Revisiting Anglican classics 5: John Keble’s Christian Year

            It’s something of a surprise to many people to learn that one of the best-selling poetry books of the nineteenth century was by an Anglican priest.  John Keble’s Christian Year was published in 1827.  Sub-titled Thoughts in Verse for the Sundays and Holydays throughout the Year, it sold in the hundreds of thousands throughout the nineteenth century, in several hundred editions across the world.  A few of the poems are still known by churchgoers in the form of hymns, the best known probably being ‘Bless’d are the pure in heart’, sung to a German melody adapted by William Havergal.

            Keble’s poetry raises interesting questions about the historical evaluation of aesthetic judgement.  Very few people rate its quality very highly today.  The decline in interest surely owes much to the progressive marginalization of religious sentiment in literary culture throughout the last century or so.  But it also must have something to do with the enormous literary and cultural change worked by modernism.  Keble leans very heavily on predictable metre and easy rhyme, and as a result his poetry can sometimes seem trite and cliched.  The arch-modernist poet T.S. Eliot had a fine sense of the distinction between light verse and poetry – though I can’t at the moment find the relevant passage in his critical writing – without any detriment to the former.  But somehow Keble’s sits between the two, certainly not ‘light’ in the sense of lacking seriousness intent, but also not quite ‘poetry’, or at least high poetry because (as it seems to me) his mode of expression was contained, dominated and driven an external notion of doctrinal purity.  Consequently his fusion of Romantic nature-worship (like many other High Church writers, he adored Wordsworth) with his conventional piety can be rather cloying.

            However, something else is missed if we simply compare Keble with, say, Tennyson or Arnold.  It’s that very fusion of nature, feeling and doctrine that is entirely characteristic of the sacramental revival in Anglicanism in the nineteenth century.  If we read Keble, not as at best a minor figure in the ‘canon’ of nineteenth-century English literature, but as a brilliant exponent of a new current in Anglican devotion, capturing in the seeming simplicity of verse what are actually in theological terms quite complex and even contested ideas, then an altogether different assessment is possible.  For Keble, it’s as if the continuity between the material things that become the ‘matter’ of sacraments – bread, wine, water – and the physical world from which they come draws the reader out of the church into the beauty of nature, and then back again.  He sees Christian truth in nature, but his perception is structured by the shape of his faith.  And so his awareness of the material world is entirely coloured by his moral and religious sensibility.  You could even argue that for Keble it is impossible really to appreciate the beauty of the natural world without a corresponding sense of religious awe.  That, incidentally, might make us think a bit of Hopkins.

            And what makes this characteristically Anglican is perhaps the one thing you simply cannot escape in reading The Christian Year.  It is a poetic commentary on the Sunday calendar and festivals of the Book of Common Prayer.  After poems for morning and evening prayer comes the sequence of the Christian year itself, beginning with Advent Sunday and going on to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity and then Sunday next before Advent; there follow poems for all the Prayer Book holy days, and finally for the sacraments of communion and baptism, other ‘pastoral offices’, and occasions such as the celebration of King Charles the Martyr and the Restoration of the Royal Family.  He is largely following the actual order of rites in the Prayer Book, as well as of the calendar or collects and readings.  Keble provides a sort of High Church, sacramental literary guide to the worship provided by the Prayer Book.  He is carrying the language, theology and devotion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into his own era through its expression in Romantic sensibility.  Here’s one example of the movement of his imagination.  The poem for the Third Sunday of Epiphany begins, as it seems, with straightforward description:

 I marked a rainbow in the north,
      What time the wild autumnal sun
   From his dark veil at noon looked forth,
      As glorying in his course half done,
   Flinging soft radiance far and wide
Over the dusky heaven and bleak hill-side.

He takes us then on a journey through consideration of the brilliance and light of the rainbow to the greater brilliance of love, before darkening the picture again with the foreshadowing of Jesus’s crucifixion, only to end once more with a vision of glory:

Worthless and lost our offerings seem,
      Drops in the ocean of His praise;
   But Mercy with her genial beam
      Is ripening them to pearly blaze,
   To sparkle in His crown above,
Who welcomes here a child’s as there an angel’s love.

            There’s been a minor revival of interest in Keble’s poetry.  The late Geoffrey Rowell, former bishop of Europe, was probably the most outstanding and sensitive reader of Keble’s religion, and there’s a brilliant set of essays edited by Kirstie Blair called John Keble in Context (2004).  But I think he is still significantly underrated as an Anglican theologian, most of his writing long out of print, and his worth as a religious writer poorly represented by a few hymns.

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