‘Lead, Kindly Light’: John Henry Newman the Poet

The Church’s soon-to-be saint speaks as much from the heart as from the head, with a modest but considerable body of verse.

The desk of John Henry Newman at Birmingham Oratory
The desk of John Henry Newman at Birmingham Oratory (photo: Mazur/cbcew.org.uk)

Cardinal John Henry Newman left his mark in this world as a man of faith and a man of letters — and through his faith, he shaped some of those “letters” into beautiful works of poetry.

In 1868, after his conversion to Catholicism, John Newman published a collection of poems he had written throughout his lifetime into a single volume, Verses on Various Occasions. All of his poems embodied his Christian faith, and many were serious in theme and tone, although Newman could also write with a lighter touch about, for instance, snapdragons and valentines.

The majority of the poems in the volume were written before his conversion, including his famous The Pillar of the Cloud, written in 1833, which was soon made popular as a hymn, while the poems included after his conversion include a series of songs to the Blessed Virgin Mary and in the final pages of his 1865 magnum opus, The Dream of Gerontius.

While he might be considered a minor poet in the Western literary canon, he was a major influence for many literary giants — even though Newman himself acknowledged that he published his poems almost as an afterthought.

Prefacing Verses with a dedicatory essay addressed to a lawyer friend, Edward Badeley, Newman confessed that he would never have thought to bring the poems together into one book “had I not lately found, from publications of the day, what I never suspected before, that there are critics, and they strangers to me, who think well both of some of my compositions and of my power of composing.”


Strong Lines

It’s true that Newman’s verse is not critically ranked with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser — or William Wordsworth, the founder of English Romantic poetry who greatly influenced John Newman’s own poetic style, according to Bernadette Waterman Ward, English professor at the University of Dallas. But Ward, a member of the board of directors for the Newman Association of America, told the Register that the cardinal’s verse offers both Newman devotees and poetry lovers a treasure trove of insights into the man — and mankind’s ultimate destiny.

Ward said that Cardinal Newman’s training in verse was no different from most educated young men at the time — but with one difference.

“Newman was more serious about it than many young men because he shared the sentiments of the Romantic poets who connected poetry to spiritual depth greater than what he was seeing, in his youth, in the state-sponsored church,” Ward said. “He wanted religion to be something more than a government job, and Romantic poetry’s attention to deep personal experience was important to him.”

Much of Newman’s poetry, Ward said, revealed that same personal experience in well-crafted lines written to speak as much to the heart as to the head.

“He wrote poetry at moments of crisis in his life,” she said, “so, actually, it tends to have biographical significance, though it is rarely explicitly autobiographical.”


Pillars and Dreams

One such poem, perhaps his most popular, is The Pillar of the Cloud, which was later transformed into a much-loved hymn, Lead, Kindly Light. According to Michael Davies in his Newman biography Lead, Kindly Light, the future saint wrote The Pillar of the Cloud in 1833 on a return trip from Rome after recovering from a nearly fatal illness, which Davies speculates may have been scarlet fever.

“During and after that illness he had a presentiment that God had marked him out for some special task, a feeling reflected in [The Pillar of the Cloud,] which he wrote on his homeward voyage,” Davies writes. “This sublime hymn expresses his complete abandonment to the unknown will of God.”

As the poem’s first stanza indicates, Newman sees his faith in God as a consolation — much as the pillar of cloud was for the Israelites being led through the desert to the Promised Land:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark and I am far from home —

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene — one step enough for me.

But if The Pillar of the Cloud is Newman’s most accessible poem, The Dream of Gerontius is perhaps his greatest accomplishment.

Ostensibly a poem about an old man (“Gerontius” is Latin/Greek for “old man”) on the doorsill of death who dreams he is being carried by angels to purgatory, the 912-line poem is divided into seven “phases” that reveal the merciful love of God. In each phase, the narrative progresses through speeches by the poem’s various characters, including Gerontius, his soul, angels and souls in purgatory.  

