era, when a light hand increasingly played best. But it is somewhat more complicated than that, as is clear if you compare the mystical experience of Phillips Brooks’s that triggered the writing of his Christmas poem to the mystical experience that ultimately led to Lewis’s writing of the Narnia chronicles.
“I knew nothing about Balder,” Lewis later wrote in his autobiography, but he never forgot how no sooner had he read those that refrain – as a boy of nine – “I instantly was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity; something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then . . . found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.”
Lewis is describing “Northernness,” the world view he and Tolkien would come to live by. Listen, for instance, to how Lewis lauded Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings : “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.” Nor have we left William Morris behind here: Anderson describes him as “a master of Northernness,” hardly less so than Lewis or Tolkien, both of whom were always, by the way, very close, even in times of strain. Lewis, for instance, in a very real sense, was responsible for The Lord of the Rings being written in the first place, by Tolkien’s own testimony; he always very insecure, Lewis always urging him on. Yet as Joseph Pierce shows in C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, the debt was more than repaid when Tolkien played the largest role in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.
During a marathon conversation lasting until four in the morning between Lewis, Tolkien and their friend Hugo Dyson, Lewis argued, as Joseph Campbell (he of The Power of Myth) always did, that Christianity was just another myth where a god dies and comes back to life. But Tolkien, as Pierce recounts, “developed his argument . . . that the story of Christ was the True Myth that works in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened – a myth that existed in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth. In the same way that men unraveled the truth through the weaving of story, God revealed the Truth through the weaving of history.”
“Since the earliest days of The Lord of the Rings” popularity scholars have focused on the influence of Northernness – that is Celtic, Norse, Teutonic and Finnish mythology and literature – in JRR Tolkien’s work,” K. C. Reisch writes in Thoughts and Dragon-Fire, and by all accounts that influence came by way of Lewis, who had it, so to speak, from Balder. Even on the eve of turning thirty Lewis could write, “I remember my first passion for things Norse . . . The Saga of King Olaf at the age of nine.”
Another work by William Morris? The saga, like the poem “Tegner’s Drapa,” was not written by Morris. Both saga and poem were in fact written by a Boston Brahmin, by one of Phillips Brooks’s youthful literary heroes – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And it was in “Tegner’s Drapa” that Balder’s death “caused Lewis,” in Michael R. Burch’s words in The Hyper Texts, to have “a mystical experience of that he called northernness.” From it came what Lewis called “joy,” which in one of the most memorable lay Christian sermons of the 20th-century, delivered in a 12th century Oxford church in 1941, Lewis famously defined what “Northernness” was all about:
In speaking of this desire . . . I feel a certain shyness . . . I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each of you — the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia, Romanticism and Adolescence. . . the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell . . . .
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty. . . .
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us is we trust to them; it was not IN them, it only came THROUGH them; and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing themselves, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not yet visited.
Longfellow, one cannot help thinking today, was never so good! Yet in The Flowering of New England the pre-eminent literary scholar of the Boston city-state, Van Wyck Brooks, makes a very good start explaining why it is that as the literary repute of Longfellow’s work has waned in critical opinion in the 20th century its historical value has only waxed grander; and not only because Longfellow, the creator of the founding American myth – how does it go? “listen my children and you shall hear . . . ” Writes Brooks: “If Longfellow’s poetic feeling had had the depth of his moral feeling, he would have been one of the major poets, instead of the ‘chief minor poet of the English language’ – a phrase of Arnold Bennet’s that strikes one as happy if ‘minor’ is understood as ‘popular’ in the high sense, not the machine-made popular of later times.” Brooks went on to note how vital was that ‘moral feeling’ in Longfellow’s best work and included specifically his “Northern” work:
[In] the New England stories, Paul Revere’s Ride, The courtship of Myles Standish . . . [Longfellow] spoke with a spirit or a tender conviction that sprang from the blood within him. One [also] heard this note . . . in the sea poems . . . One heard it in “The Saga of King Olaf”, the songs of the Norsemen . . . [T]here were profundities of moral feeling beneath the forms through which it found expression, the fruits of an old tradition of Puritan culture, and, behind that culture, all that was noble in the Northern races.
