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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

John Keble (1792–1866)

JOHN KEBLE was born at Fairford, in Gloucestershire, on the 25th of April, 1792. He was educated by his father, John Keble, Vicar of Coln, St. Aldwin’s, with so much success that he was elected to a scholarship at his father’s college, Corpus Christi, Oxford, in 1806, and, after winning double first-class honours, to a fellowship at Oriel in 1811. In the following year he took the University prizes for the English and Latin essays, and, residing at Oxford, began to take private pupils. In 1813 he became public examiner in the classical school, and in 1815 he was ordained. He was appointed examiner for responsions in 1816, college tutor at Oriel in 1818, and public examiner again in 1821. In 1823, on the death of his mother, he accepted a curacy at Fairford in order to help his father, whose increasing years made help necessary. In 1825 his brother Thomas took his place at Fairford, and he accepted a curacy at Hursley, near Winchester, but on the death of his younger sister in the following year he returned to Fairford, and undertook his father’s duties at Coln. Several offers of preferment were refused on account of his determination not to leave his father; but in 1830 he accepted the office of examiner for the India House examinations for the Civil Service, and in 1831 he became professor of poetry at Oxford. Two years later he preached his famous Assize sermon on National Apostacy, a sermon which became the starting-point of the Oxford Tractarian Movement. In 1835 his father died, and he married Miss Charlotte Clarke, a lady whom he had known from childhood, and who was the younger sister of his brother’s wife. In 1836 the living of Hursley, which he had refused for filial reasons in 1829, was again offered to him, and this time accepted. In 1845 he projected a plan for the foundation at Oxford of a “poor man’s college,” especially designed to provide education in strict conformity to the Church of England at a moderate cost, an idea realised a few years after his death by the institution of Keble College. He contributed several tracts to the Oxford series, published an edition of Hooker, and a life of Bishop Wilson, besides numerous sermons and several theological treatises. In 1864 he was attacked by paralysis, and the health of his wife necessitating change, they resorted successively to Torquay, Penzance, and finally to Bournemouth, where he died on the 29th of March, 1866. His sermons, in twelve volumes, were published in 1867, and “A Memoir” by his friend, Sir J. T. Coleridge, in 1869.

Keble’s poems are contained in three volumes of verse: “The Christian Year” (1827); “Lyra Innocentium; Thoughts in Verse on Christian Children, their Ways and Privileges” (1846); and “Miscellaneous Poems,” with a Preface by Canon Moberly, published posthumously in 1869. “The Christian Year” had its origin in the accumulation of a number of poems written at different times on Church festivals, and the idea, on the part of the poet, that a complete series of such poems on the successive seasons of the Church year would help to religious edification and stimulate Church life. Published anonymously in two volumes, in 1827, the work became an immediate success. Ninety-five editions of several thousand copies each were called for during the poet’s lifetime, and many editions have been issued since his death. It is upon this work that Keble’s reputation as a poet will rest. “If there is one quality which, more than another, may be said to mark his writings,” says Canon Moberly, in his Preface to the posthumous volume of Keble’s poems, “it is their intense and absolute veracity. Never for a moment is the very truth sacrificed to effect. I will venture to say with confidence that there is not a sentiment to be found elevated or amplified beyond what he really felt; nor, I would add, even an epithet that goes beyond his actual and true thought. What he was in life and character, that he was, transparently, in every line he wrote,—entirely, always, reverently true.” This characteristic will probably account for both the excellences and the defects of his work, as well as for its popularity. Absolute sincerity counts for much in an appeal to the public mind, and the man who has no doubts is, other characteristics being equal, always surest of a popular following. The poet’s fidelity to the principle of truth made him faithful in his treatment of nature, which he none the less penetrated with a seer’s insight, and transfigured with a poet’s imagination. On the other hand, his determination to preserve literal accuracy in phrase and epithet while trammelled with the difficulties of rhyme and rhythm, may be responsible for the crudities and obscurities which mar his work. “Wordsworth,” says Canon Moberly, “having read ‘The Christian Year,’ expressed his high sense of its beauty and also of the occasional imperfections of the verse, in the following characteristic terms: ‘It is very good,’ he said; ‘so good, that, if it were mine, I would write it all over again.’” Dr. Pusey alleged that Wordsworth actually proposed to Keble that they should go over the work together with a view to removing the blemishes. Notwithstanding drawbacks, however, Keble stands admittedly among the foremost of the sacred poets of the century, and he does so by reason of his superior poetic equipment.

Many writers of sacred verse employ poetic forms for didactic purposes, because they find them effective for inculcating doctrine and disseminating truth: they are churchmen first and poets afterwards. But Keble was much more than a writer of hymns and poems upon sacred subjects. Nature made him a poet, and circumstances made him a churchman; and had circumstances predisposed him otherwise he would still have been a poet, and might still have won distinction by his verse. Dean Stanley, in Ward’s “English Poets,” says, “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 ‘Bethlehem’s glade,’ or ‘Carmel’s 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.” But though it may be easily proved that Keble was more than a sacred poet, and that he is one of the few writers of sacred verse who are entitled to rank among the general poets, it is clear that his proper classification is with those who consecrate their powers to religious purposes and didactic ends. Dean Stanley pointed out how in his writings the poet is often broader than the churchman; but this is only another way of saying that the man was better than his creed, and this might well be where the man was so true and the creed so narrow.

In the “Lyra Innocentium” there is a short poem on “The Death of the New Baptized.”

  • What purer brighter sight on earth, than when
  • The sun looks out upon a drop of dew,
  • Hid in some nook from all but angels’ ken,
  • And with his radiance bathes it through and through
  • Then into realms too clear for our frail view
  • Exhales and draws it with absorbing love?
  • And what if Heaven therein give token true
  • Of grace that new-born dying infants prove,
  • Just touched with Jesu’s light, then lost in joys above?
  • One saddens to think that were the rite of baptism but unperformed, according to Keble the doctrinaire, the simile of Keble the poet could not apply. But if this shows the narrowness of the churchman, the following verses from his poem, “The Waterfall,” in the same work, will show the breadth of the poet:—

  • Go where the waters fall,
  • Sheer from the mountain’s height—
  • Mark how a thousand streams in one,—
  • One in a thousand, on they fare;
  • Now flashing in the sun,
  • Now still as beast in lair.
  • Now round the rock, now mounting o’er,
  • In lawless dance they win their way;
  • Still seeming more and more
  • To swell as we survey,
  • They win their way, and find their rest
  • Together in their ocean home;
  • From East, and weary West,
  • From North and South they come.
  • They rush and roar, they whirl and leap,
  • Not wilder drives the wintry storm,
  • Yet a strong law they keep,
  • Strange powers their course inform.
  • Even so the mighty sky-born stream:—
  • Its living waters from above
  • All marred and broken seem,
  • No union and no love.
  • Yet in dim caves they haply blend,
  • In dreams of mortals unespied;
  • One is their awful end,
  • One their unfailing Guide.
  • Keble was a true poet and a true man; and when he consecrated himself to the service of the Church he gave himself wholly man and poet to the culture of religious life. As a man he was primarily instrumental in bringing about one of the most remarkable of the religious revivals of the century, and as a poet he produced a large body of Christian verse which quickened the religious life of his time, and which will, doubtless, long survive him as an impulse and an inspiration to generations which know him not.