Henry Sutton: Poet, Journalist and New Church Man

The influence of Emanuel Swedenborg on poets, other writers and artists of the nineteenth century has often been noted, but only a few of these were actually members of the denominational or “specific” New Church. One of the most distinguished of these few was Henry Sutton, a Victorian poet and journalist, influential and much admired in his own day (he has a sizeable entry in the Dictionary of National Biography), but now almost entirely forgotten, both in the New Church and in the wider world of literary scholarship.

Henry Septimus Sutton was born on 10th February 1825 in Nottingham, the seventh child in a family of seven sons and three daughters. His father, Richard Sutton (1789-1856) was a bookseller and printer, and the proprietor of the NottinghamReview. Henry, who spent his childhood among his father’s books, was educated at a private school in Nottingham and then at Leicester Grammar School. On leaving school he was articled to a surgeon, but eventually abandoned the medical profession for literature and journalism, writing first for his father’s paper. Among his early literary friends were his older Nottingham contemporary, Philip James Bailey, whose Festus (an immensely long poem on the Faust legend) was once widely admired, but who is now little better known than Sutton himself, and Coventry Patmore, with whom his friendship was to be life-long. Patmore’s best known poem, The Angel in the House, (hugely popular in its day as an exposition of ideal marriage) was deeply influenced by his reading of Conjugial Love (an indebtedness which the poet acknowledged in a footnote to the first published part of the work). Patmore was received into the Roman Catholic church shortly after the death of his first wife Emily in 1862, but it is clear from the charming memoir of his friend that Sutton published in the New Church Magazine in 1901 (just a month before his own death) that Patmore continued to admire and draw on Swedenborg, whom he called ‘my favourite saint’, in his later poetry and prose. Mutual admiration of Swedenborg must have been a powerful factor sustaining their friendship over so many years.

Another early friend was the poet and diarist William Allingham, also a keen reader of Swedenborg. Allingham records in his published diaries that he visited Sutton in his lodgings at Colchester in August 1849. Together they visited the ruined castle by twilight and Sutton gave him a letter of introduction to Coventry Patmore, then working at the British Museum. It is interesting to note that, even at this early stage before he became an avowed follower of Swedenborg’s teachings and a member of the New Church, Sutton made friends with men who were already students of the Writings. Sutton may have been influenced to read Swedenborg by Patmore and Allingham, but it appears that his knowledge of Swedenborg was first acquired through the writings of James John Garth Wilkinson, who began to publish translations in the 1840s and whose biography of Swedenborg first appeared in 1849.

Sutton’s first book, The Evangel of Love, published in 1847, was a prose work in which he attempted to deal with theological and social problems. The force and eloquence of the writing attracted attention. Across the Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson read the book and pronounced that its author was one of the greatest lights in England. During his visit to England in 1847/1848 (when he gave his famous series of lectures on Representative Men, including one on Swedenborg, or the Mystic) Emerson invited Sutton to meet him at his lodgings in Manchester. Another life-long friendship had begun. Sutton was to meet Emerson again during his visit to England in 1872. In London, Emerson lodged with Coventry Patmore and his wife. Sutton’s first volume of poetry, Clifton Road Garland, was published in 1848. Emerson said that it contained pieces worthy of the genius of George Herbert, the early seventeenth century metaphysical poet. His poem on tears is memorable:

The flowers live by the tears that fall
From the sad face of the skies,
And life would have no joys at all,
Were there no watery eyes.

Love thou thy sorrow, grief shall bring
Its own excuse in after years;
The rainbow! See how fair a thing
God hath built up from tears.

On Emerson’s recommendation, Alexander Ireland found journalistic work for Sutton in Manchester and he settled in that city in 1850. In January that year he married Sarah Pickard, by whom he had a son, Arthur, and a daughter. Sarah died in 1868 and in 1870 he married Mary Sophie Ewen, who survived her husband by nine years. There was no issue of the second marriage. Arthur was a boy of great promise. He won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford from Manchester Grammar School, but died, tragically and suddenly, in his twentieth year. Sutton’s daughter survived him.

