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Kenelm Henry Digby

by Henry A. Lappin

Of the small band of defenders and interpreters of Catholic truth and life writing in England today, Mr. Bernard Holland is one of the most scholarly, dignified and convincing. His pen is graceful, lucid and flexible, and everything from it is rend with interest and sympathy even by those whose religious views differ widely from his own. He commands a knowledge of history and of the history of apologetic which is extensive and thorough: his narrative and expository skill is of the highest. His latest work, the biography of an eminent Catholic Victorian is eloquently, and at times brilliantly, written: there is vigor and freshness on every page.

Almost forty years have elapsed since the laborious and Fruitful life ended of which the record is now first given to the world. Born at the beginning of the last century Kenelm Henry Digby died in 1880. During sixty of his four-score years he wrote assiduously and produced many volumes. Besides his Norrisian prize essay, composed in his twentieth year while he was a Cambridge undergraduate, he published The Broadstone of Honour (1822) - later revised and issued in four volumes; Mores Catholici, which appeared in eleven volumes between 1831 and 1842; Corripitum, published in seven volumes between 1849 and 1854; The Lovers' Seat (two volumes), 1856; The Children's Bower (two volumes) 1858; The Chapel of John, 1861; Evenings on the Thames (two volumes), 1864. This is the full tale of his prose. Of his verse no less than ten volumes came from the press between 1865 and 1876. This imposing array of books Mr. Holland has thoroughly mastered, and in appraising them he has exercised the sound judgment of an admirably-balanced critic of the conservative school.

The events of Digby's intimate family life, also, are here recorded sympathetically and attractively. To measure the exact altitude of his subject's talent or to discover his precise place in English letters was no part of the biographer's purpose; he makes no attempt to analyze Digby's style-though thereupon he offers more than one illuminating comment-or suggest comparisons with other writers: his object is simply to give such an account of Digby's life and works as may induce people to admire the one and read the other. It is a pleasure to welcome a book which will indubitably take and keep a foremost place in the biographical literature of modern English Catholicism.

The Digbys have a long and honorable history, going back to the days of Edward the Confessor. One of them met his death at Towton Field in the cause of the Red Lancastrian
Rose. A later bearer of the name, Sir Everard, was executed for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot. The seventeenth century Sir Kenelm Digby fought a duel at Paris on behalf of his kingly master, the first Charles; published a criticism of that benign book, Religio Medici; discovered the necessity of oxygen to the life of plants; married Venetia Stanley, a very great lady and had Descartes for his friend. The father of the nineteenth century Kenelm Digby was Dean of Clonfert in the Irish Establishment, a mighty athlete and traveler. Kenelm Henry was the younger son of the Dean's third wife, who was a kinswoman of the Abbé Edgworth, into whose ear was whispered the last confession of that ill-fated monarch, Louis XVI. The boy came of right lusty stock, for he entered the world when his father was a sexagenarian. In his twentieth year Kenelm through the death of his elder brother, came into possession of the family estates and possessions, and was thus enabled to order his life as he desired. His childhood was spent in one of the most beutiful spots in the heart of Ireland, at Geashill where he fleeted the time carelessly amid the surrounding woods and meadows, looked out upon the loveliness of the distant Sleeve Bloom range, and invited his awakening soul with the novels of Scott and the plays of Shakespeare. Carrying with him a great love for Ireland and many happy memories Digby, after a period of preparation at Petersham School near Richmond, went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1815 and there quickly made his reputation as the most fearless of youths and the "founder of boating on the Cam." Upon one so constituted, emotionally and intellectually, the gray old Alma Mater could not fail to lay her immemorial spell. The slow waters gliding in peace beneath the ancient walls of colleges and chapels founded by great kings and their daughters; the golden stillness sleeping among the trees of venerable gardens on endless summer afternoons; sober-suited evenings in the Long, filled with the drowsy music of college halls and the drowsy fragrance of limes; the first pale violets at Grantchester in February. the russet blooms of autumn at Cherry Hinton-these were the gracious influences that helped to mold and must have powerfully affected the early manhood of the author of The Broadstone of Honour and The Lovers' Seat. "Here if anywhere "-a great living scholar has written- " the student may hope to hear the still voice of truth, to penetrate through the little transitory questions of the hour to the realities which abide . . . ."

