In another post in a series uncovering the secrets of Ushaw College library, Joan Williams introduces some of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Catholic poets who have links to this theological centre. Though sometimes flowery, and not always distinguished, the poems nevertheless provide a valuable insight into the Catholic faith as it emerged from a troubled period in Britain’s religious history.
It is not surprising that Joseph Gillow’s A Literary and Biographical History, or Biographical Dictionary of the English Catholics (1885) should include many people with links to Ushaw College. One of the most notable is John Daniel (1745-1823), last president of the College while it was still at Douai in France before its closure and removal to Ushaw. In this capacity he and other members of the College were imprisoned by the Revolutionary government from 1792 to 1794. Back in England, John’s younger brother Edward Daniel, also a graduate of Douai and now a missionary priest in the family’s home county of Lancashire, found relief from the anxiety occasioned by these distressing events in verse, composing his long poem Flowers of Cathedrals, printed in Warrington in 1794, of which two copies survive in Ushaw College Library. This piece was intended ‘to help catholicity and Christianity, and the present glorious confederacy against the common enemy, Infidelity’. It consists for the most part of some 25 quatrains, each headed alternately ‘Grace’ and ‘Faith’, with the names of a succession of worldwide cathedrals added in the margins. These are not always obviously connected to the theme of the stanza to which they are attached, but the survival of their ancient structures is used represent the continuity of the Church throughout these difficult times; in a notable spirit of ecumenism even Britain’s Protestant cathedrals are seen as part of the ‘glorious confederacy’ against unbelief, as demonstrated by Deism as well as French revolutionary zeal. This theme is imaginative, and the format original, but the poetic language is flowery, conventional and (to be charitable) undistinguished, as may be illustrated by the opening lines:
‘Twas on as fair a day, as e’er was seen
To shine on seas, and hills, and sylvan scene …
Gillow attributes only one work to Edward Daniel: The Divine Economy of the Church of Christ – no copy of which seems now to exist – which he describes as ‘an original work which betrays an eccentricity of character in the author’. He does not mention any poetry, but Flowers of Cathedrals was not Daniel’s first venture into poetry and print. In 1793 he had published Ode to St. Winefride, patroness of Wales, and her Holy Well.
This still refers to unfortunate events on the continent
Must dear Religion fall?
Or skim the western Waves
T’escape European Graves?
And hideous Ruin swallow all!
although on the whole it is a much livelier piece, both in its subject and its varied – and perhaps one might say liquid – structure, celebrating the martyred saint whose blood turned into the water of her holy well:
See the Waters ever flowing
Fresh from her sacred Gore
and finally anticipating the Resurrection when
The silver Streams shall cease to flow,
And hoary Ocean roll …
While Winefride shall live
Beyond the Blasts of Time …
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both of Edward Daniel’s poetic productions are unknown to the British Library.
Another piece of contemporary Catholic piety – a copy of which rubs its well worn marbled paper shoulders with one of the Flowers of Cathedrals in their shared pamphlet box in Ushaw College Library – was more fortunate in its reception, and is now readily available via Eighteenth Century Collections Online. This is A Hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary (1796) by Edward Bedingfeld of York, born 1730 (though his date of death remains a mystery), descended from the aristocratic Catholic family of Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk (now a National Trust property and well worth a visit). It consists of 140 lines of accomplished heroic couplets – clearly the fruit of a well received classical education – and conventional Catholic theology. This as far as we can tell was Bedingfeld’s only venture into verse, but it may indicate a genetic element in the practice, as his second son Thomas became quite a well known minor poet, meriting an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Edward’s contribution to Ushaw College Library however extends beyond his one modest publication, as a number of significant – and helpfully inscribed – volumes from his obviously substantial and interesting library have found their way on to the shelves. They include a Latin Life of Edmund Campion, Antwerp 1618, and 8 volumes of the French Sermons of Charles Frey de Neuville, Lyon 1777. More may yet emerge as the cataloguing project proceeds.
While the literary quality of these poems is limited, the willingness of Catholics to air their piety in published poetic effusions in the 1790s is interesting in illustrating the growing confidence of their faith in an increasingly tolerant Britain while violence and irreligion raged on the continent. And as G. K. Chesterton reminds us, just as a bad man is nevertheless a man, so a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.
Queries about Ushaw Library can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.