By Chip Prehn
The first time I read anything by Maurice Baring (1874-1945), I knew deep down that I had “met” a writer unlike any I had experienced before. I had bumped up against an artistic mind and talent that surprised, attracted, and fascinated me. I also knew I was in the presence of a very great Christian. My introduction was one of Baring’s weakest productions — his short drama on the Black Prince — but the poetry was good and, I felt, sounded the depths. I went from that play to other works: poetry, fiction, humorous non-fiction pieces, and short biographical studies. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a Christian author who was better educated, more refined, or less egotistical than Maurice Baring. I know this is saying a lot.
I fear that I and many others — mostly Protestants — have neglected Baring’s work either because we have gone along with the notion that Baring is “a Catholic writer” (that is, an author who would mostly interest Roman Catholics, but perhaps not us); or, if we happen to be Roman Catholics, Baring has been passed over in order to enjoy the more “brilliant” and edgy work of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), or the inimitably funny Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957). All of us have enjoyed and been edified by the epic storytelling of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). I have loved to read Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) and Graham Greene (1904-1991). These are all “Catholic writers.” Baring has been so far down on the list that he has not been taken up at all. Even Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) comes before Baring.
For my discovery of Maurice Baring, I have relied somewhat on the energetic rediscovery of him effected by Paul Horgan (1903-1995) in the 1960s. Horgan was himself a prize-winning author from New Mexico — a true man of letters who wrote history, biography, reviews, and really interesting novels. Horgan was a devout Christian and a Roman Catholic. In his introduction to Maurice Baring Restored (1970), Horgan reveals a preference for Baring as a Catholic writer over Chesterton (too “patronizing”), Waugh (too often “contemptuous and rude”), and Graham Greene (too “glumly rebellious”). Horgan wrote that Baring “is always delicately respectful of explanations of life that differ from his own; and in fact, he is scrupulous to echo the skeptical world’s case against the Catholic Church” (Baring Restored, 41).
I hasten to say that Maurice Baring’s works would have been impossible without his firm commitment to and nourishment in the Roman Catholic Church. He left nominal — i.e., virtually agnostic — Anglicanism in 1908, if not before, and he never looked back. But his literary works are altogether more discreet about the author’s religious commitment, and subtler in the way he handles spirituality or fundamental Christian dogmas, than all the others mentioned above, except perhaps Tolkien and Waugh. My view is that Baring’s work is often deeper, both philosophically and theologically, than the more popular productions of the other Catholic authors.
He achieves this by being funny much of the time. The French critic Raymond Las Vergnas wrote in 1938 that Baring’s genius is “Attic salt” (Chesterton, Belloc, Baring). That’s it! Pay attention and you’ll laugh a lot. But you have to pay attention. The humor is somehow more universal than, say, Wodehouse or the creators of Monty Python. But Baring was not really a comic writer. It is a tradition to name Baring alongside Chesterton and Belloc. But I submit that Baring was probably a greater literary artist than either of his friends.
Baring’s poems and novels are deceptive in their simplicity, and they do not seem to be very intellectually demanding — but they are quite demanding if read correctly. “Evoke, do not describe,” commanded Henry James. Maurice Baring was a master of this technique. This is why the poems and novels must be carefully enjoyed. One’s mind must work hard to “see” what Baring is seeing, to grasp the understated, and to “hear” what his characters are meaning to say “between the lines.” Baring’s poems, his always penetrating parody and burlesque, his non-fiction, dramas, novels, and collections of obiter dicta typically say much using few words. I submit that these literary productions touch upon the universal in art and human thought and are of the highest artistic and philosophical quality.
In a manner not unlike C.S. Lewis (but Baring’s fiction is nothing like Lewis’s), Baring’s artistic objective is to take a reader of his fiction into the basement of the house to examine the foundations. The host has entertained us the whole way down to the place where the big stones are. He’s been generous with his humor. He is polite and unobtrusive. He has led us into the deep questions of society and personality, corporate guilt and individual choices. We are shown in Baring’s writing the hairline cracks in our deepest assumptions and the pitiful quality of our values; but the guide has no intention of making us look. We look in vain for the Catechism.
Maurice Baring believed in the power and importance of the imagination because this faculty allows human beings to experience Something Else. But the imagination must use the materials of what is real and all around us in the world. Hence literature, delightful as the best of it is, was for Baring a most serious and practical calling. I can’t prove or explain it, but I get the strongest sense that Baring might have thought of himself as a kind of priest, if that denotes one who serves the Lord in the mediation of reality. He was certainly passionately dedicated to his calling as a writer. And why not? If the gospel is true, if there is a reality that is not the world we now inhabit, then the means by which we might enter or “step into” that other dimension, even for a moment, are important almost beyond our understanding. While that place where God dwells in all his fullness is all around us, still we must move “across” and into it, whether sacramentally, mystically, in action and good works, or by use of the arts and the imagination.
