The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 19. Isaac Williams; Faber
The most noteworthy of the numerous writers of verse whom the tractarian movement and the powerful example of The Christian Year raised up were Isaac Williams, Frederick William Faber and John Mason Neale. The odium thelogicum which excluded Williams from the Oxford professorship of poetry was exceptionally unjust, for his combined claims as poet and scholar far exceeded those of his actual opponent, Garbett, or, indeed, of any likely candidate; and he has scarcely had full justice done to him since. But it may be admitted that Lyra Apostolica (of which he was part-author), The Cathedral and his other works show him as a sort of “moon” of Keble—always a dangerous position, and specially dangerous here, because Keble’s own poetic light had more of the moon than of the sun in it. His characteristic is certainly not strength; but the grace and scholarship and purity of his verse can hardly be missed by any impartial student of poetry. Faber (who followed Newman, not Keble, at the parting of the ways) had, possibly, the greatest specially poetical power of the whole group. It is well known, both from a certain rather ungracious anecdote and from his general expressions on the subject, that Wordsworth was exceedingly chary of the title of poet; yet, he told Faber that, by his devoting himself to orders, “England lost” one. In the principal book of his younger, and still Anglican, years, The Cherwell Water Lily, and in most of his other work, the possibility rather than the certainty of such a development, to any great extent, may be noted. The verse—which shows the influence not merely of Wordsworth himself but of Scott—is fluent, musical and possessed of something like, with a nineteenth-century difference, what the eighteenth century called “elegance”; but, still more, it wants strength and concentration. Later, if he did not exactly acquire these, he displayed something which unfavourable critics have labelled “meretricious,” a term which itself gives a grudging recognition of a kind of beauty. The label is unfair and undiscriminating. The famous hymn The Pilgrims of the Night has, certainly, a feminine quality; but even Aristotle has admitted that the feminine is not always the bad. The singular piece entitled The Sorrowful World comes, sometimes, near to consummateness. But, in his later years, at any rate, Faber gave himself no elbow-room and, in his earlier, he had not come to full powers.