That close did the great historian of the “Boston states” – as Canadians over the centuries have called the several American states to which in the 19th-century so many were immigrants – come in his iconic volume to defining a New England Northernness. He was careful as well to note that Longfellow was scholar as well as poet, that he knew both Swedish and Finnish, and had spent time in both countries. Most important, perhaps, he recounted that at the poet’s summer home on Boston’s North Shore at Nahant Longfellow “rejoiced in the northeast storms, the fringes of the foam about the rocks, the wet sails struggling in the wind.”
To a large extent those storms were borne on Canadian winds via the “Northern District” of Massachusetts, as the present state of Maine was until 1820, in connection with which some will need reminding that historically the Boston city-state extended into Canada. There is the Atlantic world, and in that world there was the Northern Atlantic world. Therein Longfellow and Lewis were well met.
The influence of Longfellow’s “northernness” on C.S. Lewis and, through Lewis, on Tolkien, was as intense as William Morris’s influence, which as we’ve seen sparked not only Lewis and Tolkien in the early 20th-century, but before that Phillips Brooks and H.H. Richardson in the late 19th century. But Longfellow’s “northernness,” though also rooted in the Norse sagas Morris loved, and Later Lewis and Tolkien, was also distinctive, very much his own. Moreover, while Brooks shared with Morris an Anglican imagination, one that Lewis would also share, in the case of Longfellow, whom Brooks had known for a quarter century, it was more complicated: Longfellow was yet another Unitarian and not an easy-going one like Richardson, but earnest enough to have been known to hold very anti-Anglican views. Of that more soon. What stands out first and foremost, what was so distinctive about Longfellow’s “northernness” was its “New Englandness.”
More than that, there was in what others made of that “northernness” a decidedly problematic aspect, and that, alas, was the aspect which, in the decade between Brooks’s death in 1893 and Lewis’s first reading of Longfellow in 1907, loomed most immediately in the history of Trinity Church, in front of which, as Copley Square began to take shape, the drama of “northern” or not would be played out in the 1890s in yet another battle of the statues: in this case Christopher Columbus in Copley Square versus Leif Ericson on Commonwealth Avenue. Leif, of course, carried the ‘northern’ banner, though it was not really the one Longfellow hoped to hand on exactly.
Longfellow was drawn to an idea urged most persuasively on him by his close friend, Ole Bull, the great mid-19th century Norwegian violinist and champion of Norse culture. Writes G.G. Greis,
Bull was an immensely popular performer with good connections among the Boston elite, among them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Bull was a proponent of the theory, first put forward by Danish scholar Carl Christian Rafn, that the legendary Vinland of the Viking sagas was in New England . . . Longfellow was also a believer in Rafn’s theory. Bull visited Boston in 1870 and stayed in Longfellow’s Cambridge house . . . [O]ver dinner one night . . . Bull, Longfellow and Longfellow’s brother-in-law, Thomas Gold Appleton, a cultural philanthropist . . . organized a committee . . . including Harvard President Charles W Eliot.
The purpose of the committee was to erect a statue of the ‘real’ discoverer of America, and when Leif’s cause was greatly compromised by the deaths not long afterward of all three principals – Bull, Longfellow and Appleton – it was taken up and more aggressively urged by the Harvard chemist and MIT trustee Eben Horsfield, under whose leadership the plan achieved success and in 1887 yielded the statue of Leif, still to be seen in Boston.
