This takes us to the 17th Century, Descartes and a new philosophy centred on the self, as the arbiter of all truth, rather than the Thomistic realism whose starting point is the existence of God.
The subsequent “Enlightenment” was, says Thornton-Norris, no liberation. “Reason became the vehicle by which the intellectual darkness of a new paganism was loosed on the modern world.”
The first literary incarnation of this concept was Neoclassicism: “the introduction, imitation and translation of the classical values of decorum, restraint, and respect for the Latin Classical Tradition but it mistook the surface of that tradition for its essence: a creative literature contained within the metaphysical boundaries set by ecclesiastical Christianity.”
Romanticism he presents as an escape from the rationalism of classicism into emotion and “the sanctification of nature”.
Then the pendulum swings back: we reach modernism and the more vehement rational anti-theist culture that spawned Marxism, described by Thornton-Norris as having become by the 1930’s “the secular religion of a number of writers.”
Postmodernism he labels the development of Marxism and other relativist philosophies (eg, existentialism and liberalism) that according to the author lack reason and order and resulted in a literature themed on emotional alienation.
In The Wasteland, Eliot summed this up lamenting the “disintegration of the intellect”. And, argues Thornton-Norris, as the relationship between religion and poetry has declined so too has the beauty of poetic imagery.
Eliot, Thornton-Norris explains, “developed a view of poetry with its apex at the time of Dante, when the mind and the emotions were fused in a sensibility that saw the ‘senses thinking’ or ‘sensuous thought’ offer ‘the most comprehensive and the most ordered presentation of emotion that has ever been made,’ partly as a consequence of the order and comprehensiveness of Thomist, or Catholic theology and philosophy.”
The last vestige of this tradition of metaphysical poetry was to be found in Eliot's immediate inspiration, the school of Baudelaire in France in the 19th century. Twentieth-century poets, such as Philip Larkin, wrote in the tradition of the 19th century Romantic poets, considering what came after it to be a dead period for literature, a period when, according to Thornton-Norris, orthodox Protestantism died out in Britain.
In this “dead period” grew writes Thornton-Norris “a sentimental humanism which is the inspiration for contemporary literature, culture and politics. It does not attempt intellectual engagement with itself or to understand its historical genesis, antecedents or heritage. It is existentialist, solipsistic, narcissistic, childish and self indulgent. It sees no reason to engage with the high culture of the past because it feels that it has been liberated from such ‘judgemental’ or ‘oppressive’ phenomena.”
And so the author concludes that literature in England died with “our faith and its culture of tradition and continuity”. He therefore commends his book as “a manifesto for the revival of literature in England – orthodox ecclesiastical Christianity is the precondition for this revival, as our historic literary tradition depends upon it – and its cultural incarnation in the Latin Classical Tradition”.
Thornton-Norris, himself a poet, has put his theory into practice. In the course of writing this book he converted to Roman Catholicism.
His hypothesis is bold and sweeping. Some will no doubt think that it shackles English literature into a narrow thematic framework. As they read this book they may delight in citing the literary exceptions to disprove his rule.
Though T.S Eliot that apostle of High Anglicanism, is the author's guiding light, he also calls upon more unlikely witnesses to back his arguments: Larkin, Hughes and V.S Naipaul. And in flirting with such modern writers to underpin his arguments, Thornton-Norris shows that he is not dismissing modern writers out of hand, only placing them into a historical literary context within which the work can be judged and compared.
Even if you do not agree with The Spiritual History of English, it provides an enjoyable, erudite and cohesive journey through the history and philosophy of English literature in 150 pithily written pages.
Brilliantly thought out, and painstakingly researched The Spiritual History of English is a useful literary accompaniment to the argument of the Pope Benedict XVI, who, upon his election in 2005 warned of “the dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires”.