The title of his Norrisian essay, Digby's first hook, Evidences of the Christian Religion, provides a clue to the nature of the studies to which he was thenceforth to devote his days, and gives evidence of his already wide range of reading. He turned now with eagerness to the study of books upon chivalry and the history of the Middle Ages. From Sir Walter Scott he had learned to love those days of faith, and to explore them upon their spiritual side. Chateaubriand's Le Genie du Christianisme (1802) had already marked the beginning of that revival which found its further and more complete expression when Joseph de Maistre, in his Du Pape (1819), insisted upon the necessity of the Papacy as a bond of union among believers and a palmary source of inspiration for the life of religion. The Oxford Movement had not yet come to quicken a stagnant Ecclesia Anglicana, to vitalize English theological thought, to recover a past that was forgotten, not to say dis-owned, and to originate a definitely ecclesiastical revival in church art, music and architecture. Kenelm indeed before going to Cambridge, had discovered an interest in Catholicism. As a youngster at Petersham he had come in contact with two Catholic laymen as learned as they were pious: Charles Butler, nephew of the Alban Butler whose Lives of the Saints has made his name a household word among English-speaking Catholics the world over, and Sir Henry Englefield. True it is that they made no attempt to influence the boy in the direction of Rome; their talk to him was mainly of the great writers of classical antiquity: but their bearing and character were a living testimony to the Faith they professed.

At the end of his Freshman year Digby set out on the usual Continental tour, going through Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and France. Then for the first time he went into a Catholic church and had, in his own words, his "first view of Popish superstition." He speaks of the incomprehensible operations of the ministering priests, yet notices that "there is not a single individual to be observed either inattentive or behaving irreverently." But the time had not yet come when it would be impossible for him to write, as now he wrote, of "that dark empire when priests held a dominion over the minds and bodies of men, which kept all Europe in ignorance and misery, which was the disgrace of Christianity and the scourge of humankind."

Though, like many another, he realized it not, Rome even already had marked him for her own. At Cambridge, sometime after his return from abroad, he spent a night of vigil in King's Chapel; and at Marklye in Sussex, with his friend Darby, he conducted a solemn tournament in approved mediaeval fashion "with ponies for steeds and hop-poles for spears." For the Trinity dons of his time his respect was deeper than that ordinarily entertained by the undergraduate; Whewell and Julius Hare, in especial, he revered. Among his fellow students were numbered not a few who in years to come were to achieve fame and to have honors thrust upon them. To mention only two: W. M. Praed and Thomas Babington Macaulay were his direct contemporaries, and between 1825 and 1828, while Digby was still intermittently resident, there came to Cambridge, Trench, the future Archbishop of Dublin, John Sterling, Frederic Maurice, Edward Fitzgerald, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Hallam. Mr. Holland interestingly notes that The Broadstone of Honour, published in 1822, greatly influenced the early poems of Tennyson. Strangely enough, Digby seems to have refused an invitation to join the ranks of the "Cambridge Apostles," that brilliant university society which included so many subsequently famous men.

Of Digby's foreign wanderings in undergraduate and later years the story is charmingly set forth in the long poem, TheTemple of Memory, which he wrote when he was nearing the
end of his life. Digby was as fond of swimming as were Byron and Swinburne and he performed some striking feats in the great rivers of Germany and Italy. He swam across the perilous breadth of the Rhine near Drachenfels, and he was called a water-rat by the riparian Romans who saw him breast the rushing waters of the Tiber. It was Italy in particular, and the city of Rome, that won and held his love. "At Rome," writes Mr. Holland, "he loved to see the rising sun stream on the portals of the great church of St. John, or the ancient Benedictine Convent on the side of the valley at Subiaco, or the view from Tivoli of the distant rising majesty of great St. Peter's matchless pile while the setting sun colored all the plain with deep ruddy hues." In Mores Catholici, written several years later, there are many exquisite descriptions of the scenes upon which he looked so lovingly at this time. Nothing could be more beautifully impressive than those pages wherein he describes his feelings when he first saw the College of Cardinals in stately congress, or his memories of the uplands of Switzerland studded with monasteries and convents and churches: or of the roads by the side of which he talked with happy children, kindly old men and women, and gentle priests.