Undoubtedly some saw this as a welcome riposte to the uncomfortable truth for some Protestants of North European lineage that the discoverer of the New World was from Europe’s Catholic South, as J.M. Mancini recounts in Discovering Viking America. Although attempts to link this with opposition to a statue of Columbus seem unconvincing – there had been a statue of the Italian explorer on Boston’s elegant Louisburg Square since 1850 – the critic for Harpers, for instance, was not the only one to see in the Ericson figure “a worthy forerunner of the Pilgrim” or to conclude “Mrs Whitney [the sculptor] deserves the thanks of Americans for having chosen as the type of the Northern ancestors.” Worst of all was Appleton with respect to the original plan. His instructions to the sculptor has made clear that Leif “should be in the action of arrival, gazing eagerly around, and showing the energy that belongs to the Northern races.”
On the other hand, the best known figure of the first committee Longfellow and company formed, Charles W. Eliot, was the great champion of immigrant rights and it would be ludicrous to suggest that he saw the Ericson statue as anti-immigrant. Yet the argument of Janet A. Headley in “Anne Whitney’s Leif Ericson: a Brahmin Response to Christopher Columbus,” takes no account of the position of pro immigrant Brahmins like Eliot and in American Art in 2003 she descended to boilerplate of the worst sort: “Boston’s Brahmins, their political and economic power waning after the Civil War, withdrew from the public sphere” – one wonders how this view of things accounts for something like Copley Square – “with a prevailing sense of of defeat, if not outright despair.”
In that spirit, having defamed Brahmins, Headley goes on to defame immigrants Scandinavian and Irish both, writing that “the bronze [statue of Columbus] had originally been intended for a chic urban site at Copley Square, the city’s cultural center, and adjacent to the Anglican Trinity Church, favored by the city’s elite,” but that Scandinavian immigrants, who I cannot help urging had their own way to make in America, and their own reasons to prefer Leif, did not carry the day. Instead the Boston Art Commission “approved a monument to John Boyle O’Reilly, the Irish activist and poet, for the coveted Copley Square site – another victory for the ascendant Irish.”
It was actually rather more complicated than that, and the Irish figure didn’t end up in Copley Square either. But there were huge artistic reasons to prefer the O’Reilly monument – the superb work of Daniel Chester French – to the Columbus statue, not the best work at all of the Belgian sculptor, Alois Buyens.
Longfellow, it must be said, emerges from all this quite untainted. Famously the laureate of the downtrodden, however condescendingly for the taste of some today, his espousal of Rafn’s cause proved prescient when a Norse settlement was indeed finally discovered in the 1960s in Newfoundland. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site,
Furthermore, as Tolkien himself pointed out in a BBC radio interview in 1971, “people remember that Longfellow wrote “Hiawatha,” [but] quite forget he was Professor of Modern Languages.” An academic to his fingertips, Longfellow, in fact, had himself met Rafn during Longfellow’s long stay in Scandinavia. Indeed, Longfellow was a giant in the field of comparative literature before he was anything else, the pioneer at Harvard of Scandinavian studies, as well as a leading scholar of Dante studies. And nowhere in his work does he disparage Columbus at all.
Today, Christoforo Columbus is nowhere to be seen in Copley Square. However, in the frieze of giants on Brattle tower there is that very prominent figure of Garibaldi, arguably a more threatening “southerner” in every respect. And among the Bostonians who appear in that frieze, is Longfellow, of course, like Sumner a departing god in 1877, the year Trinity opened its doors, the poet was a star of the notorious Whittier dinner at which Mark Twain did not excel as a speaker, held at the new Hotel Brunswick opposite MIT, just across Clarendon Street from Trinity.
Phillips Brooks and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went way back. The poet was one of the stars of Harvard’s faculty during Brooks’s time there as an undergraduate, and according to historian William Federer in The American Minute, Longfellow was one of Brooks’s professors. Later, when Brooks returned to Boston, he and the poet, Boston Brahmins both, moved in the same circles and met within months at a dinner party after Brooks’s election as Trinity’s rector. There is as well the suggestion of a closeness between the two familys in William Sloane Kennedy’s assertion in his 1895 book on Longfellow that Brooks stood godfather to one of Longfellow’s grandchildren at St John’s Chapel, Cambridge, right next door to the poet’s Brattle Street house.
