1902 Encyclopedia > John Keble

John Keble
English churchman; one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement

KEBLE, JOHN (1792-1866), the poet of the Christian Year, was born on St Mark's Day (April 25), 1792, at Fairford, Gloucestershire. He was the second child and eldest son of the Eev. John Keble and Sarah Maule ; three sisters and one brother completed the family circle. Descended from a family which had attained some legal eminence in the time of the Commonwealth, John Keble, the father of the poet, was vicar of Coin St Aldwyn, but lived at Fairford, about 3 miles distant from his cure. He was a clergyman of the old High Church school, whose adherents, untouched by the influence of the Wesleys, had moulded their piety on the doctrines of the non-jurors and the old Anglican divines. Himself a good scholar, he did not send his son to any school, but educated him and his brother at home so well that both obtained scholar-ships at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. John was elected scholar of Corpus in his fifteenth, and fellow of Oriel in his nineteenth year, April 1811. In Easter term 1810 he had obtained double first class honours, a distinction which had been obtained only once before, and that by Sir Robert Feel. After his election to the Oriel fellowship, Keble gained the University prizes, both for the English essay and also for the Latin essay. But he was more remarkable for the rare beauty of his character than even for academic distinctions. Sir John Taylor Coleridge, his fellow scholar at Corpus and his life-long friend, says of him, looking back on his youth, after their friendship of five and fifty years had closed, "It was the singular happiness of his nature, remarkable even in his under-graduate days, that love for him was always sanctified by reverence—reverence that did not make the love less tender, and love that did but add intensity to the reverence.'1 Oriel College was, at the time when Keble entered it, the centre of all the finest ability in Oxford. Copleston, Davison, Whately, were among the fellows who elected Keble ; Arnold, Pusey, Newman, were soon after added to the society. In 1815 Keble was ordained deacon, and priest in 1816. His real bent and choice were towards a pastoral cure in a country parish; but he remained in Oxford, acting first as public examiner in the schools, then as tutor in Oriel, till 1823. In summer he some-times took clerical work, sometimes made tours on foot through various English counties, during which he was composing poems, which afterwards took their place in the Christian Year. He had a rare power of attracting to himself the finest spirits, a power which lay not so much in his ability or his genius as in his character, so simple, so humble, so pure, so unworldly, yet wanting not that severity which can stand by principle and maintain what he holds to be the truth. In 1823 he left Oxford, and returned to Fairford, there to assist his father, and with his brother to serve one or two small and poorly endowed curacies in the neighbourhood of Coin. He had made a quiet but deep impression on all who came within his influence in Oxford, and during liis five years of college tutorship had won the affection of his pupils, some of whom afterwards rose to emi-nence. But it was to pastoral work, and not to academic duty, that he thenceforth devoted himself, associating with it, and scarcely placing on a lower level, the affectionate discharge of his duties as a son and brother. Filial piety influenced in a quite unusual degree his feelings and his action all life through. It was in 1827, a few years after he settled at Fairford, that he published the Christian Year. The poems which make up that book had been the silent gathering of years. Keble had purposed in his own mind to keep them beside him, correcting and improving them, as long as he livad, and to leave them to be published only " when he was fairly out of the way." This resolution was at length overcome by the importunities of his friends, and above all by the strong desire of his father to see his son's poems in print before he died. Accordingly they were printed in two small volumes in Oxford, and given to the world in June 1827, but with no name on the title page. The book continued to be published anonymously, but the name of the author soon transpired. Probably no book of poetry in this century has had a wider circu-lation. Between 1827 and 1872 one hundred and fifty-eight editions had issued from the press, and since the latter date it has been largely reprinted both by the original publishers and by others. The author, so far from taking pride in this widespread reputation, seemed all his life long to wish to disconnect his name with the book, and " as if he would rather it had been the work of some one else than himself." This feeling arose from no false modesty. It was because he knew that in these poems he had painted his own heart, the best part of it; and he doubted whether it was right thus to exhibit himself, and by the revelation of only his better self, to win the good opinion of the world, on which he knew that a woe had been pronounced.

