THE CHRISTIAN YEAR.
TIHERE are few poems of the present day, and certainly no religious poems, that have acquired so vast a popularity and so permanent an influence as those of Keble's Christian Year, and now that the poet himself has left us, it seems a fit moment to in- quire what the nature of that influence has been. We have been severely condemned for saying that his poetry was very sweet, very thin, and very feminine ; but hasty as such a judgment seems, we conceive it to be a true and mature one,—not, we need hardly say, because there is so profound a feeling of spiritual de- pendence in all Mr. Keble's verses, for in some sense that is of the very essence of Christian feeling,—and if it is feminine, it is only because women are so far of higher nature than men,—but rather because Mr. Keble loved to foster artificially the feeling of dependence by making for himself a string of occasions to which it became a kind of second nature to attune the spirit of his own mind, — because he forced his poetic insight, which was delicate, but not very fertile and original, into the service of these often fanciful occasions of worship. The idea of The Christian Year, the idea of so mapping out the various little hints and allusions given in the Gospels, as to find a well defined and appropriate mood of spiritual poetry for as many days. as possible in the calendar, seems to us to have been popular rather for its faultiness than for its merit. Religious men and women in general, especially the latter, want something more to lean upon than God has actually given. They find a difficulty in so raising their own thoughts to the few illuminated points in the mysterious world of spirits as to keep their earthly duties in a constantly living and fresh relation with their faith. There is something so oppressive to them in the infinite, untravelled night, lighted up here and there by suns or planets, but stretching for the most part far beyond our utmost reach of knowledge, that they catch with relief at the proposal of the Puseyite poet to trace out with mimic stars,—really lamps lighted by human ingenuity at the mere verbal suggestions of revelation,—the- yearly round of human exertion, by finding or forcing a mood of occasional piety out of the smallest items of historic incident or moral epithet in the great history of revelation. Now we do not, call that a tendency springing from the true, childlike spirit. which Christ spoke of as the only one which could enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather one that loves regulated moods so well as to impose spiritual lights on itself which are not divine, but human. In all true faith there is a free wide region of simple wonder, of which all that we know is that it is within the- region of God's rule, though outside the circle of the light which He has given us. It is a part of the true spirit of dependence,—that spirit of dependence which is not only feminine but masculine,—to lean only upon God, and gaze into the darkness which He leaves in many places still so deep around us without trying to fancy it light. True poetry, no less than true faith, demands some courage in facing the large blanks in our knowledge, as well as true trust towards the revealed will and mind of God. But the Puseyite poet, imitating at a distance the Roman Catholic Church, has tried to blot out these blank spaces in our field of view by mul- tiplying indefinitely the number of derivative trains of association which may be linked on, more or less laboriously, to given points in the Gospel history. It is his aim to cover with a number of well defined subordinate lines of meditation, the area of thought and feeling which a more masculine faith would attempt to fill by recasting our modern difficulties and temptations in the spirit and mould of our Lord's teaching. Instead of restating and reconciling our faith with the strides of modern medical science, the Puseyite poet writes beautiful verses about St. Luke the "beloved physician." Instead of reconsidering the new historical points of view brought before all sincere inquirers by modern investi- gation in connection with the Gospel narrative, the Puseyite poet looks for some little distinct characteristic of each of the four Evangelists in order to fill his historical horizon with a fourfold train of edifying feeling. Instead of musing on the spirit of modern charity, the Puseyite poet takes the Apostolic title bestowed upon Barnabas, "the Son of Consolation, a Levite," and plays a strain of gentle musical variations on that theme. And so it is everywhere. The characteristic attempt of the Puseyite poet is not to throw the light of God's character and
revelation on the new world in which we live, but to find some definite chain of pious antique associations in connection with the
'lessons,' or epistles,' or 'gospels' appointed for each of the days in the Church's calendar. And the whole effect of this is to turn the Christian imagination, the Christian fancy, upon the details of the divine story, instead of upon its central light and teaching,
and often upon detaila sp miuute and accidental that the strain of thoeght suggested takes up quite a disproportionate place in our religion. Thus it seems to become a more important matter to the Church that Demas (of whom we know nothing else) deserted Paul, or that Mark quarrelled with him, or that the lesson relating
Aaron's act of idolatry is selected for the fifth Sunday after Easter, or that St. Matthew was perhaps the same person as Levi the publican, and left his profitable calling at the word of Christ, than it is to discover what is, in our own times, deserting Christ and what is truly cleaving to Him; what concession we mayand may not make to the claims of friendship ; what are the acts of idolatry to which modern priests are tempted ; what callings we ought to abandon, and what only to remould and clear of their insincerities or injustices, in order to obey the command Follow me.' The theory of course is, that by diligently pursuing the hints thrown out in Scripture in such passages, we do find our modern duty. But it- is not a true theory, unless at all events, instead of confining ourselves to the passage after Mr. Keble's fashion and the fashion of moat modern sermons, whieh are so far Puseyite in their method, we take as wide a grasp as we may of the whole spirit of revela- tion, of what it teaches, and of what it leaves dark, and then follow it up by as wide a grasp as we can get of the whole teaching of modern science and experience. The spirit of The Christian Year specks with points of often quite imaginary light—really mere dote of bright, pious association—the horizon of a modern intel- lect and conscience.
