LIKE THE NIGHTSHIRT and the player-piano, goodness has, on whole, gone out of fashion. If one is to believe current wisdom, there are the powerful, the sexy, the great, the villainous, the clever--but the good? Dullsville. Leave them to the clergy--and, if they happen to be scholars, to the scholarly clergy. But, then, that has gone out of fashion as well. There are, to be sure, preachers, evangelists, spiritual counselors, embattled bishops, and even a few theologians. But scholarly clerics? Dullsville II. Leave them to the seminaries. As for the very idea that a learned clergyman would nowadays be able to compose a series of memoirs of recently deceased colleagues, entitle it Lives of Twelve Good Men, and actually harbor the hope that the result might prove both readable and popular--well, there exist lots of counselors, spiritual and otherwise, who for the right fee would be only too happy to cure that sort of delusion.

But Victorian England was different. John William Burgon (1813-1888), an Anglican clergyman of pronounced conservative views, successively fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, Gresham Professor of Divinity in the same university, and dean of Chichester Cathedral, produced just such a volume. It first appeared in 1888, and proved to be such a success that numerous later editions were called for. The book consists of a collection of affectionately commemorative essays about 11 divines and one devout layman--most of them distinguished, some obscure--all exemplifying virtue and goodness. The volume is now out of print.

Dean Burgon's aim was not so much simply to preserve the names of certain good men from oblivion, as "to provoke those who shall come after us to the imitation of whatever there was of noble, or of lovely, or of good report in their beautiful 'lives.' " That was hardly original. One need only think of medieval saints' lives as prior examples --though Burgon, stout Anglican and anti-Roman that he was, would no doubt have been reluctant to pursue that particular analogy too far. What was original about Burgon's endeavor was that, writing a generation before Lytton Strachey--and one can easily imagine what he would have had to say about the dean, had he chosen to impale him as an eminent Victorian--he lamented the long and weighty tomes that were then the sine qua non of all biography: "Very few are the men who require 500 pages all to themselves," Burgon wrote in his preface to Twelve Good Men; "far fewer bear expansion into two such volumes. Of how vast a number of one's distinguished friends would 40, 50, 60 pages contain all that really requires to be handed down to posterity!"

As we morosely contemplate both the expanse and the expense of most of the biographies of those recently deceased written in our own day, we cannot but sympathize with Burgon's cri de coeur. But are his ,eloges still worth reading? The reason for my affirmative answer lies, in part, in the light they shed in this the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Oxford Movement, on the challenges and perplexities with which that attempt by John Henry Newman and his friends to revivify the traditions and corporate nature of the Church of England in an increasingly liberal and secular age confronted their clerical contemporaries. Initially, most of them applauded as timely and noble the declared aim of the Tractarians-- the chief figures in the movement were so called because of the "Tracts for the Times" they wrote and distributed-- to restore holiness and a sense of identity to the Anglican church. But when the movement seemed to veer ineluctably towards "Popery," when Newman himself "went over" in 1845, the story became different. "At Oxford," Burgon recalls, "men fairly reeled beneath the intelligence--and though but few, comparatively, followed Dr. Newman to Rome, hundreds who remained behind in very perplexity drifted from their moorings--lapsed into indifferentism, --were prepared to believe, or to disbelieve almost anything. . . . How far the flood of infidelity, which has since invaded the university, is to be ascribed to the great break-up of 1841-5, is a secret known only to GOD." Most of the figures Burgon writes about were caught up, in one way or the other, in the Oxford Movement. And his pages supply vivid testimony of the soul- and mind-searchings it engendered. Some historians today give the impression that the Tractarian controversy was no more than a storm in a teacup. No one reading Burgon will make that mistake.

But it will not do to bear false witness, more especially when one is writing about this particular book. I myself go back to Burgon not for intellectual history, but for the anecdotes, and for the way in which the author manages to catch the flavor of the time, certain attitudes now dead and gone, a tone of voice. In 1847 Burgon called on the venerable president of Magdalen College, Oxford, Martin Joseph Routh, then 92 years old, and destined to live seven more. He asked him for the one axiom or precept which, from his long experience of life, he would choose to pass on to a younger man. "I think, sir," Routh replied, "since you care for the advice of an old man, sir, you will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir!" We may laugh. But is it really a laughing matter? Shouldn't Routh's advice be inscribed over the gates of all newspaper offices, parliaments and universities?

About 10 years later, on a winter day when snow lay deep on the ground, Burgon found, after a long day of study, that all the Greek fathers had, it appeared, interpreted certain doctrinal passages in the fourth Gospel, very differently from the way in which all the Latin fathers had interpreted those same passages. "How to reconcile the two, I saw not: and who was I to adjudicate between the giants? I was greatly distressed. . . . I was getting desperately tired: but (1) To go to bed was out of the question: while (2) To postpone the record of what had been occupying me wholly for 13 or 14 hours, I foresaw would be fatal." Only two men in Oxford were competent to help him. One was in another college, and, at this late hour, inaccessible. The other was the Rev. Charles Marriott, like Burgon himself a fellow of Oriel. But "it was a dreary night. What if he should be gone? and the lamps out on the break-your-neck stairs?" Wrapped in a railway rug, Burgon picks a way through the snow and blunders up Marriott's staircase. Within 15 minutes, Marriott had explained everything to Burgon's satisfaction. Not surprisingly, perhaps in view of his precocity. When a very small child, Marriott was taken with his older brothers to Exeter Cathedral, and they began to measure the circumference of the great bell with bits of string: "Charles was heard from behind to deliver (in his small peculiar voice) the oracular counsel,--'Take the diameter.' " Burgon dubs Marriott "the man of saintly life" --though he was not without a measure of dry wit when that was called for. When another fellow of Oriel, who had behaved somewhat overbearingly at dinner, admitted to Marriott the next morning after chapel, that he had made rather a fool of himself the previous night, he received the reply: "I observed nothing unusual."

Indeed, such examples of clerical wit are to be found scattered through Burgon's pages like the proverbial raisins through the cake. The great Dean Mansel, for example, Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, and one of the true intellectual giants of the Victorian age, had a fondness for puns. Someone he was escorting around St. Paul's Cathedral in London complained about the heathenish character of the monuments, instancing a huge figure of Neptune. "Just look at that now . . . what has that got to do with Christianity? Tridentine Christianity perhaps, Mansel shot back. On another occasion, he was dining with Burgon in the Oriel Common Room, when a joint of lamb was being rather badly carved. "A pool of brown gravy as large as a saucer speedily adorned the table-cloth, which provoked the ejaculation,--'filthy mess.' 'Not exactly,' (rejoined the wit), 'but it is lamb-on-table certainly.' "

One must not quote too much. One of the pleasures of reading Burgon's Lives is, after all, to find the raisins for oneself. The reader who is sufficently venturesome to get hold of the volume, either from a library or a second- hand book shop, will be amply rewarded--I was almost going to write "by its subject-matter." But then I recalled, just in time, another of the good 12, William Jacobson, the single-minded bishop, well known for his fastidiousness in the choice of words. Burgon tells us that he demurred . . . to the expression 'subject-matter' --saying that either 'subject' or 'matter' by itself would be sufficient." He was right too. One of the comforting things one learns from Dean Burgon is that it is possible to be clever as well as good.