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

XII. The Oxford Movement

§ 10. Isaac Williams

The influence which Keble exercised upon others is illustrated most conspicuously in the life of Isaac Williams, who came to Trinity as a bright Welsh lad interested in his books and his play, but hardly at all in religion. Latin verse brought him to the notice of the poetry professor, and he became his pupil in the lovely village between Thames and Cotswold, where “the most distinguished academic of his day” ministered to a few country folk with as much zeal as others would bestow on labours the most anxious and exciting. He came into a new world of intense reality and, no less, of engrossing charm. He saw—again to quote the historian of the movement—

  • this man, who had made what the world would call so great a sacrifice, apparently unconscious that he had made any sacrifice at all, gay, unceremonious, bright, full of play as a boy, ready with his pupils for any exertion, mental or muscular—for a hard ride, or a crabbed bit of Aeschylus, or a logic fence with disputatious and paradoxical undergraduates, giving and taking on even ground.
  • And Keble made a man of him. Isaac Williams was a true poet, who, it may be, has not yet come into his own. The fire of the Celt burst forth in many a lament for the past, and prayer for the future, of the church, which it became his passion, in utter self-effacement, to serve. The Cathedral (1838) contains verse, inspired, no doubt, in form by Scott and, sometimes, by Wordsworth, which has not a little of the romance and enthusiasm of the Wizard of the North. The ancient church of Wales, the church which he came to serve in England, the church which was that of Basil and Ambrose, Gregory and Clement, Cyprian and Chrysostom, was, to him, the centre of life: and he was content to abide with it in unostentatious work, doing each day’s duty without recognition or reward. That is the note of his poetry and his prose: it lights the fire of the one, it dictates the grey sedateness of the other. When he compared English uses with “the richer dress her southern sisters own,” he was content with what might seem “the homelier truth.” He turned back from the breviary to the prayer book:
  • The chorister
  • That sings the summer nights, so soft and strong,
  • To music modulating his sweet throat,
  • Labours with richness of his varied note,
  • Yet lifts not unto Heaven a holier song,
  • Than our home bird that, on some leafless thorn,
  • Hymns his plain chaunt each wintry eve and morn.
  • His poetry knows little of the technical mastery which belonged to that of Keble, but, in genuine feeling, it was surpassed by none of his contemporaries. And it is this which makes his Autobiography, next to Newman’s Apologia, the most fascinating record of the time which any of the leaders bequeathed to posterity. In it, every phase of the movement as it appealed to one of the chief disciples is recorded without a touch of exaggeration, with no arrière-pensée, no attempt to justify, still less to conceal, any of his thoughts, or aims, or experiences. It explains the attractiveness of Newman, the devotion of his followers, the sincerity of their principles, the tragedy of their separation. If it has not the art or the pathos of Newman’s Apologia, it is a picture even more truthful, though but a picture in little, of the days of storm and stress in which the movement was shaped which transformed the English church into a new and living influence on men. When Williams became Newman’s curate at St. Mary’s, he was struck by the contrast to the school in which the Kebles had trained him. He found Newman “in the habit of looking for effect, and for what was sensibly effective.” This, which is true, without any hint of censure, of Newman’s work as a religious teacher, left its impress on all that he wrote.