Born into a Protestant family, but soon fascinated by the Oxford Movement, Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) left the Anglican Church to become Roman Catholic a month after his friend John Henry Newman, and was ordained a priest in 1847. The following year, when Newman founded the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Birmingham, Faber became one of his novices; he was then entrusted with the direction of the Brompton Oratory, in London, of which he was superior from 1852 until the end of his short life.
Between 1850 and 1863 Faber wrote a series of works on the spiritual life which produced a resounding echo and which established him as one of the leading experts in mystical theology. His writings are influenced by that Italian spirit characterized by a love for liturgical pomp and an intense devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Madonna. This “Latin” flavour was one of the reasons why Faber’s spiritual books had some success in France too (this is demonstrated by Léon Bloy’s diary, which is full of quotes from them).
Alongside prose, Faber cultivated a passion for poetry. As a young man he was friends with William Wordsworth and, although he did not really consider himself a poet, he wrote several sacred hymns, some of which, such as “Faith of Our Fathers” and “O Paradise! O Paradise!” are still quite popular today. Some hymns are marred by an approach that is perhaps a little too affected, but most of them are at least above average.
Unlike the Jesuit G. M. Hopkins, Faber was certainly not a genius of poetry. However, his poems, a happy synthesis of literary taste and faith, inspired many Catholic authors of the following decades.
Alice Meynell (1847-1922), wife of the writer and publisher Wilfrid Meynell, by contrast occupies an important position among English Catholic poets between the 19th and 20th centuries. Reading her verse – the best she produced is collected in the anthologies Poems (1893), Later Poems (1901) and Poems: Collected Edition (1913) – one gets the feeling that her talent has been undeservedly underestimated. The clarity of the versification is indeed extraordinary.
Meynell, nee Thompson, converted to Catholicism in 1868 and in 1875 she produced the first volume of her poems, Preludes, which resulted in her meeting her future husband. The two married in 1877 and their life together was singularly happy, enriched by the vast literary circle they formed, which included George Meredith, Coventry Patmore and Francis Thompson.
Meynell’s poetry is meditative, based on a series of reflections around the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
“Advent Meditation”, for example, deals with the waiting period before the birth of Jesus. The central idea is the paradox according to which God, creator of the universe, is the father of a child who is himself. In other words, God is both creator and creature, and is destined to come into the world like any other newborn, gradually forming in the womb of the mother.
The same subtlety also returns in the dramatic “Easter Night”, a poem in which, after all the confusion and pain of Good Friday, the resurrection and consequent victory of Christ is narrated in triumphal terms.
The complexity that lies behind the apparent immediacy of form and language makes Meynell’s poems – much loved by poets David Jones and Elizabeth Jennings – particularly intriguing, worthy of being read over and over again.