Yet Mr. Keble himself, in perhaps the finest verses which he ever wrote, delineated the trustful, free, uuformulated attitude of mind that faces its own ignorance as freely as its knowledge, -sin attitude of mind the radical unpopularity of which with religious people caused, in great measure, the popularity of The Christian Year. Even these fine verses would scarcely have been written had not the Old Testament lesson for the twenty- first Sunday after Trinity (Habakkuk contained the following grand words :—" The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie ; though it tarry, wait for it ; because it will surely come, it will not tarry." This verse suggested to Mr. Keble a train of thought which delineates the highest tone of a Jewish prophet's mind far better than his own " That is the heart for thoughtful seer,
Waiting in trance nor dark nor clear*
Th' appalling Future as it nearer draws.
His spirit calmed the storm to meet, Feeling the rock beneath his feet, And tracing through the cloud the eternal Came; "That is the heart for watchman true, Waiting to see what God will do As on the Church the gathering twilight falls: No more he strains his wistful eye If chance the golden hours be nigh By youthful hope seen beaming round her-walls.
"Forced from his shadowy paradise, His thoughts to Heaven the steadier rise, There seek his answer while the world reprove; Contented in his darkling round If only, he be faithful found, When from the East the eternal morning moves."
It may be said that what delineates the highest attitude of a Hebrew prophet's mind does not delineate the highest attitude of a Christian's mind, but the difference certainly does not con- sist in placing more stress on the minutest incidents and allusions of a history which derives all its importance from the unveiling of the divine character, not from the little human traits, or even shadows of human traits, which are so painfully culled by edifying writers from the Bible. It was evidently Mr. Keble's aim in The Christian Year to delineate the various events and objects, the outlines of which come out more or less faintly in the Bible, as a sort of world of higherNature, full of all those rich well-springsof poetical inspiration and suggestion which, on a lower plane, the mountains, valleys, rivers, seas, and skies of earth present to the mind of such a poet as Wordsworth. In most of Keble's poems there is an opening of sweet but clilute Wordsworthian verse upon the aspects of outward nature, which rises,—or falls, as it may be,—as the poem goes on, into the poetical treatment of the Biblical inci- dent or allusion which really suggested it, and which bears some real or fanciful analogy to the natural scenery delineated in its commencement. Thus the poem on Monday in Wlaitsun week, taking as its text a verse from the Old Testament lesson about the ruin of the Tower of Babel, begins with a very delicate de- scription of the sort of ruin an affectionate heart desires, if rain must come, for its old home,— ....
" It obeli come to pass in that day that the light shall not be clear nor dark." .-.Zeoh. air. C.
"ear- opening down some woeilland deep In their own quiet glade sb.e.uld sleep The relies dear to thought,
And wild-flower-wreaths-from side to side Their waving tracery hang, to hide wilo ruthless Time bath wrought," —and then the poet goes on to contrast this vision with the fancied dreariness of the ruined Tower of Babel, and of course to draw the lesson that selfish ambition is always destined to this sort of dreary ruin. In fact it is the effort of The Chris- tian Year -to tranafigure the lower world of natural beauty audits suggestions in a higher world of sacred history mad its lessons, —to make the lives of- saints, and apostles, and all the little occasions of ecclesiastical anniversaries, bear the same relation to the revelation ef God in Christ that the planets and lesser lights bear-to that-of the sun in the physical _universe, Now we believe this to be a useless and even a narrowing and misleading effort,—and one which too often necessarily fails to reach the natural springs Of true poetry.. What are St. Simon and'St. Jude, for instance, to us? No doubt good' melt to who,m we are indirectly deeply in- debted, but of whom we know absolutely nothing,,andavho are far less to us even as Christians now, than the bard-working curate -who will preach about them to our sorrow, or the benevolent builder or tea-dealer who may listen to him with wonder and resp.ect. The religious value of the details of the Scripture history seems to us altogether to consist lathe light it throws on God's charac- ter, laws, and love. Separated from this, the sort of sanctity which is attached to St. Andrew's Day, or St.,Michael'e Day, or an allusion in the epistle for the twenty-third Sonia), after Triuity, is not religious, and is far from poetical. This why Mr. Keble's verses so often dwindle from a beautiful opening into a dry, fine- drawn, and unimpressive close. You cannot people the religious world of thought with these ancient forms and incidents, however sacred their associations. If you do, at least, it withers away before your sight, and -becomes a world of dry bones in spite of all the piety of the mind which attempts the transfiguration. It is as far beyond a poet's power to spin cait the divine nature into threads!. of ecclesiastical incident, as it-is to -spin out the beauty. of physical nature into threads of secular incident. Poetry ceases directly you descend.too much into accidental details, and leave the springs of thought and beauty. And sweet and pathetic as is much of the late Mr. Keble's religious poetry, it has had, we think, no little narrowing influence on those whom it has affected most, by virtue of its often excessively occasional, artificially occa- sional, character. That the occasions selected were ecelesiastical -rather than secular or domestic, is perhaps not in their favour as poetry. An ecclesiastical occasion may be as paltry as any other. Religious poetry musst keep to God and the broader characteristics of divine revelation, if it is to have its full influence. It becomes poor and loses all the power of religious poetry, -when it pros- trates itself before small incidents and minute allusions.