Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley
By John Keble (17921866)
[John Keble1 was born on St. Marks Day (April 25), 1792, at Fairford, in Gloucestershire. He was elected Scholar of Corpus, Oxford, in his fifteenth, and Fellow of Oriel in his nineteenth year. After a few years of tutorship at Oxford and curacy in the country, he became Vicar of Hursley in Hampshire in 1839, where he continued to minister till his death in 1866. He was with Dr. Newman and Dr. Pusey regarded as forming the Triumvirate of the Oxford Catholic movement. His prose works consist of an elaborate edition of Hooker, a careful Life of Bishop Wilson, and various theological treatises. But it is as a poet much more than a scholar or a controversialist that he is known; and of his poetical works, the Lyra Innocentium, the Translation of the Psalter, a posthumous volume of Poems, and The Christian Year (1827), it is by the last that he acquired an universal and undying fame in English literature. As Professor of Poetry at Oxford he wrote in Latin Praelections on Poetry, which are remarkable both for their subtlety and their exquisite Latinity.
KEBLE was not merely, like Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, a writer of hymns. He was a real poet. Their works, no doubt, have occasional flashes of poetry, but their main object is didactic, devotional, theological. Not so the Christian Year, the Lyra Innocentium, or the Psalter. Very few of his verses can be used in public worship. His hymns are the exception. His originality lies in the fact that whilst the subjects which he touches are for the most part consecrated by religious usage or Biblical allusion, yet he grasps them not chiefly or exclusively as a theologian, or a Churchman, but as a poet. The Lyra Innocentium, whilst its more limited range of subjects, and perhaps its more subtle turn of thought, will always exclude it from the rank occupied by the Christian Year, has more of the true fire of genius, more of the true rush of poetic diction. The Psalter again differs essentially from Sternhold and Hopkins, Tate and Brady, not merely in execution, but in design. It is the only English example of a rendering of Hebrew poetry by one who was himself a poet, with the full appreciation of the poetical thought as well as of the spiritual life which lies enshrined in the deep places of the Psalter. A striking instance of this is the version of the 93rd Psalm. The general subject of that Psalm must be obvious to every one in any translation, however meagre. But it required the magic touch of a kindred spirit to bring out of the rugged Hebrew sentences the splendour and beauty of the dashing and breaking waves, which doubtless was intended, though shrouded in that archaic tongue from less keen observers.
Keble was not a sacred but, in the best sense of the word, a secular poet. It is not David only, but the Sibyl, whose accents we catch in his inspirations. The sword in myrtle drest of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the many-twinkling smile of ocean from Æschylus, are images as familiar to him as Bethlehems glade, or Carmels haunted strand. Not George Herbert, or Cowper, but Wordsworth, Scott, and perhaps more than all, Southey, are the English poets that kindled his flame, and coloured his diction. The beautiful stanza, Why so stately, maiden fair? and the whole poem on May Garlands, might have been written by the least theological of men. The allusions to nature are even superabundantly inwoven with the most sacred subjects. Occasionally a thought of much force and sublimity is lost by its entanglement in some merely passing phase of cloud or shadow. The descriptions of natural scenery display a depth of poetical intuition very rarely vouchsafed to any man. The exactness of the descriptions of Palestine, which he had never visited, have been noted and verified on the spot, as very few such descriptions ever have been. There are not above two or three failures, even in turns of expression. One example of this minute accuracy is so striking as to deserve special record. Amongst the features of the Lake of Gennesareth, one which most arrests the attention is the belt of oleanders which surrounds its shores. But this remarkable characteristic had, as far as we know, entirely escaped the observation of all travellers before the beginning of this century; and, if we are not mistaken, the first published notice of it was in that line of the Christian Year
by one who had never seen them, and who must have derived his knowledge of them from careful cross-examination of some traveller from the Holy Land. It was an instance of his curious shyness that, when complimented on this singular accuracy of description of the Holy Land, he replied, It was by a happy accident. Not less precise, if we knew exactly where to look for the original spots which suggested them, are his descriptions of the scenery of England. With the single exception of the allusion to the rocky isthmus at the Lands End said to be found in the lines,
Lo, on a narrow neck of land,
Twixt two unbounded seas I stand,
there is probably no local touch through the whole of the poems of the two Wesleys. But Oxford, Bagley Wood, and the neighbourhood of Hursley, might, we are sure, be traced through hundreds of lines, both in the Christian Year and the Lyra Innocentium.
Though Kebles pastoral life was retired and his ecclesiastical life narrow, as a poet he not only touched the great world of literature, but he was also a free-minded, free-speaking thinker. Both in form and in doctrine his poetry has a broad and philosophical vein, the more striking from its contrast to his opposite tendencies in connexion with his ecclesiastical party.
