Voices in the Darkness

The Free Mind: Essays and Poems in Honour of Barry Spurr
edited by Catherine A. Runcie
Edwin H. Lowe Publishing, 2016, 334 pages, US$25


barry spurrI had the privilege—the bitter privilege, but the privilege nonetheless—of being one of Barry Spurr’s very last students. The University of Sydney was then as it is now an ocean of courses on gender in Shakespeare, Marxist themes in The Oresteia and so forth. Professor Spurr’s class on English poetry was to me like an ivory tower rising imperially above the tide. I remember shuffling up the stairs of the decrepit Woolley Building and plopping into some ancient wooden chair-desk. Professor Spurr (left) sat at the head of the room—tall, head shaved clean, dressed in a sober grey suit as always—counting down the seconds till class began.

The texts we read haven’t left me and never will. I remember reading Milton and Hardy in the spirit of the New Criticism, scanning for meter and identifying scriptural references. But what haunts me is that image of the august professor, seated in that high tower, overlooking his dusty little kingdom in the middle of a noxious sea.

Spurr was, quite literally, a legend at the university. Many were aware that he was the first and only Professor of Poetry and Poetics in Australian history, but all knew he was the last academic in the country—and perhaps the world—to stop wearing his full cap and gown during lectures. To my fogeyish mind this was enchanting. He embodied Waugh’s Oxford, Hilton’s Brookfield: those now-unimaginable institutions of learning where men and women (mostly men) dressed in tweed, read Wordsworth on rolling greens, and discussed Hume in the shade of limestone.

It wasn’t just an aesthetic, of course. Here, the stormy passions of dying youth were channelled into the life of the mind. Education was the rite of passage by which savage children, nursed on the wisdom of their species, became civilised adults. And at a once-noble university, lately given over to violent student activism and far-Left political indoctrination, Barry Spurr was the lone remnant of this idyll. He, and only he, embodied Newman’s “Idea of a University”: “the heterodoxy of human knowledge unhampered by considerations of practical application or societal constraints”.

When he was so unceremoniously relieved of his post in the Woolley Building, Newman’s Idea—like Spurr’s cap and gown—became a primordial thing at the University of Sydney: a ghost whispering through the academy’s silent ruins.

A festschrift is a collection of writings compiled at a scholar’s retirement to honour his career. Perhaps none before Spurr’s, so suitably titled The Free Mind, has been so poignant by its very nature. On the one hand, it’s prohibitive by definition. A festschrift is written by scholars and for scholars, not intended for general consumption. The texts don’t deal explicitly with the academic being honoured; they may quote from the honouree in passing, but to go out of one’s way to do so is a faux pas. It isn’t a biography or a compendium so much as an offering. Contributors work in their own field and medium, and dedicate the product to their colleague. So not only are the contents decidedly highbrow: they’re also eclectic, varying in form, discipline and subject matter.

The Persecution of Barry Spurr

Yet this is what makes Spurr’s festschrift so valuable—and so poignant. With Australia’s universities now virtually rid of the Newmanesque spirit that made them great, true scholarship has become a guerrilla art. Exiled from their ancestral homeland, academics who cling to the ideal of le savoir pour le savoir must practise their craft in secret. They’re not guaranteed a single student, but must win them over with their passion and erudition. True scholarship is, in other words, completely autodidactic in the twenty-first century. With the Barry Spurrs of the world driven out in a great Bradburian purge, loyalists of The Idea have taken refuge in those deep forests outside the walls of academia. Every few years, a new tract begins passing hand-to-hand by young dissidents. Such works of hidden masters, half-forgotten by the universities’ censors, draw those dissidents into the woods in search of forbidden truths.

The Free Mind is one such text. It’s an act of non-violent resistance. Seldom openly critical of the new academic regime, its weapon is quiet defiance. It carries on the work of true scholarship against the orders of the intelligentsia, who say academics must either dumb themselves down to be universally apprehensible (Noam Chomsky, Cornel West) or be so obscure themselves that they can be understood by no one at all (Derrida, Lacan). The authors of The Free Mind take a middle road, a path well-worn by the heirs of Plato. They assume a position of superior knowledge while inviting their students to share those heights. They teach, not to make ideological converts or awestruck fanboys, but to refresh their ranks—to make men capable of reading and thinking critically as they do, and of experiencing the exquisite pleasure of education as they have.

These are the demands made of those radicals who take up The Free Mind. They must do so for knowledge’s sake. They must do so with the understanding that the cultivated man needn’t justify himself to anyone. Those who appreciate this book will understand that their own personal development—not to mention the survival of their civilisation—depends on them building Newman’s university in their own hearts and the darkening woods. The Free Mind is an indispensable cache for such autodidacts, its scope vast enough to slake every intellectual thirst.