Towards the close of 1831 Keble was elected to fill the chair of the poetry professorship in Oxford, as successor to his friend and admirer, Dean Milman. This chair he oc-cupied for ten years, probably the most eventful ten years which Oxford has seen since the Beformation. The pro-fessor is required by statute to deliver at least one lecture during each of the three terms that make up the academic year; and during Keble's tenure these lectures were still required to be in Latin. In the course of his professorship he delivered a series of lectures, clothed in excellent idiomatic Latin, in which he expounded a theory of poetry which was original and suggestive, and which grew naturally out of his own character and habits of mind. He looked on poetry as a vent for overcharged feeling, or a full imagination, or some imaginative regret, which had not found their natural outlet in life and action. It was a relief provided for those feelings which are apt to fill the mind too full, and to overburden the heart. This suggested to him a distinction between what he called primary and secondary poets,—the first employing poetry to relieve their own hearts, the second, poetic artists, composing poetry from some other and less impulsive motive. Of the former kind were Homer, Lucretius, Burns, Scott; of the latter were Euripides, Dryden, Milton. This view is set forth in an article contributed to the British Critic in 1838 on the life of Scott, and was more fully developed in two volumes of Prsdectiones Academies,.

His regular visits to Oxford kept him in intercourse with his old friends in Oriel common room, and made him familiar with the currents of feeling which swayed the university. Catholic emancipation and the Beform Bill had deeply stirred, not only the political spirit of Oxford, but also the church feeling which had long been stagnant. Cardinal Newman writes, "On Sunday July 14, 1833, Mr Keble preached the assize sermon in the University pulpit. It was published under the title of National Apostasy. I have ever considered and kept the day as the start of the religious movement of 1833." The occasion of this sermon was the suppression, by Earl Grey's Reform ministry, of ten Irish bishoprics. Against the spirit which would treat the church as the mere creature of the state Keble had long chafed inwardly, and now he made his outward protest, asserting the claim of the church to a heavenly origin and a divine prerogative. About the same time, and partly stimulated by Keble's sermon, some leading spirits in Oxford and elsewhere began a concerted and systematic course of action to revive High Church principles and the ancient patristic theology, and by these means both to defend the church against the assaults of its enemies, and also to raise to a higher tone the standard of Christian life in England. This design embodied itself in what is known as the Tractarian movement, a name it received from the once famous Tracts for the Times, which were the vehicle for promulgating the new doctrines. If Keble is to be reckoned, as Dr Newman would have it, as the primary author of the movement, it was from Dr Pusey that it received one of its best known names, and in Dr Newman that it soon found its genuine leader. To the tracts, which did so much to spread High Church views, Keble made only four contributions :—No. 4, containing an argument, in the manner of Bishop Butler, to show that adherence to apostolical succession is the safest course ; No. 13, which explains the principle on which the Sunday lessons in the church service are selected; No. 40, on marriage with one who is unbaptized; No. 89, on the mysticism attributed to the early fathers of the church Besides these contributions from his own pen, he did much for the series by suggesting subjects, by reviewing tracts written by others, and by lending to their circulation the weight of his personal influence.

In 1835 Keble's father died at the age of ninety, and soon after this his son married Miss Clarke, left Fairford, and settled at Hursley vicarage in Hampshire, a living to which he had been presented by his friend and attached pupil, Sir William Heathcote, and which continued to be Keble's home and cure for the remainder of his life.

