The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XII. The Oxford Movement

§ 1. Keble

THE REMARKABLE influence which affected English religion in the middle of the nineteenth century could not have failed to affect English literature. But the one stood apart from the other in a way unusual in English history. At the age of the reformation, at the time of the Laudian movement under Charles I and in the time of the later Caroline divines, religious literature occupied a prominent, sometimes a commanding, position in the eyes of all who were alive to the currents of public life. It is true that the great dramatic literature of Elizabeth’s day was concerned very little with the wranglings of divines; but no record of the literary giants of those days could omit the name of Hooker, whose influence on English prose was immense. Jeremy Taylor was a great man of letters, and, in Dryden’s day, theological questions were the staple of many a discussion which might appear to belong to pure literature. But the Oxford movement seemed, throughtout almost its whole course, to stand apart from the literature of the day. Men went on for a long time thinking and writing in other fields of learning as if there were no such persons as Newman and Keble and Pusey; or, like Carlyle, dismissed them contemptuously from their thoughts as having but the brain of rabbits. Only very gradually was the persistence of their work felt outside religious or academic circles; and, to the end, there was not more than one of their writers who seriously affected the current of English letters. Mark Pattison, long after “the Tractarian infatuation” had ceased to influence him, complained that there was “no proper public for either” theology or church history. But, none the less, the Oxford movement, as it came to be called, formed a most important epoch in literature: yet, for a long while it stood apart, as philosophy commonly does, from the ordinary work of men who wrote and men who read.

Nor was it, at least till late in its progress, affected by foreign influences. James Anthony Froude, who, at one time, had run hotfoot with the movement, said, in later life, that its whole history, if not that of the English church, would have been different if Newman had known German; and the extremely superficial generalisation has been widely accepted. It would be more true to say that with the German theology of the period, its theorising, its sentimentalism and its haste, the tractarian leaders had no affinity. Those who knew it, such as Pusey and Hugh James Rose, believed that they saw through and beyond it. The other leaders at least knew what its principles were, and decisively rejected them. Of Italian theology, on the other hand, there was practically none; but the religious aspect of Manzoni’s I promessi Sposi at one time deeply affected Newman. The great French catholic writers gradually became known to the English leaders. Newman paid great attention to the church in France. French devotional books were translated and edited in great abundance, by Pusey and others, after 1845, and some of the later disciples of the school, such as Liddon, owed a great deal to the French manner and method. But, for the most part, tractarian literature was insular and had its roots deep in the past. The catholic influences which affected it belonged to the early, not the modern, church.

Yet, it is impossible to study the Oxford movement without seeing that it was essentially one with the romantic movement which had re-created the literature of Germany and France.

In France, Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme had been the signal for a reaction, in the world of letters, in favour of Christianity; and Joseph de Maistre, who had most powerfully supported it, looked on the church of England with considerable favour. Later, the career of Lamennais was followed with great interest in England, and Newman had deep sympathy on many points with Lacordaire. Nor was the movement without its affinities with Germany. The spiritual romanticism of Schiller, and the genius of the great Goethe on its medieval side, appealed, at least through English disciples and copyists, to some of the feelings which gave strength to the Oxford movement. From Goethe to Walter Scott is an easy step: he turned men’s minds, said Newman, in the direction of the middle ages, and the Oxford leaders themselves knew how much they owed to the Wizard of the North. Behind their severity there was a vein of noble sentiment akin to his. Keble even, when he traced the influence that Scott had exercised in substituting his manly realities for the flimsy, enervating literature which peopled the shelves of those who read chiefly for amusement, allowed himself to wonder what might have happened if this gifted writer had become the poet of the Church in as eminent a sense as he was the poet of the Border and of Highland chivalry.