On the other hand, Kennedy it is who also reports that “Mr. Longfellow expressed to an eminent Harvard instructor his strong disapproval of the invitation to the Rev. Phillips Brooks, D.D. to become preacher at the Harvard Chapel on the grounds he was not Unitarian.”
The extent to which Brooks entered into Longfellow’s own “northern” feelings is also unclear. The evidence suggests that Trinity’s rector was more interested than perhaps his biographers were in such things. One would have to undertake a close study of unpublished journals and letters and such to usefully enlarge on the few published ones on this subject. Allen is content to report that “the summer of 1872 was sent abroad in northern Europe . . . including . . . Norway . . .[and] . . .Sweden . . . [during which Brooks traveled] to Upsala for its university and cathedral and to meditate on Scandinavian mythology.” His travel letters say little more (italics added).
The most dependable testimony suggests that Longfellow was important to Phillips Brooks in just the same way he was to CS Lewis; which is to say that it was not knowing the man that was decisive, but knowing the work. John Woolverton remarks in The Education of Phillips Brooks on the way the younger man “hero-worship[ped]” Longfellow, and that the Boston poet was one of four authors Brooks favored – the others being Scott, Tennyson and Irving.
It is Gillis Harp, I think, who gets to the heart of the matter when he writes: “Brooks’s spirituality owed more to the literary or poetic than to the narrowly biblical or theological. [Brooks] immersed himself in nineteenth-century Romantic poetry and prose both before and after his studies in Virginia Seminary.” In fact, although Harp feels “Brooks managed to avoid some of the excesses of Romanticism,, the scholar insists that “Brooks’s story underlines how profound an impression Romanticism had an Anglo-American Christianity . . . Brooks embraced Romanticism’s celebration of the subject, especially of the individual . . . [A]lthough he was hardly a Transcendentalist, he drank deeply from the works of Emerson,” Harp writes in Brahmin Prophet.
What Brooks and Longfellow in the late 19th-century and Lewis and Tolkien in the early 20th century shared most conspicuously was that all four were rampant romanticists. Indeed, to compare Harp’s conclusion that Romanticism was the way Brooks reconciled the Unitarian rationalism of his father with the much warmer Evangelicalism of his mother at a time “when the rationalist character of dominant Unitarianism was being challenged by American Romanticism,” with Lionel Adey’s observation in The Light of Holiness that in C. S. Lewis, “a sometimes militant rationalist existed within a romantic dreamer” is to realize that in some other place Phillips Brooks and C.S. Lewis may have been closest of them all.
C.S. Lewis’s second triggering experience toward “northernness” came through the music of Richard Wagner. For us today the implications are even more problematic than espousing Leif Ericson’s cause. Tolkien, for instance felt he had to make a point in the 1930s of protesting Hitler’s malignant distortion of the British philologist’s world view. As to Lewis, it is, perhaps, sufficient to remember that his wife was Jewish.
Phillips Brooks’s generation was spared all that, of course, through a closer inspection would have discovered Wagner himself was very anti-Semitic. (But, then again, so was Henry Adams). But the music could be enjoyed when it was young without qualm, music which we know from Raymond Allbright Brooks liked very much when he first heard Wagner’s work in Berlin during the composer’s own lifetime, in 1882. Perhaps it was not for dissimilar reasons that Brooks liked John La Farge’s heroic figures and wide-winged angels in Trinity tower, frescoes quite on a scale of a “Wagnerian orchestra,” critic Irene Sargent thought perceptively, and on which she enlarged in her 1903 essay on Trinity’s art in The Craftsman.
Brooks’s affinity for Wagner’s aesthetic was such that perhaps the leading authority on the preaching of Trinity’s rector thought his idea of writing a sermon and Richard Wagner’s idea of writing music were very similar. So Hughes Oliphant Old concluded in his multi-volume history of preaching, where he pointed to the fact that Brooks advanced ideas in his Yale Lectures on Preaching sufficiently distinctive that they struck Professor Old as “probably typical of romanticism and its philosophy of artistic creation, ideas that would have made sense to Richard Wagner.”