In 1841 the tracts were brought to an abrupt termina-tion by the publication of Newman's tract No. 90. All the Protestantism of England was in arms against the author of the obnoxious tract. Keble came forward at the time, desirous to share the responsibility and the blame, if there was any; for he had seen the tract before it was published, and approved of it. The same year in which burst this ecclesiastical storm saw the close of Keble's tenure of the professorship of poetry, and thence-forward he was seen but rarely in Oxford. No other public event ever effected Keble so deeply as the secession of his friend Mr Newman to the Church of Rome in 1845. It was to him both a public and a private sorrow, which nothing could repair. But he did not lose heart; at once he threw himself into the double duty, which now devolved on himself and Dr Pusey, of counselling the many who had hitherto followed the movement, and who, now in their per-plexity, might be tempted to follow their leader's example, and at the same time of maintaining the rights of the church against what he held to be the encroachments of the state, as seen in such public acts as the Gorham judgment, and the decision on Essays and Reviews. In all the ecclesiastical contests of the twenty years which followed 1845, Keble took a part, not loud or obtrusive, but firm and resolute, in maintaining those High Anglican principles with which his life had been identified. These ab-sorbing duties, added to his parochial work, left little time for literature. But in 1846 he published the Lyra Inno-I centium; and in 1863 he completed a life of Bishop Wilson.

In the late autumn of the latter year, Keble left Hursley for the sake of his wife's health, and sought the milder climate of Bournemouth. There he had an attack of para-lysis, from which ho died on the 29th March 1866. He was buried in his own churchyard at Hursley; and in little more than a month his wife was laid by her husband's side.

It is as a poet that Keble was best known during his life, and it is as a poet that he will be remembered. His poetical works are the Cliristian Year- (1827), A Metrical Version of the Psalter (1839), Lyra Itmocentium (1846), and a volume of poems published posthumously.

Keble, though himself childless, was a special lover of children ; and the Lyra Innocentimn expresses this characteristic. It is a book " about children, their ways, and privileges." It begins with their baptism, follows them through their cradle life and infancy, their childhood sports, troubles, encouragements, warnings, the lessons taught them by nature, those taught them by grace, dwells on their sicknesses, and their deaths. It is a book for parents, especially for mothers. The range of subjects is too limited, and the turn of thought often too subtle, to allow it to be widely popular. But Judge Coleridge pronounced it, if not equal to the Christian Year as a whole, yet more than equal to it in parts ; and Dean Stanley thinks that "it has more of the true fire of genius, more of the true rush of poetic diction." However this maybe, it is by the Christian Year that Keble won the ear of the religious world, and will retain it. It was a happy thought that dictated the plan of the book, to furnish a meditative religious lyric for each Sunday of the year, and for each saint's day and festival of the English Church. The sub-ject of each poem is generally suggested by some part of the lessons or the gospel or the epistle for the day. One thing which gives these poems their strangely unique power is the sentiment to which they appeal, and the saintly character of the poet who makes the appeal, illumining more or less every poem. That to which the Christian Year appeals is the religious and devotional sentiment which, however hidden, exists more or less in most men. In the words of Sir J. T. Coleridge, "to this feeling it makes its unceasing appeal, with a voice so earnest, so sincere, so sad in its hopefulness, so unpretending as to the speaker, yet so authoritative and confident as to the cause it pleads, that for the time it seems irresistible."

The preface begins with observing how important is "a sober standard of feeling in matters of practical religion," and indicates that the object of the book is to calm excitement, and to exhibit the soothing tendency which pervades the Book of Common Prayer. The motto on the title page, " In quietness and confidence shall be your strength," is the keynote to which the whole book is set. The main characteristics which go to make up the charm of this small volume are these :—

1. The peculiar tone of religious feeling that pervades it, at once deep, pure, and tender, sober and severely self-denying. The undertone of the book comes out in verses like this—
" The eye in smiles may wander round,
Caught by earth's shadows as they fleet,
But for the soul no help is found,
Save Him who made it, meet."

Closely connected with this there is a more personal feeling towards our Lord, in His whole nature at once human anil divine, than had ever before appeared in English poetry, even in that of Charles Wesley or Cowper. This runs through all the poems ; it comes out especially in such verses as these
" Our Saviour's face benign,
Bent on us with transforming power,
Till we, too, faintly shine;"

and again,

" Who loves the Lord aright
No soul of man can worthless find;
All will be precious in his sight,
Since Christ on all hath shined:
But chiefly Christian souls; for they,
'I hough worn and soiled with sinful clay,
Are yet, to eyes that read them true,
All glistening with baptismal dew."

