An Anglican’s introduction to literary visionaries

An undated portrait of GK Chesterton by Edwin Swan (CNS)

During the Christmas period I dipped into Prophets and Visionaries by the Anglican vicar, author and journalist, Peter Mullen. Mullen is an enthusiast for great writers and his book is essentially an introduction to those he especially loves. Some of them are well-known, such as Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Newman, TS Eliot and GK Chesterton. The remaining three authors, the poets TE Hulme and CH Sissons and the historian and philosopher RG Collingwood, I barely knew.

Mullen’s method in what is a short book about certain men (there are no women included, which suggests the prophetic and visionary mode might be more a masculine pursuit?) who have written a great deal, is to anthologise passages from their books which illustrate their thought. In his introduction he explains his selection on the grounds that they are not merely “intellectuals” or “academics” – there being enough of these about – but men of “character”. This he defines as a “close emotional, personal and existential commitment which turns a writer’s words into poetry, even when the writing is ostensibly prose.”

I know what he means. Sometimes you discover a writer who penetrates a level of consciousness that is of a different order to most of what you read. There is a passion and seriousness about the writing, as well mastery over language, which elevates it to classic status; you instantly know that it will be read long after contemporary fashions for particular modes of writing, such as post-modernism, will have vanished. By his title Mullen means those writers who rise above their age. There are never many of these and it is a thrill to discover them. Incidentally, he doesn’t include the historian of culture, Christopher Dawson, who I have recently discovered and who surely deserves to be included in the book.

Those who would like a brief survey of writers they haven’t yet encountered would find this book a worthwhile introduction. It is always good to be reminded of, for example, the greatness of Dr Johnson – in his life as well as his letters. Mullen ends the chapter on him with the remark that “Edmund Burke carried his coffin” – reminding us that the famous political statesman humbly recognised he was in the presence of a superior man. On Coleridge, Mullen reminds the reader of Charles Lamb’s description of his friend: “An archangel, a little damaged”, which is as exact and brilliant a description of Coleridge as you can get. And on Newman, he observes “As with St Augustine, we see his spiritual depth most of all in his sermons and prayers.” Lovers of Newman would probably agree.

There is one small annoyance: Mullen refers to “Roman Catholics”, to distinguish them, I presume, from “English or Anglo-Catholics” like himself. I agree with Damian Thompson’s recent remark on Twitter on December 17 over this.

There are only “Catholics”; the branch theory of Christianity, to quote Mullen’s recent comment about the Church of England in his blog, All Things Considered, is “a busted flush”. With this in view, and because of his warm words about Newman and Chesterton – both converts – in his book, I tried to winkle Mullen out on this by asking him if he had ever considered joining the Ordinariate. He replied, “Indeed, I think of it often!” but refused to expand further.