In Phase 7, an angel announces with a certain hope that Gerontius’ soul, now delivered to purgatory, will one day enter heaven’s “courts of light.”

Now let the golden prison open its gates,

Making sweet music, as each fold revolves

Upon its ready hinge. And ye, great powers,

Angels of Purgatory, receive from me

My charge, from all bond and forfeiture released,

I shall reclaim it for the courts of light.

According to Ward, the poem demonstrates Newman’s skill on several levels — both as literature and as spiritual meditation: the latter, specifically on Catholic teaching regarding purgatory.

“The metrical skill of the poem, and its intensity in terms of understanding Newman’s attitude toward both the majesty and mercy of God, make it a culminating poem,” Ward said. “He singlehandedly washed away much prejudice against the dogma of purgatory with this one poem. He is more careful of dogma here than in The Pillar of the Cloud, for instance — quite precise about the way the soul without the body is not quite the person, for instance.”


Literary Influence

Given Newman’s poetic sensibilities, it’s perhaps no accident that in 1866 the cardinal would receive into the Church another poet from Oxford — Gerard Manley Hopkins — “arguably the greatest poet in an age of great poets,” as Joseph Pearce notes in a 2013 essay on Newman’s impact on English letters. In the same essay, Pearce also notes that Hopkins wasn’t the only artist to find his way into the Church with the cardinal’s help.

“Others who were helped significantly on their paths to Rome by Newman include Oscar Wilde, Maurice Baring, R.H. Benson, Christopher Dawson, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and Alec Guinness, to name but an illustrious few,” Pearce writes. “Mention should also be made of Hilaire Belloc and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of the giants of the Catholic Revival, who were both educated at the Oratory School in Birmingham, which Newman had founded.”

Newman’s literary influence also continues today. Bernardo Aparicio, the founding editor of Dappled Things: A Quarterly of Ideas, Art & Faith, told the Register that the journal grew out of his and his fellow founders’ love for works by these same Catholic literary converts. Although named for one of Hopkins’ most famous poems, Pied Beauty, Dappled Things first took shape when Aparicio, a member of the Newman Center at the University of Pennsylvania, met with a group of like-minded college-age writers and artists — including six fellow members of “Penn Newman,” the first Newman Center established in the U.S. in 1893. The students recognized the need for a journal that would carry on the same Catholic literary revival sparked by Newman’s life and works.

“My experience at the Newman Center was extremely important in founding the journal,” Aparicio told the Register. “While the writings of Newman weren’t particularly emphasized in the programs there, there was a robust community where I was able to meet a lot of fellow students who were both very talented and very serious about the faith. This was very inspiring to me.”

“Meeting them, as well as taking advantage of the faith-formation programs that were available at Penn Newman at the time, challenged me to investigate the intellectual and artistic treasury of the Church, something I had never considered before,” he added. “This led me to realize the need for a journal like Dappled Things, and seeing so many talented young Catholics around me, I figured all the pieces were already in place to make it happen.”

Officially founded online in 2005, with the first print version appearing in 2007, Dappled Things today continues to publish the works of Catholic and Catholic-minded writers and artists, welcoming, according to Aparicio, an average 10,000 visitors each month to the journal’s website.


Letters and Spirit

In his work The Idea of the University, Newman asserted that literature — and especially poetry — is an outward expression of the soul.

“Aristotle, in his sketch of the magnanimous man, tells us that his voice is deep, his motions slow, and his stature commanding,” Newman writes. “In like manner, the elocution of a great intellect is great. His language expresses not only his great thoughts, but his great self.”

While Cardinal Newman is certainly better known for his theological and philosophical writings, his own “great self” is on full display in his poetry. For example, singing about a snapdragon he discovers in the crevice of a stone wall at Oxford (Snapdragon, 1827), Newman communicates this greatness in his own response to faith, even as he anticipates his own ultimate victory through that same faith:  

Ah! ’tis timely comfort given 
By the answering breath of Heaven! 
May it be! then well might I 
In College cloister live and die.


Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.