2. A second note of the Christian Year is reverence for the church, and for the pastoral office within it, —a solemn sense of its dignity and its awful responsibility.

3. A third note is the strong and tender affection for home and friends, the filial and fraternal piety, which everywhere pervades it. This appears notably in the poem for St Andrew's Day, in the two opening stanzas of the poem on Whit Monday, in some verses of the poem for the 4th Sunday in Advent, and in many more.

4. A prevailing spirit of modesty and of delicate reserve, very unlike the vanity with which poets are often credited. Combined with this is a special tenderness for those persons and things which the world thinks least of—for those who pine forgotten in hidden nooks, for the downtrodden and the despised. These sympathies appear at every turn of the book,—especially, perhaps, in such poems as that for the 4th Sunday in Lent, that for Visitation of the Sick, and in two well-known stanzas in the poem for St Matthew's Day, not to mention many other like passages.

5. Besides these qualities of Keble's heart as a man, there are others which belong to him especially as a poet. Prominent among these is his love of nature, particularly for the more ordinary and unnoticed features of English landscape. In these ho seemed most
to delight, as interwoven witli home thoughts and sentiments, and because, as he expresses it, " Homely scenes and simple views Lowly thoughts may best infuse." Many a scene from the neighbourhood of Fairford and Oxford, many a fleeting image caught there in casual walks, has been inwrought, naturally and beautifully, into the web of his devout meditations.

6. The intimacy with the Bible which is manifest in the pages of the Christian Year, and the unobtrusive felicity with which Biblical sentiments and language are introduced, have done much to endear these poems to all Bible readers; nor this only, but the fidelity with which Biblical scenery is rendered. "The exactness of the descriptions of Palestine, which Keble had never visited, have been noted, and verified on the spot," by Dean Stanley. He points to features of the lake of Gennesareth, which were first touched in the Christian Year; and he observes that throughout the book "the Biblical scenery is treated graphically as real scenery, and the Biblical history and poetry as real history and poetry."

As to its style, the Christian Year is calm and grave in tone, and subdued in colour, as beseems its subjects and sentiments. The contemporary poets whom Keble most admired were Scott, Wordsworth, and, we may add, Southey ; and of their influence traces are visible in his diction. Yet he has a style of language and a cadence of his own, which steal into the heart with strangely soothing power. Some of the poems are faultless, after their kind, flowing from the first verse to the last, lucid in thought, vivid in diction, harmonious in their pensive melody. In others there are imperfections in rhythm, conventionalities of language, obscurities or over-subtleties of thought, which mar the reader's enjoyment. Yet even the most defective poems commonly have, at least, a single verse, expressing some profound thought or tender shade of feeling, for which the sympathetic reader willingly pardons artistic imper-fections in the rest.

The real power of the Christian Year lies in this, that it brings home to the readers, as few poetic works have ever done, a heart of rare and saintly beauty. We may well believe that ages must elapse ere another such character shall again concur with a poetic gift and power of expression, which, if not of the highest, are still of a high order.

Keble's life was written by his life-long friend the late Mr Justice Coleridge.

The following is a complete list of his writings :—(1) Works published in Keble's
lifetime:—Christian Year, 1S27; Psalter, 1839; Frxlectioties Academicx, 1841;
Lyra Innocentium, 1846; Sermons Academical, 1848; Argument against Repeal of
Marriage Law, and Sequel, 1857; Eucharistical Adoration, 1857; Life of Bishop
Wilson, 1863 ; Sermons Occasional and Parochial, 1867. (2) Posthumous publica-
tions:— Village Sermons on the Baptismal Service, 1868 ; Miscellaneous Poems,
1869; Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 1870; Sermons for the Christian Year, «fcc,
11 vols., 1S75-S0; Occasional Papers and Reviews, 1877 ; Studio- Sacra, 1S77 ;
Outlines of Instruction or Meditation, 18S0. (J. C. S.)

The above article was written by Principal J. C. Shairp, LL.D., author of Culture and Religion.

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