It was such sights as these, and the enlargement of mind -to use Newman's phrase-which came gradually to him in the course of the social and historical studies he prosecuted in
preparation for The Broadstone of Honour, that at length determined him to submit to the See of Rome, the Source of Unity and the Centre of Truth. He came finally to recognize, in his biographer's apt words, "that the leading motives of the men who broke with Rome and made essential changes in the ancient doctrines and ritual of religion in England were of the most material and secular kind, and that they were a minority forcing their policy upon a mostly reluctant people who had no real voice in the matter and lost by the changes then made...First came the breach, the act of will, and then to justify it, theories arose about the Church. And these theories have ever since been in a Protean process of perpetual change and variation, in accordance with the changing humors of various times."

In Digby's early days it was a more formidable adventure to take the road to Rome than happily it is now; for one thing, the social consequences of such a step were likely to be much more painful, and there were many avenues of advancement, professional and other, from which a Catholic was debarred because of his Faith. Digby, however, having made up his mind, would permit no obstacle to stand in the way of the fulfillment of his purpose, and although he was rebuffed by at least two priests, in succession-who, it may be, doubted his earnestness -he succeeded at last in being received into the Church by a London Jesuit to whom Charles Butler had directed him.

From now on, for several years, Digby lived at Cambridge, "reading in libraries books not often in modern days disturbed from their secular repose, and decanting their contents into volumes of his own making." The liberal dons meantime permitted him to retain rooms at Trinity; possibly they looked upon his change of religion as an unfortunate aberration to be passed lightly over in a young man of so much learning, sincerity and charm! Not long after his conversion Digby became the friend of Ambrose Lisle March Phillips, who had already been two years in the Church, and who as a fervent layman was destined in years to come to do a great work for Catholicism in England. Later on the two friends saw much of the Honorable and Reverend George Spencer, another Trinity convert who afterwards found his vocation in the Passionist congregation and, as Father Ignatius of St. Paul, died the death of a saint in 1864.

"These three Cambridge men," Mr. Holland notes, "all became Catholics before the Oxford Movement had begun. Each of them contributed his share to the return towards Catholic principles which brought many to the Chair of St. Peter, and brought far more to the half-way shelter which began to arise within the Anglican Church. Kenelm Digby contributed to this by his wit Ambrose Lisle by his enthusiastic propaganda in action, and Spencer by his personal influence. Thus the Catholic movement began, as a matter of fact, not at Oxford, but in the more decidedly Protestant University of Cambridge. The reason perhaps is that Cambridge was less isolated than Oxford then was in narrow self-esteem, and more open to continental influences. Thus it was sooner touched by the great wave of the romantic return to the mediaeval spirit, which was sweeping over Germany and even France, as a reaction against the strictly classical spirit of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period." When, in 1825, Digby became a Catholic, Pugin's "little gem," St. Andrew's Catholic Church, had not yet been built, and the convert was obliged to ride twenty-six miles each way to Mass on Sunday at Old Hall. Faithfully every Sunday the two friends, Phillips and Digby, rode over, fasting, to early Communion, High Mass, and Vespers, getting back to Cambridge at nightfall.

Those were the days when to become a Catholic was to make sacrifices. But Digby did not complain. He had found that after which his heart had longed. He was in love with the Faith into whose joy he had entered. And, as Mr. Holland says finely at the close of his account of Digby's conversion, "the Christian religion is a love affair, and the complete consummation so far as it can be on earth is in or through the Catholic Church. Between mere friendship and love completed there is for him who has once felt the attraction, no firm standi ng ground any more than for the earthly lover in the conception of 'Platonic love.' Those who have never been real lovers can be friends, but those who have been can hardly fall back upon the line of friendship. If they retreat at all they must retreat much further into the wilderness of uncertainty and doubt."