Not surprisingly therefore the effect first Longfellow and then Wagner triggered in Lewis and then Tolkien by all accounts is often described as exactly the effect Phillips Brooks triggered in his role as preacher.
That effect is not easily analyzed; indeed, one resists the word that names it. But it is the word that runs through the whole theme of this essay: in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptics Adventures in Narnia, New York Times critic Laura Miller writes directly of Lewis’s encounter with Balder that “Longfellow catapulted [Lewis] into a strange ecstasy.” One can imagine an intense reverie looking up into La Farge’s tower could have the same effect. Certainly it was the effect Longfellow’s poetry and Wagner’s music also had on Lewis.
How detail ecstasy? Let us not count the ways, I think, though it is not hard in the era of computer searches: twice in two volumes of 1600 pages, Alexander Allen uses it of Brooks’s effect.
First, there was, of course, his preaching. In what I like to think the best capsule explanation of Brooks’s oratorical power, he “put on [his congregation] a pressure and tension that stirred the very center of their being,” this from the Literary Digest of February 5, 1910, Allen on Brooks is quite eloquent:
wallow-flights of thought, feeling, poetry, philosophy, biblical learning, sociological wisdom, trenchant criticism, — in no syllogistic order or sequence, but plainly the legitimate fruition of his theme, held together by a blood tie of spiritual significance, striding, lifting along through the spaces and reaches of the inner world, until the great throngs, in painful, half-breathed, eager silence, seemed beside themselves with a preternatural ecstasy.”
Interestingly, Allen went on to describe what one might call the after-taste of Brook’s preaching as “something like . . . hour after hour of railroad travel; or a deep reverie over the Divina Comedia” – odd comparisons to say the least, and then, oddest of all, perhaps, he compares Brooks’s sermons to a reverie “on the Grand Duomo itself,” Florence’s great cathedral. Was ever oratory better compared to architecture? I ask because the only other time Allen insists Brooks produced at so high a level was not in his capacity as preacher but in his capacity as church builder.
In his discussion of the Trinity chancel, Allen writes this powerful paragraph:
It was no part of [Brooks's] purpose to break with the spirit of the ages before the Reformation. To his mind they were the ‘ages of faith’ and to them he made the appeal . . .[He] would retain . . . the sense of awe and mystery, the deep mystery of human life, that combination of effects in roof and windows . . . whose result was to dissolve the spirit in religious ecstasy and bring heaven before the eye.
Remember Professor Oliphant’s point that preaching for Brooks was not worship, and in the wake of Brooks’s program for Trinity chancel one sees why it is so monstrous a misunderstanding to think Trinity Church was some sort of opera house designed finally to showcase Phillips Brooks. However improbably, however — if you insist — naively — or even idolatrously if the Puritan view still compels — the best evidence is that it is heaven, not Trinity’s rector, sought to bring before the eye.
Even the word is “northern” – German. Of course it’s German. The word is Sehnsucht – the category “northernness,” even “joy,” falls into. One of those quasi-mystical terms the German language rejoices in: desire, longing, intense desire, profound longing. All the answer there may be as to whether there is a “southern” equivalent, by the way, is the Portuguese “saudade.” Usually translated as nostalgia for lost love, the equivalent of saudade in German, however, would be wehmut/nostalgia. Sehnsucht has a philosophical dimension saudade does not. As Professor of Hermeneutics Russ Reaves has written in Searchlights from Scriptures, Sehnsucht is typically not only philosophical but also a deeply religious experience: “on the other end of Sehnsucht”, Reaves suggests, “was God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord.”
Then again it can be so simple, though any New Englander, “northerner” or not by inclination, would wince at so calling what Walter Hooper, in his introduction to Lewis’s published letters to Arthur Greaves, referred to when he wrote: “This longing could be sparked simply by the idea of autumn.”
