The third title in Plough’s “Gospel in Great Writers” series features the novelist George MacDonald. MacDonald’s nineteenth century contemporaries ranked him with Dickens and Thackeray. More recently, his spiritual vision and insight were of lifelong value to C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the spirit of Christ himself.”
MacDonald believed that God can speak through the imagination, and that the great creative works of man reflect God’s glory. One work he particularly loved was Handel’s Messiah. In this excerpt from his 1888 novel The Elect Lady, the speaker is a farmer who is also a poet.
I was once at an oratorio, and that taught me the shape of a poem. In a pause of the music, I seemed all at once to see Handel’s heavy countenance looking out of his great wig, as he sat putting together his notes, ordering about in his mind, and fixing in their places with his pen, his drums, and pipes, and fiddles, and roaring bass, and flageolets, and hautboys – all to open the door for the thing that was plaguing him with the confusion of its beauty.
For I suppose even Handel did not hear it all clear and plain at first, but had to build his orchestra into a mental organ for his mind to let itself out by, through the many music holes, lest it should burst with its repressed harmonic delights. He must have felt an agonized need to set the haunting angels of sound in obedient order and range, responsive to the soul of the thing, its one ruling idea! I saw him with his white rapt face, looking like a prophet of the living God sent to speak out of the heart of the mystery of truth! I saw him as he sat staring at the paper before him, scratched all over as with the fury of a holy anger at his own impotence, and his soul communed with heavenliest harmonies!
Will any man persuade me that Handel at such a moment was athirst for fame? or that the desire to please a house full or world full of such as heard his oratorios, gave him the power to write his music? No,! he was filled, not with the longing for sympathy, and not even with the good desire to give delight, but with the music itself. It was crying in him to get out, and he heard it crying, and could not rest till he had let it out; and every note that dropped from his pen was a chip struck from the granite wall between the song-birds in their prison-nest, and the air of their liberty. Creation is God’s self-wrought freedom.
MacDonald’s wife Louisa was a talented musician. During a period when the family lived in Italy, there was a small earthquake during a church service. According to legend, while the rest of the congregation hid under the pews, Louisa made for the organ and played the Messiah’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Listen to the London Philharmonic Orchestra perform another glorious piece from the Messiah: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”