Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Boreham on Truth and Gilding the Lily

F W Boreham’s writing was popular with his audience because his words conveyed colorful images, his language aroused emotion and he used vivid elements that made his writing come alive. However, Boreham’s efforts to enthrall his readers and communicate to them a literary magic had a downside. C P Scott, the longtime editor of the Manchester Guardian, asserted that a newspaper must present “the unclouded face of truth” and that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.”[1] In writing his newspaper editorials, Boreham’s preoccupation with the fascinating and the distinctive sometimes led to a clouding of the truth, a lack of analytical depth which resulted in simplistic explanations. Boreham was aware of the bias and exaggeration of writers like Dickens and he forgave this because of their passion and enjoyment of their subject.

Varnishing the Truth
There were other ways that Frank Boreham unintentionally varnished the truth. The gusto with which he wrote exuded an optimistic air but it sometimes became monotonous and failed to recognize and value the other moods of human experience. This was surprising for a person who wrote with enjoyment about the variety of the seasons. There was little evidence that Boreham experienced or advocated what John Keats called ‘negative capability’, the state in which a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”[2] Boreham’s unwillingness to write editorials in a minor key or to conclude with questions or ambiguities was one of his literary and theological weaknesses.

Diluting Theological Terminology
One of the significant features of Dr Boreham’s expression of theology for his public audience was his attention to appropriate language. Prior to 1943, when Boreham began to give many of his editorials a religious appendage, his articles had scant religious references and language of an overt theological nature. In the interests of maintaining contact with his readers in a secular medium, Boreham was intentional and skilful in liberally ‘diluting’ theological terms and hiding theological ideas in metaphor and story. For example, when discussing religious festivals like Christmas and Easter, he practiced the art of portraying their ordinary and most accessible features.

Pastel Sounds
In addition to thinning or disguising abstract theological language, Boreham guarded against the tendency to moralize and sermonize. Ever attentive to tone, his editorials were confident without being cocksure. While Boreham wrote several times of the ‘pastel shades’ of the autumn season, in 1949 he mixed his metaphors when commending the ‘pastel sounds’ that described the theological tone he favored. In his explication, he asked:

"Is it any wonder then that the Divine voice, whenever and whenever heard, is invariably marked by softness, calmness and restraint? The most convincing and compelling exhibitions of super human power come to men not in the earthquake nor in the fire, but in a still small voice. Isaiah has a quote about the servant who “Shall not scream.” The eloquence of heaven is always couched in pastel accents and in delicate and melodious undertones."[3]

Boreham’s theological writing was invariably ‘couched in pastel accents’ rather than in black and white. His editorials were restrained and open-ended rather than hard-hitting and dogmatic. While this predominant tone appeared to be appropriate for a public audience and in keeping with Boreham’s personality, his avoidance of controversy muted his prophetic voice when tough words needed to be declared decisively and with courage.

Boreham’s non-religious language and restrained style seemed appropriate for writing about theology and life in Australian newspapers until the addition of his overt religious conclusions from 1943 to 1959. Pitching his theology in open-ended, pastel tones heightened the longevity of Boreham’s editorial career but his writing would have improved with a broadening of the mood and a variation of the tone, especially the inclusion of a clearer, stronger, prophetic voice.

Geoff Pound

Image: Gilding the Lily.

[1] C P Scott, Manchester Guardian, 5 May 1921.
[2] Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 December 1817, Letters of John Keats 1814-1821 vol. 1 ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 195.
[3] F W Boreham, Mercury, 19 February 1949.