(William Blake, from Jerusalem)
In a letter to his publisher Ben Huebsch (11 May 1959) about his new novel, Riders in the Chariot (1961), Patrick White wrote: ‘What I want to emphasise through my four “Riders” – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist [Earth spirit] of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.’
‘Faith’ is a word that’s caught my attention recently: there have often been children’s chalked drawings on the paths of the park, which I find oddly heartening; but also small blue flags inscribed with pithy sayings, planted at various points beside the wide left-hand path and near the bases of trees, which I find a little less so.
‘Keep faith’, one of them advised. Yes, but in what, with what? For the religiously inclined, it’s probably clear enough, but for the rest of us? Faith—trust—in government or the existing financial and social systems or the quality of electoral choices has not been possible for quite some time. And I get the impression that the word itself is used less often now – less often than its opposite, surely.
The poet Ernest Dowson was faithful to his Cynara ‘in my fashion’, unable to shake free of an obsessive love, though it was the prostitute he lay with ‘last night’ who prompted the comparison:
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was suppressed, prosecuted and banned in 1915. Seven years later, he was writing Kangaroo. There’s a moment in the later novel when Harriett Somers asks her husband Richard: “Who is there that you feel you are with, besides me—or who feel themselves with you?”
‘And at the same moment he looked up and saw the rainbow fume beyond the sea. But it was on a dark background like a coloured darkness. The rainbow was always a symbol to him—a good symbol: of this peace. A pledge of unbroken faith, between the universe and the innermost. And the very moment he said “No one,” he saw the rainbow for an answer.’
(Joseph Wright of Derby, Landscape with a Rainbow: Derby Museum and Art Gallery)
Innermost. An adjective seemingly called into urgent Lawrentian service as a noun. Katherine Mansfield was thinking of action around then, writing to Middleton Murry from Menton in 1920 that she sometimes wondered whether ‘the act of surrender is not one of the greatest of all’, one of the most difficult. ‘Can it be accomplished or even apprehended except by the aristocrats of this world? You see its so immensely complicated. It “needs” real humility and at the same time an absolute belief in ones own essential freedom. It is an act of faith. At the last moments like all great acts it is pure risk. This is true for me as a human being and as a writer. Dear Heaven how hard it is to let go—to step into the blue.’
Thomas Merton—poet, monk, writer on comparative religions—remarked in his journal (New York, May 30, 1940): ‘Instead of having faith, which is a virtue, and therefore nourishes the soul and gives it a healthy life, people merely have a lot of opinions, which excite the soul but don’t give it anything to feed it, just wear it out until it falls over from exhaustion.’
By way of contrast, John Cowper Powys observed of his brother Llewellyn Powys: ‘To be as certain as he was that there is no God and no immortality and no Moral Law, is, I think, a rarer human phenomenon than most of us realize. I take it that the normal human mood—it is certainly my own mood—is to alternate between faith shaken by rational doubts, and doubt shaken by irrational faith; in other words, to be an illusioned or disillusioned agnostic.’
(Henri Rousseau, Surprised! – National Gallery)
Guy Davenport argued that ‘[Henri] Rousseau and Flaubert simply record, and hold to a faith, wholly new in art, that the scene has its meaning inherent in it.’ Ford Madox Ford had also cited Flaubert when he touched on faith in an essay some seventy years earlier: ‘whatever the French school had or hadn’t, they had faith – the faith that, if they turned out good art, sociology and the rest would follow. That is what Flaubert meant when he said that if his countrymen had read L’Education Sentimentale France would have been spared the horrors of the débâcle.’
Faith was an abiding, or at least recurrent, concern to Ford, not least because he was a Roman Catholic himself—converted in 1892, just before his nineteenth birthday—but also because several of his novels concerned the Tudor (the Fifth Queen trilogy) and Jacobean (The “Half-Moon”) periods, so such phrases as ‘the old faith’ and ‘the new faith’ crop up many times.
One early Ford poem was entitled ‘The Old Faith to the Converts’:
When the world is growing older,
And the road leads down and down and down,
And the wind is in the bare tree-tops
And the meadows sodden with much rain,
Seek me here in the old places,
And here, where I dwell, you shall find me,’
Says the old Faith we are leaving.
In a more secular context, Ford would later assert: ‘I owe a great deal to Conrad. But most of all I owe to him that strong faith—that in our day and hour the writing of novels is the only pursuit worth while for a proper man.’
Long after the end of the First World War and close to the beginning of a second, Ford wrote: ‘Faith, in short, died after the war—every sort of faith.’ And he repeated this to Henry Goddard Leach, editor of Forum and Century, in early 1938: ‘The War, that is to say, got rid of Faith, Loyalty, Courage and all the other big words as motives for human action….’
(Henry Tonks, An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras: photo credit Imperial War Museum)
But perhaps Ford’s most memorable use of the word is in a fictional context, its import quite explicitly unclear to Christopher Tietjens, who is describing to his wife Sylvia his experiences in a Casualty Clearing Station after suffering the effects of a shell blast: ‘“but the fellow who was strangling me was what I wanted to tell you about. He let out a number of ear-piercing shrieks and lots of orderlies came and pulled him off me and sat all over him. Then he began to shout ‘Faith!’ He shouted: ‘Faith! … Faith! … Faith!…’ at intervals of two seconds, as far as I could tell by my pulse, until four in the morning, when he died…. I don’t know whether it was a religious exhortation or a woman’s name, but I disliked him a good deal because he started my tortures, such as they were. . . . There had been a girl I knew called Faith. Oh, not a love affair: the daughter of my father’s head gardener, a Scotsman. The point is that every time he said Faith I asked myself ‘Faith … Faith what?’ I couldn’t remember the name of my father’s head gardener.”’
‘Faith what?’ It’s a good question. I imagine we each have our own answer.
 Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 153.
 Dowson, ‘Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae’, in Ian Fletcher, editor, British Poetry and Prose, 1870-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 377. The title, from Horace’s Odes, IV, translates as ‘I am not what once I was under kind/ Cynara’s reign.’
 D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 155.
 Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 186.
 Thomas Merton, A Secular Journal (London: Hollis & Carter, 1959), 58.
 John Cowper Powys, introduction to Llewellyn Powys, A Baker’s Dozen (1941; London: Village Press, 1974), 15.
 Davenport, ‘What Are These Monkeys Doing?’ in Every Force Evolves a Form (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 20.
 Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger’: Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 571. The ‘débâcle’ is the Franco-Prussian war and the upheaval that immediately followed it.
 In Poems for Pictures and for Notes of Music (1900): Collected Poems (London: Max Goschen, 1913 [dated 1914]), 142.
 Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 185.
 Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 315.
 Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 287.
 Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 210.