That eagerness to give the local colour of the sacred events, which runs through these volumes, is the first step which costs everything in the attempt to treat these august topics historically, and not dogmatically.
The rude sandy lea,
Where stately Jordan flows by many a palm
Green lake, and cedar tuft, and spicy glade,
Shaking their dewy tresses now the storm is laid;
In Kedrons storied dell;
The vaulted cells where martyrd seers of old,
Far in the rocky walls of Sion sleep.
The Biblical scenery is treated graphically as real scenery, the Biblical history and poetry as real history and poetry: the wall of partition between things sacred and things secular is broken down; the dogmatist, the allegorist, have disappeared; the critic and the poet have stepped into their place.
O for a sculptors hand,
That thou mightst take thy stand,
Thy wild hair floating on the Eastern breeze.
This is the true poetic fire of Grays Bard, not the language of convention.
The moist pearls now bestrewing
Thymy slope and rushy vale;
Comradeswhat our sires have told us,
Watch and wait, for it will come;
Not by manna showers at morning
Shall our wants be then supplied;
But a strange pale gold adorning
Many a tufted mountain side.
This is the tone, not of the mystical commentator, but of the creative poet.
In doctrine too, whether in points distinctive of high Anglicanism or in those common to Christian controversialists in general, it is noticeable how the view of the poet transcends the view of the theologian. The beautiful poem of the Waterfall in the Lyra Innocentium is a direct contradiction to the rigid opinions of its author, in his theological writings, on the hope expressed by Origen and Tillotson of the final restoration of lost souls. He speaks of the ancient world as Zwinglius or Spinoza regarded it, not as the scholastic divines spoke of it:
Now of Thy love we deem,
As of an ocean vast.
Mounting in tides against the stream
Of ages gone and past.
That warning still and deep,
At which high spirits of old would start
Even from their pagan sleep.
In direct opposition to the spirit which would make not moral excellence but technical forms of belief the test of safety he writes such verses as these
In one blaze of charity
Care and remorse are lost, like motes in light divine; .
Whole years of folly we outlive
In His unerring sight, who measures Life by Love.
Again, the doubts and difficulties, which in the rude conflict of theological controversy are usually ascribed to corrupt motives and the like, are treated in his Ode on St. Thomass Day with a tenderness worthy of the most advanced of modern thinkers:
Is there on earth a spirit frail,
Who fears to take their word;
Scarce daring through the twilight pale
To think he sees the Lord?
With eyes too tremblingly awake
To bear with dimness for His sake?
Read and confess the Hand Divine
That drew thy likeness here so true in every line.
And the beautiful analysis of the character and position of Barnabas, which is one of the masterpieces of Renans work on the Apostles, is all but anticipated in the lines on that saint in the Christian Year:
Never so blest as when in Jesus roll,
They write some hero-soul,
More pleased upon his brightening road
To wait, than if their own with all his radiance glowd.
Such a keen discrimination of the gifts and relations of the Apostles belongs to the true modern element of theology, not to the conventional theories of former days.
And with regard to the more special peculiarities of the High Church school, it is remarkable how at every turn he broke away from them in his poetry. It is enough to refer to the justification of marriage as against celibacy in the Ode on the Wednesday in Passion Week; the glorification of the religion of common against conventual life in his Morning Hymn, and in his Ode on St. Matthews Day. The contending polemic schools have themselves called attention to the well-known lines on the Eucharist in the poem on Gunpowder Treason. It is clear that, whatever may have been the subtle theological dogma which he may have held on the subject, the whole drift of that passage, which no verbal alteration can obliterate, is to exalt the moral and spiritual elements of that ordinance above those physical and local attributes on which later developments of his school have so exclusively dwelt.
These instances might be multiplied to any extent. It would, of course, be preposterous to press each line of poetry into an argument. But the whole result is to show how far nobler, purer, and loftier was what may be called the natural element of the poets mind, than the artificial distinctions in which he became involved as a partisan and as a controversialist. This is no rare phenomenon. Who has not felt it hard to recognise the author of the Paradise Lost and of the Penseroso in the polemical treatises on Divorce and on the Execution of Charles I? Who does not know the immeasurable contrast between Wordsworth the poet of nature and of the human heart, and Wordsworth the narrow Tory and High Churchman of his later years? In all these cases it is the poet who is the real manthe theologian and politician only the temporary mask and phase.
Note 1. The bulk of this notice appeared in the writers Essays on Church and State. [back]
Note 2. In all the early editions these were in a note erroneously called rhododendron. It was not till after his attention had been called to it, that, we think in the 72nd edition, it was altered to oleander. [back]