As Lewis put it, Sehnsucht became, in his no-nonsense way, “the business of heaven,” the Christian concept of which as Lewis saw it was to disclose “the thing I was made for . . . .the secret signature of each soul.”
“The thing I was made for.” It is so obvious what work of art in Trinity addresses that question for Trinity Church, and as the evidence has mounted here in Brook’s own words and those of leading scholars, that work is more and more obviously not the so-called “Preacher” of the Chancel glass, nor the latest “preacher” discovered in the western lancets, but the window given in memory of George Minot Dexter, a member of the original Building Committee – David’s Charge to Solomon – in the Baptistry – yet another collaboration of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and a powerful work of art the reader should read further of in David Sewter’s relevant works. Indeed, Burne-Jones, as always the lead designer, was so happy with it that this artist of such great genius noted in his account book when this work was completed that it “may be said to represent the culmination of my power.”
Virginia Raguin, The Holy Cross College stained glass scholar, well explains the metrics of the spiritual life this window celebrates:
The commencement of a new era, symbolized by the ‘temple’ of Trinity Church, was simultaneously undergoing construction in the art world. The emerging Arts and Crafts Movement, . . . developing rapidly at this very time, had obvious impact. Burne-Jones and Morris were highly influenced by the basic principles governing the movement. Adhering to the Pre-Raphaelite figure drawings and the nature-laden back grounds favored by Morris and the writer John Ruskin, the two men created a window that defined not only a religious but an artistic era.
The diligence with which Burne-Jones and Morris labored, much attuned with the very figures they were depicting . . . This personal dedication to every stage of installation is captured in Morris’ case, by one of the banners in the work. It shows David with the head of Goliath, the Philistine defeated in battle by the younger, weaker David, reflecting, it seems, Morris’ desire to achieve ‘victory’ through his work . . . And, as if to cement the intensity of collaborative work, we see in the severed head of Goliath, a portrait of Morris.
Raguin thus documents an extraordinary artistic endowment of Trinity by both these creator-gods as they seem to us today, a treasure the meaning of which, like the Madonna of the Tower, has been little understood and relatively ignored given its importance over the years. But not in Brooks’s day! Raguin continues:
The fruits of [Morris's and Burne-Jones collaborative] labor . . . [were] appreciated to the fullest by Rev. Brooks . . . Sarah Wyman Whitman, a stained glass artist and close friend of Brooks and his church, exemplified the impact . . . in her article in “Handicraft” . . .in 1903 . . . Whitman assesses [this window] as ‘perhaps the most perfect illustration in glass of Morris’ work’.”
What Trinity Church “was made for” is announced, of course, by the window’s subject, the Jerusalem Temple on one level, “the ‘temple’ of Trinity” on another, the function of both of which as seen in this work recalls powerfully the third of Phillips Brooks’s four reasons he was an Episcopalian in the first place. Remember his words: “the value she sets on worship; her constant summons to all men not merely to be preached to, but to pray.” It is the first Benediction of the lighting of the Temple Menorah: “Blessed are you, Lord G-d, King of the Universe, who sanctified us by his commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.”
The spiritual life of Trinity Church could not be more simply, nor more boldly put. Nor the great church’s focus identified – in Brooks’s day in some ways more evident than today given subsequent changes in his chancel design – focus so well put by the Anglican spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill, who in her The Mystery of Sacrifice wrote of “the Table of Holy Desires,” reflecting the usage not only of the great Western reformers who preferred to call the altar that, but also the Eastern Orthodox Church. Underhill, as Harvey Egan has written, “the English language’s most widely read writer on prayer, contemplation, spirituality, worship and mysticism in the first half of the Twentieth Century,” put it very eloquently:
Sursum Corda — Lift up your hearts. The early liturgies leave us in no doubt as to what this movement implied . . . This cry, and the people’s response, come down to us from the earliest days of the Church. [It marks] the crossing of the boundary between natural and supernatural worship, [the knowing search for] that ineffable majesty on which Isiah looked, which is the theme of the earliest Eucharistic prayers, and which imbues the great Sanctus of [Bach's] B-Minor Mass, with its impersonal cry of pure adoration. [This is the world the communicant enters . . . approaching the altar, where] the ‘Table of Holy Desires’, with its cross and ritual lights, stands on the very frontier of the invisible.
