Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 9. Keble’s Christian Year

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

XII. The Oxford Movement

§ 9. Keble’s Christian Year

If Pusey’s name was given to the followers of the movement, it was, unquestionably, Keble who gave it its first popularity. His sermon inaugurated it, and its principles were those of The Christian Year. That book, said Newman once, laughingly, was the fons et origo mali. And in it we see the nature of the influence which the movement exercised, not only upon theology, but upon literature. Here, again, is the note of sincerity, first and foremost: sincerity which means purity, also, and

  • The princely heart of innocence.
  • But sincerity, with Keble, does not mean narrowness. Dean Stanley said of The Christian Year that it had “a real openness of mind for the whole large view of the Church and the world.” It could hardly be otherwise with the work of a writer who was steeped in the ancient classic literatures and had a deep sympathy with nature as well as human life. And the result is a poetic vision of the sacredness of life, in town and country, in art and labour, in literature as well as prayer. Nature, to the poet, is a sacrament of God. And its appeal has no need to be heightened beyond what the poet feels himself: the mark of his art is its veracity. He writes exactly as he thinks. But he thinks in the manner of the early nineteenth century, and the manner sometimes prevents the thought from reaching in clear directness the generations of later time. A simple thought is not always expressed in simple style. Keble’s poetry is eminently literary and reminiscent: it is the work of a well-read—almost a too well-read—man. And the memory now and again goes near to quench the inspiration. The Christian Year is, eminently, a book of its own period, as that period was seen by one who, most of all, was a scholar and a saint. And Keble was, besides, a preacher and a critic. If his sermons cannot be placed in that rank which Newman alone of the nineteenth century preachers can claim to have reached, they have, at least, one conspicuous merit—at least in his later volumes—their absolute directness and simplicity. He spoke, first and foremost, so as to be understood by everyone, and yet from such a height of personal experience that, as one said who heard him, you seemed to be amidst the rustling of angels’ wings. The preaching of the tractarians, like that of the Caroline divines, was eminently doctrinal, yet it did not abandon the direct morality of the eighteenth century; it rather raised it, by the conjunction, to a higher power. As a critic, Keble has sympathy and depth, dictated by the central thoughts which ruled his life. Poetry, in its essence, was, to him, simply religion; and the best poets in every age and every country had been those who have had the highest thoughts about God. It may be that the lectures he delivered, written, as they were, in the choice Latin of which he was a master, will never be read again; but there were thoughts in them which have passed into the common stock of criticism; and dean Church declared that they were “the most original and memorable course ever delivered from the Chair of Poetry in Oxford.”