Beverly Sherry’s “The Legacy of T.S. Eliot in Milton Studies” is a fascinating tale of literature’s great lovers’ quarrel. She leads us though Eliot’s critical evolution as he wrestles with the finest epic ever written in our tongue. He was initially convinced that Milton’s blindness made him a kind of sensual hunchback, overcompensating for his lack of sight by indulging too much his poem’s auditory qualities. This is a common enough criticism among first-time readers of Paradise Lost: plenty of us found the angel forms, who lay intrans’t thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa, somewhat overwrought.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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But, also like us, Eliot couldn’t turn away from that purple thing. Slowly he realised the hidden interplay of vowel-sounds and diphthongs which, to compensate for Milton’s aversion to rhyme, created an internal music unlike anything heard before. Even “the phonetic properties of the word ‘Vallombrosa’ evoke a melancholy sonority which is inescapably part of the meaning of the passage, part of the sense of loss and devastation”, Sherry observes. Now common enough in English poetry, it was really Milton who pioneered this technique. We hear it everywhere in the late Eliot, such as in “Little Gidding”. (The soft circularity of the line, “Where you must move in measure, like a dancer”; the hot, breathy consonants in, “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire.”)

Or take John Bunyan’s essay “The Pen of a Ready Writer” on Coverdale’s psalter. I’ve always thought that book—the most recognisable rendering of the Psalms in our tongue—one of the greatest literary accomplishments in history, maybe even greater than the King James Bible. And Bunyan seems to understand that case. He notes that Shakespeare quotes more from the Psalms than from any other book of Scripture, and overwhelmingly from the Coverdale. It’s also the version Charles Jennens used when he wrote the words for Handel’s Messiah.

Bunyan charts the course of a decades-long war by “reformers” who “wanted an end to traditional liturgical language” and took aim at Coverdale as the heart of that tongue. Thence came the Church of England’s Revised Psalter, developed with the grudging aid of Eliot and C.S. Lewis. The Revised Psalter’s expressed goal was to “remove misleading or mystifying words” and, per Bishop C.A. Chase, “help towards a more intelligent singing” of Anglican chants.

But Coverdale, of course, still has his defenders. His version of the Psalms “adds fathoms to their theological depth”, said Bishop James Jones, promising that they have the power to take one “into the courts of the Lord”. The Revised Psalter commission sought to expunge “mystifying words”, forgetting that the Psalms’ mysticism is among their chief virtues. These are, after all, the songs of David; their music must be translated as well as their lyrics. Coverdale accomplished this better than any man before or since. Take his rendering of Psalm 42, verses 1 to 4:

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks

so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God:

when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

I challenge anyone to find another translation that conveys so well that exquisite pang of desire for communion with the Creator and Redeemer of mankind.

Overwhelming as the depth of this sheer erudition may be, though, Dr Runcie hasn’t left us without some respite. Because central to the mission of Newman’s university was the notion, not only of civilised education, but also of civilised leisure. Our resistance—to the depravity of the present age as much to that of our own base nature—must be our play as well as our work. This has always been the chief function of “high culture”, and the Newmanites follow Goethe’s recommendation:

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.

But while music is best heard live, and art best appreciated in person, poetry has for the last few centuries been readily available in its ideal form: in plain text on the printed page. So cultivating a love of poetry was and remains our paramount cultural enterprise.

The Free Mind won’t leave us wanting a primer. “Sea Wall” by Robert Gray brings together the twentieth century’s best lessons to poets, setting nervous slant rhymes and strikingly modern themes and language to an easy meter. (“They cover / Just eyes and genitals, / Organs of too much pleasure.”) Stephen McInerney sonnetises with Chestertonian warmth and simplicity befitting his position at Campion College. (“These are the mornings I love the most: / to watch all this, warm coffee in the palm, / a pile of books, the plump, unopened post …”) And Geoffrey Lehmann needs no introduction.

In the weeks following Barry Spurr’s ousting we took a post-Mass lunch at the Australian Club. I was bitter about my own loss as much as his: Spurr was meant to supervise my honours thesis, which I intended eventually to develop into a book: Classicist in Literature, an analysis of Eliot qua critic and a homage to Anglo-Catholic in Religion, Spurr’s definitive study of Eliot’s faith. This being impossible under any other member of the English department, my career as a scholar was stillborn. (Mine and my classmates’ academic needs didn’t factor much into the university administration’s judgment on Spurr.) Seething, I declared the university system beyond all help, and insisted that parents who wanted to give their children a proper education should forbid them from attending university.

Barry would have none of it. Despite it all, he’s never lost faith in his persecutors’ potential for redemption.

I try to share his optimism. But what’s clear now is that we’re the maquis. Though our situation is happily less perilous, we serve the same purpose as those underground universities Roger Scruton helped found in communist Czechoslovakia: to keep the flame of our civilisation alive until it can be fully restored. The Free Mind will find its way into the curricula of the resistance, and stand as a testament to future generations of those partisans of the Idea who refused to bow.

Michael Warren Davis is a journalist, and a columnist for Spectator Australia


One thought on “Voices in the Darkness

  • Jody says:

    I think people huddle together, especially in universities, for validation and this provides a form of protection(ism) from the cruel, harsh and judgmental outside world. The true maverick (like Beethoven and countless others) isn’t worried about the herd but is self-assured enough to pave new roads. This requires a steely determination and self-conviction which is very rare indeed. So, understanding ‘the herd’ is about understanding fear, weakness and the mass fortification needed to succeed in the face of the true mavericks who’ll always provide the biggest threat and produce the most significant achievement.

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