The Broadstone of Honour, the first of Digby's longer works, derives its title from the ruined castle of Ehrenhreitstein, across the Rhine from Coblenz. As Mr. Holland indicates, this book was for Digby what The Essay on Development was for Newman and By What Authority for Robert Hugh Benson and, one might appropriately add, The Principles of Church Authority (that forgotten masterpiece of Anglo-Catholic controversy) for Archdeacon Robert Wilberforce; in each case the book immediately preceeded or followed the author's submission to the Holy See. The intention of Digby in The Broadstone was to demonstrate the greatness and display the beauty of the Catholic Church through the centuries. There was then, there is always, room for such a work. Since the so-called Reformation nothing had been left undone to vilify the Spouse of Christ, no slander had been thought too base or too absurd to heap upon her, no lie too foul with which to besmirch her. To The Dublin Review and to Studies Hilaire Belloc has recently contributed certain vital and scholarly articles, in which he shows how the original authorities and documents have been handled by a modern historian like Gibbon. It would be no difficult task for a trained Catholic historian to discover many similar suppressiones veri and suggestiones falsi in the work of most of the standard historians who have written from a non-Catholic or "impartial" standpoint during the last hundred years or so. Unfortunately for the cause of truth and justice the James Gairdners have been few and far between, and the wells have been pretty thoroughly poisoned.

The Broadstone is divided into four parts entitled respectively Godefridus, Tancredus, Morus and Onlandus. "The first two are so named after the heroes of the Crusades, the third after the Catholic martyr, Sir Thomas More. The main object of the book is to describe the heroic and chivalrous spirit, intimately bound up with the religious faith as it appeared in the Middle Ages. But in Morus and in part of Onlandus are stated those undeniable facts about the Protestant Revolution in England, and on the Continent, the public exhibition of which gave so much offence to the excellent rector of Hurstmonceaux. [Julius Hare, of Guesses at Truth fame, who later wrote to Digby: "Luther is the man to whom I feel that I myself, and that the whole world, owe more than to any man since St. Paul."] In one of his latest works, written when he was over seventy, Digby admits that in his youth he wrote things in religious controversy possibly too wounding to others, and expressed more strongly than he would have expressed them in old age. This is a very common reflection in old age concerning ardent and intolerant youth, which has the defects of its qualities. All the same, in England, in these days it is well to be definite and lucid in order to avoid misinterpretation. From his early youth till the end of his very long life Kenelm Digby never wavered for one moment in his definition of the Catholic Church. It is for him, that religious society existing throughout the world, of unbroken historic continuity, and consisting of people of all nations and languages, which is visibly, avowedly, and organically connected with the central Apostolic See at Rome, and it is nothing either more or less than this .... He never admitted the assertion made by some moderns that the Catholic Church consists of "all who profess and call themselves Christians," or the more exclusive assertion made by other moderns that it consists of an imagined combination of certain churches having properly descended episcopal institutions.

The Broadstone of Honour has not been without its influence upon subsequent English literature. Mr. Holland, as we have recorded, notes the indebtedness of Tennyson to it in his early poems. Ruskin also, whom Digby greatly admired, has paid tribute to this great book, assuring the reader of Modern Painters that he "will find every phase of nobleness illustrated in Kenelm Digby's Broadstone of Honour." It may be, too, that Ruskin modeled the titles of some of his own later opuscula upon those of Digby's lesser prose-writings, e.g., The Childrens Bower, The Lovers' Seat. And the author of Sesame and Lilies did not hesitate to acknowledge a further debt: "The best help I have ever had," he writes in Modern Painters "so far as help depended on the sympathy or praise of others in work which, year after year, it was necessary to pursue through the abuse of the brutal and the base-was given me when this author, from whom I had first learned to love nobleness, introduced frequent reference to my own writings in his Children's Bower." It is a pity that Ruskin did not learn yet more from these powerful and persuasive pages; that he did not go on to admire and embrace the marvelous coherence and unity of that dogmatic truth out of which Digby's highest inspirations proceeded; but many things are hidden from the prudent that are revealed unto babes, and Ruskin was never made wise unto salvation. Brought up in a rigidly Puritan atmosphere he never knew at first hand the daily lives of Catholic men and women. Perhaps it was because of this that he was capable of writing: "Modern Romanism is as different from thirteenth century Romanism as a prison from a prince's chamber."

