The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 17. Keble

At the other extremity of the scale of poetry in subject, but, like the last group, largely academic in character, we may find another company of singers wholly or mainly in the difficult and debated department of sacred verse. The number might be made very large if persons who have written a creditable hyman or two (or even twenty) were included. But this is impossible. John Keble, cardinal Newman, archbishop Trench, Frederick William Faber, Isaac Williams, John Mason Neale and, perhaps, as representatives of a school different from any represented by these and especially numerous during the nineteenth century, Wathen, Mark Wilks Call and Thomas Toke Lynch, must suffice in this place, though, in the account of poetesses, some names may be added. The author of The Christian Year has, of course, gained as well as lost by the facts that, in a certain sense, his book was the manifesto and the manual at once of a great religious movement, which was enthusiastically supported and bitterly opposed, that it marked the beginning of an epoch of English church history which has not yet closed and that, however earnestly critics may inculcate the principle of not judging by any agreement or disagreement with an author’s opinions, and however honestly they may endeavour to “reck their own rede,” the majority of mankind will always be more or less influenced by that most natural but most uncritical doctrine, “I must take pleasure in the thing represented before I can take pleasure in the representation.” On the whole, it is very doubtful whether, despite the enormous popularity of his book, well deserved and well maintained, Keble has not lost more than he has gained in the general estimate of him as a poet. Very large numbers—perhaps the vast majority—of those who have admired the book have been too much impressed and too much affected by their agreement with its temper and teaching to care much about critical examination of the merits or demerits of its expression. On the other hand, it is an equally natural tendency in those who disagree with the doctrine to try if they can find fault with the music. With charges of bigotry, narrowness and the like, we have, of course, nothing to do. But other accusations, of “tameness,” of unfinished and obscure expression and the like, concern us very nearly. One of the most agreeable of literary anecdotes, to which there is a supplement more delightful than itself, tells how Wordsworth, admiring the book which owed much to him and to which he himself, in his later work, perhaps owed something, declared that “it was so good that if it were his he would rewrite it.” The addition (fathered on Pusey) is that he actually proposed to Keble collaborative rehandling. If Pusey really said this, it must be true, for, though he had quite humour enough to invent it, his sense of veracity was of the strictest.

It is said frequently, and with some plausibility, that allowances and explanations are inadmissible in the judgment of poetry—poetry is poetry or it is not. As regards what may be called “pure” poetry, that, no doubt, is true; but, as regards what may, with equal justice, be called “applied” poetry—verse with a special object and purpose—it is not. In cases of this kind, you have to discover, more or less accurately, what the poet meant to do before you can decide whether he has done it. In Keble’s case, we could, without very much difficulty, conclude what he meant to do from his actual work in verse; but, fortunately, we have an invaluable external assistance. His Oxford Praelections, as professor of poetry, are not now, as they were till very recently, locked up in their original Latin from general perusal; and nobody who had any right to call himself a critic ought to have been ignorant of them while they were. If, to them, he added his posthumously collected critical essays in original English, the clearest possible notion of his attitude can be obtained. He has left descriptions of poetry—one in English, one in Latin—the second of which is rather a rider to, than a variant of, the first. This first, evidently starting from Wordsworth’s, but greatly improved on it, runs thus:

  • The indirect expression in words, most appropriately in metrical words, of some overpowering emotion or ruling taste or feeling, the direct indulgence of which is somehow repressed.
  • To this he adds, in his Latin comments, starting from Aristotle and Bacon, but, again, improving upon the former and correcting the latter, that it is subsidium benigni numinis—the assistance of the Divinity—in purifying passion. Now, when the original emotion, taste, feeling, passion, were all religious or ecclesiastical, and the poetry itself an assistance—a subsidium—for their expression must be, in many ways, conditioned, and, in fact, limited. Ornament, as the rubrics have it, will be but a “decent tippet” for the subject; no far-sought or far-brought curiosities of rime, or rhythm, of fancy, or conceit, will be cared about; in fact, “stimulus” itself (see the Taylorian context quoted in the last chapter of this kind), though not neglected, will be subordinated to edification.

    Yet, it may be boldly asserted, and safely argued, that Keble is not “quotidian,” while the defects in form which have been urged against him have altogether escaped the notice of some critics rather apt to be over- than under-critical in that matter. Indeed, it may be very strongly suspected that an antecedent notion about the probable dullness and not improbable clumsiness of all religious poetry has, in some, if not all, cases invited an injurious application of it. The Christian Year has, perhaps, nowhere the astonishing and rocket-like soar and blaze of more than one seventeenth-century religious poet, or the quieter, but hardly less unique, glow of some later nineteenth-century sacred-verse writers. The great motto of the school in conduct and faith,“quietnes and confidence,” is extended to Keble’s verse. But the quietness never becomes tameness, and the confidence never passes into rhetoric. The poet with whom he comes into nearest comparison is, of course, George Herbert; and, though Keble has not Herbert’s seasoning of quaintness, he has other merits to make up for the absence of this, and he sometimes rises to a grandeur which Herbert hardly ever attains. The book has been so long and so widely known that its best things are, as it were, sifted and laid out beforehand; and it would be mere coxcombry to attempt to specify others. The Evening Hymn, which has the peculiar placid piety noted by Thackeray in Addison’s similar work, with a more than Addisonian unction, has been, also, the most popular of all; but, perhaps, the best—certainly those where the asserted quality of grandeur shows most—are What went ye out to see (third Sunday in Advent), See Lucifer like lightning fall (third Sunday in Lent), and best of all O for a sculptor’s hand (second Sunday after Easter), with its almost Miltonic phrasing and moulding of the magnificent words of Balaam. Nor should Red o’er the forest peers the setting sun—the only thing in the manner of Gray’s Elegy that has ever come near the Elegy itself—be unnoticed.