How suddenly the crux of the matter is upon us. The key perhaps is to notice that Raguin in detailing the Trinity’s Temple window, does not neglect the name that stands behind all these other names – Morris, above all – John Ruskin. As much as Morris inspired Phillips Brooks and then C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Ruskin inspired them all first. And here we are at bedrock in terms of the inspiration of Trinity Church, inspired progeny of San Marco in Venice, and before that of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, in either of which it would be unthinkable to inquire whether a building can have a spiritual life.
Ruskin is so key because there is the strongest evidence of Phillips Brooks’s investment in all this. The young priest-poet had very much wanted to meet Ruskin when in 1865 he first was in England, but his letter of introduction went awry; Ruskin was away. But this was another time where Brooks’s biographers choice of words are penetrating, their meaning unequivocal. Writes Allen, “to have met Ruskin would have satisfied a great hunger in [Brooks's] soul.” And it was, of course, a hunger finally assuaged in San Marco’s, Ruskin’s Stones of Venice in hand.
Like Longfellow, pre-eminently a Dante scholar, whose Evangeline moreover would be as much the foundational myth of Cajun ethnic identification in Louisiana as of Acadian identification in Canada and Northern Massachusetts-become-Maine, Phillips Brooks transcended what was finally a powerful but perhaps not universal metaphor or aesthetic. Indeed, Brooks, like Longfellow, was “northern,” but by no means so “northern” he was closed to the “southern.”
How Trinity Chancel – wherein in the islanded sanctuary of the Table of Holy Desires – and the new Museum of Fine Arts, which opened across the square within a year of Trinity’s consecration, underline this is our next chapter, our point of departure the debut in June of 1879 of the fabled “Greta” of New York’s widely read Art Amateur, in whose letters from Boston she was quick to compare the new museum to “Trinity Church . . . its vis a vis over the square and the rival new showpiece.”
To anticipate, what Trinity and the new museum had in common is very evident in historian-pastor Neil Earle’s “The Secret Longing of C.S. Lewis,” which ties up many loose ends of this essay and behold it turns out Longfellow was even more important. Writes Earle:
[Lewis] identified three experiences that encouraged him in his life-long quest for Joy. The first was the aroused memory of his brothers garden after encountering a flowering currant bush. For Lewis, memory or remembered moments of bliss are important elements of sehnsucht . . . Lewis also derived this divine sense of longing from children’s tales with their clear examples of good and evil . . . His third influence came from poetry, especially, in early days, the poetry of Longfellow and the strong and vigorous rhythms that galloped through much of his verse.
Lewis found these experiences recurring throughout life . . . flooding back when he first heard a recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries . . . breaking through the lines of the Christian epic poet John Milton, who addresses the eternal longing for home in ‘Paradise Regained.’ Theologian Paul Tillich called the spiritual beauty inherent in good art as messengers from another world’. Lewis would have agreed.
So might Phillips Brooks have, whose answer to our first question would have been our second question. Can a building have a spiritual life? Can a work of art not?
Finally, a bit of dialogue, from John Cheever’s The President of the Argentine, from the Atlantic Monthly of April 1976:
“Oh, do sit down,” Mother exclaimed, “do sit down, and let me tell you about the funeral of Phillips Brooks! On the day of his funeral there were trumpets in Copley Square. Oh, so many trumpets! I don’t remember the time of year but it seems to me that it was cold and brilliant although of course that may have been the loud music of the trumpets.”
That’s “northernness”. Trumpets in the cold.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.