In 1853 Sutton became the chief of the reporting staff of the Manchester Examiner and Times. Attracted to the temperance cause (drunkenness, particularly in the great industrial cities, had at this time reached appalling proportions), he joined the United Kingdom Alliance when it was formed. This new body started a weekly paper, the Alliance News, and in 1854 Sutton became its editor, remaining in this post until 1898 when he was 73 years old. Even after his retirement, he continued to write leading articles for the paper. Between 1859 and 1869 he was the editor of Meliora, a quarterly magazine concerned largely with the discussion of social and temperance issues. Sutton was a life-long total abstainer and a vegetarian.

His next book, Quinquinergia: Proposals for a New Practical Theology, a work of mixed prose and verse, was published in 1854. Not yet a convinced follower of Swedenborg, he called for a new theology which sounds very like that of the New Church. ‘…If you tell men that God has prepared a pit of endless torments for those who displease Him, how can you make them believe that God is love?…Or if you teach men that salvation is all of God, and that nothing they can do is of any worth, how can you expect them to set about the mighty work of regeneration?’ This book attracted thoughtful readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Among them was Bronson Alcott, a friend of Emerson and the father of Louisa May Alcott. He declared, ‘This is a truly original and mystic book, the work of a profound religious genius, combining the remarkable sense of William Law with the subtlety of Behmen [Böhme], and the piety of Pascal’. But it was the poetical part of the book, entitled Rose’s Diary, which attracted most attention and which provided the foundation of Sutton’s poetic fame. His religious poems were simply phrased, but subtly argued, and this, perhaps, was the source of their attraction to the contemporary reader. Christina Rossetti was a warm admirer of these poems and she recommended them to Francis Turner Palgrave, who included How beautiful it is to be alive and two others in his Golden Treasury of Religious Verse:

Thus ever towards man’s height of nobleness
Strive still some new progression to contrive;
Till, just as any other friend’s, we press
Death’s hand; and having died, feel none the less
How beautiful it is to be alive.

Another admirer was the Unitarian leader, Dr James Martineau, and he included the opening poem of Rose’s Diary in the hymn book of that church.

I have a little trembling light, which still
All tenderly I keep, and ever will.
I think it never wholly dies away,
But oft it seems as if it could not stay,
And I do strive to keep it if I may.

Some of the inspiration for this work may have come from the preacher and writer George MacDonald, whose Sunday services in a room in Rendell Street in Manchester Sutton attended. MacDonald, just two months older than Sutton, was born and raised in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. Graduating in natural sciences from Aberdeen University, he came to London where he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational church. He resigned his pastorate at Arundel in Sussex after his congregation reduced his salary because they disapproved of the ‘heretical’ German theology which he preached. Coming north to Manchester (where a brother was living), he attempted to earn a living by preaching and lecturing. MacDonald (who was also deeply influenced by his reading of Swedenborg) and Sutton were men of similar temperament and outlook and they soon became firm friends. MacDonald returned to London where he established a reputation as a writer of fiction for both adults and children. One of his earliest (and best) books is the adult fantasy Phantastes (1858), the book which was to ‘baptise’ the imagination of CS Lewis when he read it as a schoolboy during the First World War. Each chapter of Phantastes is prefaced by a poetic epigraph: Shakespeare, Spenser, Schiller, Novalis and Shelley feature, among others. The epigraph to chapter III is a short poem by Henry Sutton entitled Man:

Man doth usurp all space,
Stares thee, in rock, bush, river, in the face,
Never yet thine eyes behold a tree;
‘Tis no sea thou seést in the sea,
‘Tis but a disguised humanity.
To avoid thy fellow, vain thy plan;
All that interests a man, is man.

This little poem (which clearly owes something to both Pope and Coleridge) has been anthologised, along with two other poems by Sutton, in the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (1997), edited by Professor Daniel Karlin.

It was not long after MacDonald left Manchester that Sutton (in 1857) joined the Peter Street Society of the New Church and this was to be his spiritual home for the rest of his life. His reading of Swedenborg had been assisted by the friendship of the Rev. S.M. Warren, ‘under whose able direction the philosophy and theology of the New Church were systematically expounded to him’ (as an appreciation published in the New Church Magazine after his death put it). Sutton soon became a very active member of the church. He taught in the Sunday school, spoke at meetings, and eventually became an impressive lay preacher, both at Peter Street and elsewhere in Lancashire. He occupied the Peter Street pulpit frequently in the period between the death of the Rev. John Hyde and the subsequent appointment of the Rev. C.H. Wilkins as minister there and it is said that his services there were so greatly appreciated that many of the congregation would have had him as their minister if that had been possible. His attitude to useful service for the church may be summed up in some lines of his own:

Who works not for his fellow starves his soul;
His thoughts grow poor and dwindle, and his heart
Grudges each beat, as misers do a dole;
He dies anon, and shall with them have part
Who find in death an everlasting goal.