The tractarians shared, with Scott at least, the understanding delight in a noble past; and the bizarre and critical genius of Peacock was, also, by their side. The liberalism which he abhorred was to them, too, the great enemy. For a certain political kinship in the early tractarians must not be ignored. Later developments have caused a distinction to be drawn between the liberalism which Keble denounced and the party which, in Gladstone, had for leader one of the most devout disciples of the Oxford movement. But the whigs were believed to be, and historically had been, an anti-church party; and, though the liberalism which the Oxford writers opposed was not actually the whig party, it was, in many of its principles, closely allied to that party, and ultimately absorbed the party’s members into its fold and under its name. Tractarianism was certainly not a tory movement, but it was opposed to liberalism in all its aspects; and it soon shed from among its supporters those who, even if, like J.A. Froude, they remained conservative in some political principles, found themselves, when, like Arthur Clough and Mark Pattison, they looked deep into their hearts, to be fundamentally liberal and “progressive.” To the philosophy of conservatism the Oxford leaders were much indebted. Dean Church says that the Oriel men disliked Coleridge “as a misty thinker”; but, in the ideas which influenced them, apart from their strictly theological expression, they were undoubtedly to some extent, his debtors; though Newman recognised that what, to him, were fundamental—“the church, sacraments, doctrines, etc.”—were, to the philosopher, rather symbols than truths. And, in the region of pure poetry, there was much in their thought which was in sympathy with Wordworth in his loftiest moods.

But all this, though it may illustrate the origin, the character and the affinities of the Oxford movement, tells nothing as to its direct antecedents. Of these, it may suffice to say that the tractarians represented and continued a tradition which, though it had been submerged, had never died: a tradition of unity with the great Caroline divines and the theologians whom they had taken for their models. If this, in churchmanship as well as in literary expression, had become “high and dry” among those who, in the early nineteenth century, might be regarded as its direct representatives, there were others in whom the continuity of thought is unmistakable. Dean Church says:

  • Higher ideas of the Church than the popular and political notion of it, higher conceptions of it than those of the ordinary evangelical theology—echoes of the meditations of a remarkable Irishman, Mr. Alexander Knox—had in many quarters attracted attention in the works and sermons of his disciple, Bishop Jebb, though it was not till the movement had taken shape that their full significance was realised.
  • Knox had himself said, in 1816, that “the Old High Church race is worn out”; and the excellent Thomas Sikes, rector of Guilsborough, set himself to teach a neglectful generation the doctrine of “one Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
  • “He used to say,” says the biographer of his friend Joshua Watson, “that wherever he went he saw many signs of earnest minds among the clergy of his time, and those who were then rising into public notice; but whether owing to the security of our civil establishment or a false charity to dissent, one great truth appeared by common agreement to have been suppressed. The Article itself involved ritual, discipline, orders, and sacred ordinances generally, and its exclusion tended to the subversion of all.”
  • And it was this teaching which it was the main work of the writers of Tracts for the Times to revive.
  • “We all concurred most heartily,” says one of them, “in the necessity of impressing on people that the Church was more than a merely human institution; that it had privileges, sacraments, a ministry, ordained by Christ; that it was a matter of the highest obligation to remain united to the Church.”
  • The date at which the movement definitely began was the month of July, 1833. On the 14th, John Keble, fellow of Oriel, professor of poetry, and curate to his father in a little village on the border of the Cotswolds, a man whose academic career had been one of most unusual distinction, preached before the judges of assize at Oxford a sermon on national apostasy, in which he denounced the liberal and Erastian tendencies of the age. He was a tory, no doubt: James Mozley notes how, as poetry professor, he gave a lecture “proving Homer to be a tory (shall we say conservative?) and finally stating reasons why it was that all real poets were tories.” But the ideas of his sermon were far from political: they were an appeal to the nation on behalf of its very deepest religious needs. And the day on which it was preached was ever kept by Newman as the birthday of the new movement. A few days later, there met at the rectory of Hadleigh in Suffolk a company of like-minded men, under the presidency of the rector, Hugh James Rose, a Cambridge scholar, to whom the Oxonians looked for light and leading—“the one commanding figure and very lovable man that the frightened and discomfited church people were now rallying round.” To him, five years later, Newman dedicated some sermons as to one “who, when hearts were failing, bade us stir up the gift that was in us and betake ourselves to our true mother.” It may be well to give a brief sketch of the history of the movement thus opened before we consider the position of its leaders in English literature.

    A petition to the archbishop of Canterbury followed these first steps; and then began in September the issue of Tracts for the Times, “on the privileges of the Church and against Popery and Dissent,” as a private memorandum of advertisement states.