Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

F W Boreham on Thomas à Kempis: Take Two

Yesterday’s posting was an article about Thomas à Kempis and The Imitation of Christ. F W Boreham, ‘the great recycler’, reworked many of his essays and this posting represents a revised edition of the earlier essay. Why not rework articles when you are contributing for fifty years!?

The word limit for newspaper editorials kicked in so Boreham’s articles in the 1950s were only about 500-700 words, compared with 1500 when he commenced as an editorialist. This essay, which is just under 1,000 words, has some new elements but the first line containing a reference to an anniversary is the telltale sign that it was used as a newspaper article. It was posted in the Hobart
Mercury on Saturday 24 July 1948. I have taken it from Boreham’s book that was published posthumously, The Last Milestone. Even if you read yesterday’s posting, read this one also and let TAK ‘grip you’ as he gripped FWB.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the death, in 1471, of the author of one of the most extraordinary books ever written. Thomas à Kempis was born in 1380. His masterpiece was published in the year in which he died, so he tasted nothing of fame. Yet, during the four centuries that followed, over 6,000 separate editions appeared, and, today, translated into every known language, it is being reprinted and distributed in every part of the world.

The first English version was, at the command of Margaret, mother of Henry VII, prepared by Canon Atkinson in 1502. For some strange reason that is more easy to trace than to explain, the book has appealed to all sorts and conditions of people. Equally appreciated by Protestants and Catholics, as well as by those who stand attached to neither faith, it gathers into itself, as Dean Milman says, all that is elevating, passionate and profound in the older mystics, and touches real life at almost every point.

Unhappily, very little is known about the author. Entering the old Augustinian monastery at Agnetenberg, in the Netherlands, at the age of twenty-seven, he lived there a life that was singularly colorless and uneventful. He describes himself as a lover of books and quiet corners. Although Europe was a cloud of dust, convulsed in storm and tumult, with wars raging and thrones tottering, he lived his patient life of introspection and contemplation.

He was, Prof. T. M. Lindsay says, a little fresh-colored man, with soft brown eyes, who had a way of stealing away to his silent cell whenever the conversation became too lively. Normally, his frame was bowed and bent, but he had a habit of standing bolt upright when the psalms were being chanted, and, under stress of spiritual elation, he would even rise on tiptoe till he appeared almost tall.

Lovers of The Mill on the Floss are not likely to forget George Eliot's description of the sensational experience that came to Maggie Tulliver at a most critical moment in her career. The chapter is appropriately entitled `A Voice from the Past'. Maggie is in desperate straits. Her mind is in torture; her faith flags and almost fails. Woman-like, she attempts to steady her nerves by an orgy of tidying-up. In a high cupboard, long neglected, she chances upon a pile of musty-fusty old books, coated with dust and yellow with age. Picking one at random, Maggie finds it is a well worn copy of The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. It has the corners turned down at many places, while every here and there passages are marked, underlined and annotated. The ink has turned brown with the passing of the years, but is still clear.

George Eliot says a strange thrill shot through Maggie's frame as she read these marked sentences, as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir while hers was lost in stupor. Oblivious of time, oblivious of everything, Maggie passed from one brown mark to another, as the quiet hand pointed, hardly conscious that she was reading. She seemed to be simply listening to some still, small voice whispering to her out of the eternities. The words met her case and wonderfully soothed and fortified her broken spirit. She felt that, in company with some sturdy ancestor of her own, who had possibly slumbered in his grave for 100 years or more, she had been sitting at the feet of this devout old monk who, in the peaceful hush of his cloister, had conceived these gracious thoughts and committed them to paper half a thousand years ago.

This episode from George Eliot is typical. For the really extraordinary thing about The Imitation is its ability to appeal to men and women of such vastly different types. In his Sacred and Profane Love, Arnold Bennett pays tribute to the penetrating influence of the book upon the strange life of his beautiful heroine, Carlotta Peel. Ian Maclaren has testified to its hold on Scotland, and Mr. Wesley was deeply moved by it.

General Gordon, too, made Thomas à Kempis his constant companion. However light he was compelled to travel, he would never leave The Imitation behind. And we all like to remember that, during those bleak October days of 1915, when Nurse Edith Cavell languished in her wretched prison at Brussels, awaiting execution, she cherished as her greatest solace her little copy of à Kempis. In her last moments she begged that, after her death, it might be sent to her cousin, Mr. E. D. Cavell, who received it three years later.

How are we to account for this universal appeal? Why is it, George Eliot asks, that this small, old-fashioned book, for which you need only pay sixpence, works miracles in human lives, turning bitter water into sweetness, while expensive volumes, newly issued, leave all things as they were before? `It is,' she says, 'because it was written by a hand that waited for the heart's promptings. It is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish with its struggle, its trust, and its triumph. It was not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet life's jagged stones.'

And just because it sprang from the throbbing depths of a noble soul, it will touch the hearts of all who read it as long as the world stands. The placid, kindly, fresh-colored old man who wrote his book before Columbus discovered the Western world never dreamed that the songs of the birds in the trees around his fifteenth-century convent would be broadcast through its pages to all the continents and islands, nor that the perfume of the flowers of his monastery garden would, by means of his manuscript, be wafted about the world till earth's last sun shall set.

F W Boreham, ‘A Lover of Quiet Corners,’ The Last Milestone (London: The Epworth Press, 1961), 99-101.

Image: Portrait of Thomas à Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ.