In this instructive poem, Blessed John Henry Newman teaches us about pusillanimity, or ignoble cowardice, which, if left unchecked, becomes a sin and later a vice. This is a timely lesson, since the reality of persecution for the faith becomes more and more common, whether it be in the public realm or in our situation within the workplace. Being a follower of Christ sometimes means stepping outside our comfort zone.
In order to illustrate pusillanimity, Newman shows us the contrasting virtue, magnanimity, the noble and generous spirit, as exhibited in the person of John the Baptist. It is a fitting poem to consider this week since we have just celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist.
The poem begins with a line spoken by him, after Jesus has requested baptism. In the first stanza, the speaker in the poem then addresses John the Baptist, bidding him, or entreating him to explain how it is that he, a mortal man, was able to accomplish such an incomprehensible request, that is, to “pour repentance” on the “Sinless Brow.”
The answer to this question follows in the final four lines of the first stanza. The Baptist hid his meekness within his ascetic comportment (or port) in an act of magnanimity, or noble spirit. Through his preaching, however, we know he was very aware that he was not even fit to untie his Master’s sandal. In other words, though he might have been fearful, or pusillanimous, to comply to Christ’s request, nevertheless, he did what the Lord asked of him with magnanimity.
The second stanza expands on this concept, giving us the lesson which we should learn from John the Baptist’s noble spirit. Notice the metrical emphasis on the word “Powers” in the second line of this stanza, a strongly accented first syllable within a trochee which begins the line, instead of the expected iamb. (Note: the archaic word “craven” means “coward.”)
“I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?”
HOW didst thou start, Thou Holy Baptist, bid
To pour repentance on the Sinless Brow!
Then all thy meekness, from thy hearers hid,
Beneath the Ascetic’s port, and Preacher’s fire,
Flow’d forth, and with a pang thou didst desire
He might be chief, not thou.
And so on us at whiles it falls, to claim
Powers that we dread, or dare some forward part;
Nor must we shrink as cravens from the blame
Of pride, in common eyes, or purpose deep;
But with pure thoughts look up to God, and keep
Our secret in our heart. (At Sea. June 22, 1833)
In this short but powerful poem, Newman teaches that sometimes, or “whiles” it falls on us to do something in the service of Christ for which we feel unprepared or unworthy. We may dread the outcome if we follow through, worrying about the “forward” part, or the future. We might fear that others will think our actions or words come from pride, and this fear of being misunderstood by the “common eye” might keep us from what we should do. But we must not be pusillanimous! Instead, with “pure thoughts” we must “look up to God” – and overcome our fear for the benefit of those who witness our actions. This is magnanimity. With God’s help, we may set aside our natural hesitation to act in His name. With our eyes set on Him, we may, like John the Baptist, prepare the way for the Lord, in our own time, a “vox clamantis in deserto” – a voice of one crying in the wilderness.