Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Dream of Gerontius, Part 1



jhn-priestThe Dream of Gerontius is Newman’s longest poem, composed in 1865, almost twenty years after his entrance into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Newman once humbly remarked to a friend that “It was written by accident – and it was published by accident.” It was actually the fruit of years of study and prayer during which he came to accept a Catholic understanding of the doctrine of Purgatory and the practice of praying for the deceased as well as the intercession of the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, and the angels.

The Dream of Gerontius expresses in poetical form many truths of Catholic dogma concerning creation, redemption and eschatology. The poem can be divided into three parts. In the first Gerontius who is dying asks for prayers; in the second, Gerontius’ soul meets its guardian angel and is tempted by demons; in the third the soul approaches God’s throne and judgment before going to Purgatory.

The poem opens with an old man (Gerontius, the Latin word derived from the Greek geron for old man) experiencing the loss of life.

“JESU, MARIA—I am near to death,

And Thou art calling me; I know it now.

Not by the token of this faltering breath,

This chill at heart, this dampness on my brow,—

(Jesu, have mercy! Mary, pray for me!)

‘Tis this new feeling, never felt before,

(Be with me, Lord, in my extremity!)

That I am going, that I am no more.

‘Tis this strange innermost abandonment,

(Lover of souls! great God! I look to Thee,)

This emptying out of each constituent

And natural force, by which I come to be.”


Gerontius asks for prayer from his friends. He is aware that death has come to visit him.

He feels the finiteness and weakness of the body and human life.


“Pray for me, O my friends; a visitant

Is knocking his dire summons at my door,

The like of whom, to scare me and to daunt,

Has never, never come to me before;

‘Tis death,—O loving friends, your prayers!-’tis

he! …

As though my very being had given way,

As though I was no more a substance now,

And could fall back on nought to be my stay,

(Help, loving Lord! Thou my sole Refuge,


And turn no whither, but must needs decay

And drop from out the universal frame

Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss,

That utter nothingness, of which I came:

This is it that has come to pass in me;

Oh, horror! this it is, my dearest, this;

So pray for me, my friends, who have not strength

to pray.”


Gerontius’ friends called his assistants recite a litany to the saints asking

for their protection, and strengthened by this prayer he tells himself:


“Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man;

And through such waning span

Of life and thought as still has to be trod,

Prepare to meet thy God.

And while the storm of that bewilderment

Is for a season spent,

And, ere afresh the ruin on me fall,

Use well the interval.”


“Prepare to meet thy God.” This is Newman’s invitation to the reader, and to each one us: think of death and judgment; think of Jesus the Just and Merciful Savior.

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