It is to be feared that many of the absurd assumptions and statements made by those who sit in judgment on Catholicism, are attributable entirely to their crass ignorance of the real motives and beliefs of the Catholic. W. E. H. Lecky, for instance, has talked amazing nonsense about "the enormous difference" between the official Catholicism of the Council of Trent and of the writings of Bossuet and Newman and the "pure and manifest polytheism and idolatry [italics are ours] of the actual religion as it is practised in a great part of Europe with the direct sanction and under the special benediction of the highest authorities of the Church." Even so keen and so honorable a writer as Bishop Gore asseverates that a modern Roman Catholic will hardly find himself at home in St. Paul's epistles! It is inexplicable that Christian men of intelligence should write like this, and should fail to realize that the evidences of Christianity are all, when examined, equally evidences of Catholicism.

To the writing of his next, longest, and, beyond question, his most enduring work, Digby gave no less than ten years. At the end of Mores Catholici there is a noble passage- recalling the famous paragraph in his Autobiography wherein the author of The Decline and Fall records the bringing to a close of his master-work-in which Digby describes the circumstances under which he entered upon its composition; but not Gibbon himself, it is scarcely an exaggeration to declare, ever achieved a more sumptuous pageant of prose.

The plan of the book is simple enough: taking up the eight beatitudes he demonstrates by a vast accumulation of interesting and beautiful examples how each of them was realized in the lives of mediaeval men and women. He shows how the ideals of the beatitudes were maintained and inculcated by the mediaeval Church, and how they influenced the individual in every walk of life, in youth and age, in peace and war, in sorrow and in joy.

The scope of these eleven eloquent volumes is admirably summarized in the view Digby commends to us at the beginning of Mores Catholici: "Such a view would present a varied and immense horizon, comprising the manners, institutions, and spirit of many generations of men long gone by; we should see in what manner the whole type and form of life were Christian, although its detail may often have been broken and disordered; for instance, how the pursuits of the learned, the consolations of the poor, the riches of the Church, the exercises and dispositions of the young. and the common hope and consolation of all men, harmonized with the character of those who sought to be poor in spirit; how again, the principle of obedience, the constitution of the Church, the division of ministration and the rule of government, the manners and institutions of society, agreed with meekness and inherited its recompense; further, how the sufferings of just men, and the provisions for a penitential spirit were in accordance with the state of those that were to mourn and weep; then, how the character of men in sacred order, the zeal of the laity, and the lives of all ranks, denoted the hunger and thirst after justice; again, how the institutions, the foundations and the recognized principle of perfection proclaimed men merciful; moreover, how the philosophy which prevailed, and the spiritual monuments which were raised by piety an genius, envinced the clean of heart; still further how the union of nations and the bond of peace which existed even amidst savage discord, wars and confusion, as also how the holy retreats for innocence which then everywhere abounded, marked the multitude of pacific men; and finally, how the advantage taken of dire events and the acts of saintly and heroic fame revealed a spirit which shunned not suffering for the sake of justice."

