2012-07-28 17.14.15

Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem, “Substance and Shadow,” takes several readings to understand. It is a difficult but lovely poem. The difficulty arises from the complex ideas he is trying to convey in the compact form of metered verse. But what Newman is trying to show, through the medium of poetry, is something he had considered at a young age, and which he would convey fully in his groundbreaking work, “The Grammar of Assent”; that is, how do we know? And can we believe things that we don’t understand?

In this poem, Newman says that the “pedants” or experts who think they know and understand the physical world because of what they have discovered, are depending on fantasy because one day something is proven “true” but the next day, disproven. The world of the senses is deceiving. Men, who believe that they are in control of the world simply because they can cause certain things to happen, are fooling themselves. This is pertinent for our modern times since, more and more, men are trying to conquer the natural world by means of science: with gene manipulation … three-parent embryos … the list goes on and on.

The world of the senses, and how men perceive the world, changes. Something might be “stirring,” or moving physically one moment, but “still” the next; what we see can change, or “come and go” … we cannot depend on the world of sense impression but must realize that we, along with the created world, are “creatures” – and “sons of Immortal seed” … with a high destiny!

Listen to the poem in its entirety, noting the smooth and rhythmic sound of the iambic pentameter line, but listen carefully when Newman “stirs” this unbroken meter, with a metrical substitution … in just the right spot, to add emphasis and meaning. The iamb is two syllables, unstressed then stressed, the trochee two syllables, stressed then unstressed.

 

THEY do but grope in learning’s pedant round,

Who on the fantasies of sense bestow

An idol substance, bidding us bow low

Before those shades of being which are found,

Stirring or still, on man’s brief trial-ground;

As if such shapes and moods, which come and go,

Had aught of Truth or Life in their poor show,

To sway or judge, and skill to sane or wound.

Son of immortal seed, high-destined Man!

Know thy dread gift,—a creature, yet a cause:

Each mind is its own centre, and it draws

Home to itself, and moulds in its thought’s span

All outward things, the vassals of its will,

Aided by Heaven, by earth unthwarted still. (Falmouth.December 7, 1832)

 

We must not put our faith in the things of the world, either “to sane” or “to wound,” that is, to heal us or to hurt us … we must remain unthwarted by the earth. “For the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” as the Psalmist sang … and this earth is the “trial-ground” of mankind. We find healing only in God.  We are His creatures, but since we can cause things to happen, we think we are in control, that our own minds are the center. We believe our thoughts are the “vassals,” or servants of our own wills, without understanding these are all gifts from our Creator. The final metrical substitution in the last line of this well-crafted poem, gives metrical emphasis:  “Aided by Heaven;” An initial trochee takes the place of the iamb, in this important final line, and punctuates the lesson of the poem.

The poem’s title and first stanza express an important idea of Newman: that we live in the world of shadows, only dimly perceiving the substance. In fact Newman chose as his epitaph: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem'” (Out of shadows and symbols into truth). The material world is only a shadow of the spiritual world and its Creator. We cannot make an idol of the shadows. As St. John of the Cross wrote: “In search of my Love I will go over mountains and strands; I will gather no flowers, I will fear no wild beasts; And pass by the mighty and the frontier.” (A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and Bridegroom).

How do we try to discern between the shade and the substance? Blessed John Henry Newman, aid us, while we grope through the shadows of this world.

 

Like this article?

The world which sees only appearances cannot comprehend the hidden reality of a heart captive to Christ. 

With this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have the indwelling of Christ in our souls. Christ is born in us. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, crying out Abba Father, and restores in us the likeness of Christ.

Leave a comment

Our Books

About Cardinal John Henry Newman

Purchase Book


A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

Purchase Book

 
Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.
 

Purchase Book


Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

Purchase Book


What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

Purchase Book


Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

Purchase Book


Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
About Newman
Fr. Juan Velez

The Indwelling Spirit

With this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have the indwelling of Christ in our souls. Christ is born in us. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, crying out Abba Father, and restores in us the likeness of Christ.

Read More »
Sermon Blog
David Warren

The Fellowship of the Apostles

Preaching the truth means Jesus Christ is the goal in our conflicts with others – not winning the argument. This is why we can approach everyone with understanding, respect and patience, in other words, in a Christ-like way.

Read More »
About Newman
Prof. Barb H. Wyman

Many Called, Few Chosen

Though the invitation is open to all, not everyone responds to it in faith. Those who accept the call, embrace Christ, and live according to His teachings; they are the chosen ones.

Read More »
Sermon Blog
Fr. Juan Velez

The Gospel Feast

John Henry Newman calls the Holy Mass the Gospel Feast and takes us through numerous biblical passages that prefigure this great Sacrament.

Read More »