While Baring would have strongly disagreed with Matthew Arnold’s resigned assumption that the imagination and poetry would take the place of dogma and religion in the modern world, and I would guess that Emerson’s flighty idealism would have struck Baring as pretty stepping stones to nowhere, Baring was like every other great artist in seeing the utter importance of the imagination for getting at Reality. The world of “make believe” is thus vital and indispensable — “for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven made” (Matt. 19:15).
I hope I will soon have the opportunity to say more about Maurice Baring in the pages of Covenant. For now, I should like to offer you some poems. Baring was a polymath. It is not enough to say that he had “a gift for languages.” He was truly fluent in five or six modern European languages. His solid training in Latin and Greek can be sensed in every sentence he wrote. When he was just out of university, he served in the foreign service in Czarist Russia. He spent considerable time learning Russian and developed a love of the Russian writers. He loved their dramatic yet simple way of storytelling, whether in prose or poetry. He developed great affection for Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, and especially Pushkin. It may be accurately said that Maurice Baring discovered Anton Chekhov for the Anglophone public. Few had heard of Dostoevsky or Gogol before Baring took them home with him and talked them up as great geniuses. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov would have appealed very much to Baring’s perennial assumption that all great (Christian) art must stand on the doctrine that creatures made in the image of God — “little lower than the angels” — must soberly face the tragedy.
Baring had an especially deep connection with the poems of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1838). Baring preferred to place Pushkin, sometimes called “the Russian Byron,” on a level with Goethe and Shakespeare. The Englishman spent many years attempting to translate Pushkin’s poetry into an English verse that would do justice to the Russian. I hope that readers of Covenant will enjoy the four poems below.
These first two are Baring’s own translations of Pushkin.
When the loud day for men who sow and reap
Grows still, and on the silence of the town
The unsubstantial veils of night and sleep,
The meed of the day’s labour, settle down,
Then for me in the stillness of the night
The wasting, watchful hours drag on their course,
And in the idle darkness comes the bite
Of all the burning serpents of remorse;
Dreams seethe; and fretful infelicities
Are swarming in my over-burdened soul,
And Memory before my wakeful eyes
With noiseless hand unwinds her lengthy scroll.
Then, as with loathing I peruse the years,
I tremble, and I curse my natal day,
Wail bitterly, and bitterly shed tears,
But cannot wash the woeful script away.
(inspired by Ezekiel)
With fainting soul athirst for Grace,
I wandered in a desert place,
And at the crossing of the ways
I saw a six-fold Seraph blaze;
He touched mine eyes with fingers light
As sleep that cometh in the night:
And like a frightened eagle’s eyes,
They opened wide with prophecies.
He touched mine ears, and they were drowned
With tumult and a roaring sound:
I heard convulsion in the sky,
And flight of angel hosts on high,
And beasts that move beneath the sea,
And the sap creeping in the tree.
And bending to my mouth he wrung
From out of it my sinful tongue,
And all its lies and idle rust,
And ‘twixt my lips a-perishing
A subtle serpent’s forkèd sting
With right hand wet with blood he thrust.
And with his sword my breast he cleft,
My quaking heart thereout he reft,
And in the yawning of my breast
A coal of living fire he pressed.
Then in the desert I lay dead,
And God called unto me and said:
“Arise, and let My voice be heard,
Charged with My will go forth and span
The land and sea, and let My word
Lay waste with fire the heart of man.”
And below: two examples of Maurice Baring’s verse, from Collected Poems published in 1925 by William Heinemann, London.
The town is half awake; the nave, the choir,
Are dark, and all is dim within, without;
But every chapel fringed with the devout,
Is bright with February flowers of fire.
At Mass, a thousand years ago in Rome,
Thus Priest, thus Server at the altar bowed;
Thus knelt, thus blessed itself the kneeling crowd,
At Dawn, within the secret catacomb.
Thus shall they meet for Mass, until the day
The glory of the world shall pass away.
And beauty far away from human reach,
And power, and wealth beyond all mortal price,
And glory that outsoars all thought, all speech
Speak in the whispered words of sacrifice.
LA VITA NUOVA
(Part II of three parts)
One day I heard a whisper: “Wherefore wait?
Why linger in a separated porch?
Why nurse the flicker of a severed torch?
The fire is there, ablaze beyond the gate.
Why tremble, foolish soul? Why hesitate?
However faint the knock, it will be heard.”
I knocked and swiftly came the answering word,
Which bade me enter to my own estate.
I found myself in a familiar place;
And there my broken soul began to mend;
I knew the smile of every long-lost face —
They whom I had forgot remembered me;
I knelt, I knew — it was too bright to see —
The welcome of a King who was my friend.
Maurice Baring was ahead of his time in his positive reappraisal of Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In Book 17 of the Odyssey, Pope honors Homer in a way that we might apply to Baring:
As when some heav’n-taught Poet charms the ear
(Suspending sorrow with celestial strain
Breathed from the gods to soften human pain),
Time steals away with unregarded wing,
And the soul hears him, tho’ he cease to sing.
Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, a poet, and a director of The Living Church Foundation.