04 January 2017
His major works don’t quite work but there are few things as good as the best of this priest-writer’s stylish vignettes and pastiches
For Evelyn Waugh he was the finest living writer of English prose; C. S. Lewis reckoned him the wittiest man in England. Outstanding among a golden generation of Edwardian Etonians, Ronald Knox, fourth son of an evangelical bishop, and aged 24, was a fellow of Trinity, Oxford and acknowledged spokesman for the “Anglo-Papalist” wing of the Church of England. But the Great War catalysed in him a crisis of faith in Anglican orders, and in 1917 he became a Catholic. A Spiritual Aeneid narrates his conversion in a plangent tapestry of repurposed Virgilian texts, a lament for vanished security and illusory certainties. Melancholy was henceforth an intermittent companion; but his life as a Catholic was a busy one. He was eight years a schoolmaster, then for a dozen more Catholic chaplain at Oxford; in 1939, he went off to translate the Bible, with the ostensibly enthusiastic but as it turned out uncertain support of the hierarchy. Aggressive liver cancer killed him in 1957, to the grief of many, including the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, a friend for four decades.
Now, almost 60 years on, what should we make of him? It is easy to be fascinated by the remarkable context from which Knox came (his three brothers became respectively editor of Punch, an eminent Anglo-Catholic clergyman and an arch-codebreaker) and awed by his precocity: aged six, he read Virgil in the original and cracked good jokes about dialect in Xenophon. His career at Eton and Balliol is the stuff of legends. Could any achievement, however variously eminent, ever live up to such beginnings?
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