Mores Catholici is a veritable library in itself, and the devout Catholic in this age of small things would do well to make the book his constant companion. After the writings of Cardinal Newman, it is one of the greatest contributions ever made by a Catholic to English prose literature. There are not so many great Catholic men of letters in our own time that we can afford to ignore Kenelm Digby. The Catholics who spend money on books are neither numerous nor wealthy, Mr. Holland laments, and he expresses the pious hope that some rich benefactor of his kind might cause the Mores Catholici to be republished at a price within the reach of the lean purse. It is, indeed, a matter for grave concern that what he admirably calls "this immense storehouse of wisdom and beauty and knowledge" must remain inaccessible to the majority of readers today. There is truth in his remark that a priest who possessed The Broadstone of Honour, Mores Catholici, and Compitum would have an inexausible store of ammunition from which to feed his sermons. On every page he will find quotations from the best ancient and modern thinkers and poets suggesting trains of thought to himself, and many a tale of heroic and saintly deeds to illustrate his themes."

The last of Dighy's three longer works, Compitum, was published in 1849. His later writings are, after all, merely opuscula - mellow delightful and wise, it is true, but bearing the same relation to the three great books as a foothill to Mount Everest. Compitum is "the Latin word for a point at which roads meet, or to which they converge, like the straight drives one sees in such forests as Compiegne or Fontainebleau, meeting at a point from which they radiate like spokes in a wheel. The meeting point in the book is formed by the central principles of the Catholic Church, in which alone is found the happiness and peace of those who travel by the many roads. The roads are the various phases of human life, such as the road of children, the road of youth, the road of the family, that of old age, that of the schools, that of travelers, of joy, of sorrow, of death, of contemplation, of wisdom, of warriors, of priests, of kings, of active life, of the poor, of and many others, through seven long volumes, crowded with admirable quotations and reflections." Here almost more than in any other of his books Digby is unflinchingly Catholic and Roman. His chief concern now is to make abundantly and convincingly clear his idea of Rome as the Centre of Unity, "as the guardian of what he so often calls 'central principles' of life in all its provinces." Digby had no patience with those eclectic souls who refuse the magisterium of the Church on the score that it is a Western growth," "legal and Roman," "unknown to St. Athanasius etc.," Qui vos audit me audit was to his mind a sufficient answer to them; the magisterium of Rome is surely preferable to that of Mowbray, he would have said had he lived in these days. Newman said that to be deep in history was to cease to be a Protestant, and Digby was logical and knew his history.

Into the Compitum as into its two predecessors, Digby poured the riches of his theological, historical and literary knowledge. His range of allusion is wider even than Milton, and unlike Milton he was not cut off by imperfect sympathies and downright prejudice from some of the most treasurable writings of the Middle Age. His knowledge of the liturgy of the Church lie uses with something of Dante's beautiful effectiveness "He is an excellent guide in reading," his biographer dryly remarks, " to those who prefer literature somewhat mellowed by time to the last books from Smith's or Mudie's, and the solid wisdom of the ages to the latest theory in circulation."

Digby's minor works, the titles of several of which were mentioned at the beginning of this article, need not detain us long. The best of them are the two books of reflections and
discussions, The Lovers' Seat and Evenings on the Thames; and one might fitly call them "Recreations of the author of Mores Cat holici." He brings his imagination home, so to speak, from its indefatigable journeyings through Europe, and writes of familiar scenes and every-day topics. The note of these later and briefer books is somewhat that of a peculiarly Victorian benevolence and cheerfulness. They abound, like everything he wrote, in pleasant autobiographical touches, and are characterized throughout by his usual surprisingly wide allusiveness. Adequately to annotate the works of Digby would require the cooperation of a committee of scholars! Some of these lesser writings are filled with a moving tenderness and wistful regret. In The Children's Bower he tells the story of his beloved children, and it is difficult to read with dry eyes the heartbroken father's grief at the death of his baby son, John Gerald, "the sweetest companion that ever man bred his hopes out of, so loving and so joyous . . . ." Mr. Holland devotes two long chapters of the Memoir to an account of Digby's family life, a chronicle of domestic piety and rectitude, of profound happinesses tranquilly and joyfully shared, of sorrows and bereavements and disasters manfully borne and turned to heavenly uses. Such lives and such approaches to death are the mountain-summits towards which we who walk in the plains below must raise eyes and hearts of aspiration.


This article was published originally in The Catholic World, Volume CX, No. 655, 1919.

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