In his later years ill health forced Sutton to retire from pulpit work, but he continued to study the Writings and, in 1894, he published his principal theological work, Five Essays for Students of the Divine Philosophy of Swedenborg. In this work he attempted to grapple with abstruse topics, such as the origin of ideas, mental degrees, the rational, the inmost soul and heredity. It should be added here that after he became a member of the New Church he withdrew The Evangel of Love and Quinquinergia from circulation as being not consistent with the teachings in Swedenborg’s Writings, but was later prevailed upon to allow them back in print. The Five Essays were preparatory to his work on the Incarnation and Glorification of the Lord, Our Saviour’s Triple Crown, which was published in 1898. This book caused raised eyebrows (and rather more) among New Church theologians of the day, because it advocated ‘universalism’, or the non-eternity of hell, the generous doctrine that ultimately no person will be allowed by God to remain in hell. This teaching was thought to be ‘heretical’ and contrary to the clear teaching in the writings that no person’s ruling love can be altered after death. ‘Universalism’ was certainly taught by George MacDonald and it may be that Sutton was influenced in this by his old friend. While Sutton’s views on this topic may not receive universal approbation even today, I suspect that many modern New Church theologians are less dogmatic in their interpretation of statements in the Writings than their predecessors were at the end of the nineteenth century and that they would strive to give them a more generous interpretation along the lines suggested by Henry Sutton.

Sutton died quite suddenly on 2nd May 1901 at the age of 76. He had continued to write, both for the New Church and for the temperance cause, almost to the very end. Obituaries were published in The Times and in the Manchester Guardian. One of the appreciations published in the New Church Magazine expressed the view that ‘he will have a place in the permanent roll of New Church worthies’. ‘More than that,’ continued the writer, ‘it may be confidently predicted that when the history of the sacred verse of the nineteenth century is written, Rose’s Diary will be remembered as a lasting monument of the religious aspirations of Henry Sutton’.

Sadly, a hundred years later neither of these predictions has turned out to have been accurate. Henry Sutton is not mentioned at all in the Rev. Dennis Duckworth’s concise (but comprehensive) history of the church, The Branching Tree (1998). The well-known Birmingham Suttons (who are mentioned in that book) are not connected with Henry at all. In the world of literary scholarship he has been almost entirely neglected, and so it is encouraging that Professor Karlin included three short poems of his in his 1997 Penguin Victorian anthology. Henry Sutton’s close connections with Coventry Patmore and with George MacDonald, both important figures in Victorian literature and both deeply influenced by Swedenborg, ought to make him a person of some interest. A modest revival of his reputation is long overdue.

Works consulted

Dictionary of National Biography, 2nd Supplement, Volume III, page 453

Henry S. Sutton by Jonathan Robinson, New Church Magazine, 1901, page 271

Henry Septimus Sutton, An Appreciation by an Old Friend, New Church Magazine, 1901, page 278

Swedenborg and Coventry Patmore by Henry Sutton, New Church Magazine, 1901, page 179

Henry S.Sutton, Poems (Glasgow, David M.Main, 1886)

William Allingham, The Diaries ed. H. Allingham and D. Radford (London, the Folio Society, 1990), page 60

Greville MacDonald, George MacDonald and His Wife (Whitehorn, California, 1998, reprinted from the original 1924 edition by Johannesen & Co.), page 217

George MacDonald, Phantastes, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1981) pages 10/11

H.N. Morris, Flaxman, Blake, Coleridge and other Men of Genius Influenced by Swedenborg (London, New Church Press, 1915)

Dennis Duckworth, A Branching Tree (London, The General Conference of the New Church, 1998)

-- Richard Lines (05/02/2006)

Readers Comments

  1. Apparently this is what the esteeemd Willis was talkin' 'bout.

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