Blessed John Henry Newman’s birthday is in February, in the winter and during lent, an appropriate time to discover his fascinating poem, “My Birthday.” As is the case with many of his poems, this one gives an insight into the man, Newman. When hearing a poem entitled “My Birthday” one would expect something merry and light … but this is not what Newman wrote. Instead, he calls us to contemplate the 4 last things. Newman was an introvert – and though he had many friends, still, he loved to study and to read in quiet. His birthday poem reveals Newman contemplating both the actual time of year (February), and the passing of time as well. Newman relates how many people celebrate birthdays by worldly parties with food and drink, in contrast to how he wishes to celebrate, that is, by contemplating the last things. Although this may sound like an odd thing to bring up in a birthday poem, isn’t it perfectly natural and something that everyone growing older thinks about? Newman doesn’t think of growing old with despair — but with hope and gladness! And this is an attitude from which all can benefit.
Let the sun summon all his beams to hold
Bright pageant in his court, the cloud-paved sky
Earth trim her fields and leaf her copses cold;
Till the dull month with summer-splendours vie.
It is my Birthday;—and I fain would try,
Albeit in rude, in heartfelt strains to praise
My God, for He hath shielded wondrously
From harm and envious error all my ways,
And purged my misty sight, and fixed on heaven
The first stanza is referring to the winter world around Newman in February, and though all is frozen and perhaps dull — the beauty of the sky (paved with clouds!) nevertheless is filled with pageantry! The leafless trees, which make the “copses” that is the grove of trees “cold” since the limbs are bare, does not appear bleak to Newman, but “trim” that is, tidy and uncluttered … an optimistic way to view a winter scene. This leads Newman to thank God, who protected him from error and sin by keeping his eyes fixed on heaven.
Not in that mood, in which the insensate crowd
Of wealthy folly hail their natal day,—
With riot throng, and feast, and greetings loud,
Chasing all thoughts of God and heaven away.
Poor insect! feebly daring, madly gay,
What! joy because the fulness of the year
Marks thee for greedy death a riper prey?
Is not the silence of the grave too near?
Viewest thou the end with glee, meet scene for
Go then, infatuate! where the festive hall,
The curious board, the oblivious wine invite;
Speed with obsequious haste at Pleasure’s call,
And with thy revels scare the far-spent night.
Joy thee, that clearer dawn upon thy sight
The gates of death;—and pride thee in thy sum
Of guilty years, and thy increasing white
Of locks; in age untimely frolicksome,
Make much of thy brief span, few years are yet to
Stanzas 2 and 3 speak of worldly men, who by folly with the wrong crowd — drive thoughts of God and heaven away, and by giving in to pleasures of the world … these men fail to see the passing of time; they try to forget that the grim reaper might call them that very day … they are too busy with pleasures to realize how feeble they are, almost like a “poor insect” — these men with their “guilty years” that have been wasted in frolic, will, when they grow old — realize they have squandered years which should have been spent living for God. In these verses the young Newman is considering his college peers at Trinity, Oxford who gave into worldly indulgences and excesses.
These birthday thoughts of Newman can help us during this season of Lent to examine our use of this world and time while giving us pause to consider our desire for success. Next week we will see how Newman gives direction to his own self-examination, while instructing on the proper outlook one must have upon the passing years.