THE CHRISTIAN YEAR.—A REMONSTRANCE. [TO THE EDITOR OF THE "
SPECTATOR."] SIR,—If I agreed with you less in some of your remarks on The Christian Year, and had a stronger sympathy than I have with the kind of religious thought and poetry which it has diffused through the land, I should not care so much to point out what seems to me the injustice of you very able criticism, and the evil effects which it may produce in many whom it provokes and in many who approve it.
I must begin with protesting against the notion that The Chris- tian Year owed its wide popularity to the ecclesiastical tendencies which were already awake in its readers, or even to those which it called forth. I had myself many opportunities of notic- ing its effect upon Churchmen and Churchwomen who had been brought up in the Evangelical school, upon Dissenters of various classes, upon Quakers who had regarded the observance of days, and months, and years as superstitious and unchristian. I saw with wonder how heartily it was welcomed by some of the best of them as a book in which they could thoroughly sympathize, which expressed feelings within them that demanded an expression and had not found one, which communed with them by signs that as brother and sister freemasons they could recognize. They had been used in the songs of their own schools to very vehement utter- ances of the most secret emotions ; these had often given place to phrases which were not utterances of any emotion at all. The reserve of Keble, betraying so much—indicating so much that could not be spoken, had a charm for such persons which, after it became in his followers a calculated, professional reserve was anything but charming, was cruelly repellent. Then there was in The Christian Year a speciea of humane culture of which persons brought up under the same classical discipline as its author scarcely take notice, but which had a new and rare attraction for young men and women of the middle class, whose faculties were often much more alive, who had more origin= ality, than the majority of their more fortunate countrymen, Mit who had been led to associate the most elevated topics with vulgar thoughts and a pompous and affected dialect. Cow- per, the favourite religious poet, had no doubt preaerved his Westminster culture, his high breeding, and his manly Eng- lish; but he, they were told, had lost all the flavour of his devotion when he began to translate Homer. To find such deep religious feeling, combined with unobtrusive, unpedantic scholar- ship, was a delight which those who entered into it most could have explained least. The ordinary man of letters, if he notices religious poetry at all, expects to find in it some stimulant, he cares not how vulgar a stimulant ; other charactaristics, he says, he can get better elsewhere. Those of whoni I speak had the warmth in themselves ; what they longed for was thit the two meanings of the word "grace" should not be kept for ever sepa- rate and set in opposition to each other. The writer who meets this want might surely be forgiven, if he had a somewhat extra- vagant liking for Charles I. and Episcopacy. These readers did not adopt his views, but they had kindliness and toleration enough to like him rather the better for idiosyncracies which they did not share.
I have described faithfully what I believe to have been the im-
pression which this volume of poetry made upon a class of persons —drawn from various classes—whose respect Mr. Keble would not have prized, but who really constituted some of the earliest, and, as I suspect, the most genuine, of his admirers. I know that I learnt from such persons to understand the reality of a power and fascination which, left to myself, I might not have confessed. While I recollect them, I feel that The Christian Year has been a great instrument of civilization in our time, which we could very ill afford to have lost. It was a kind of instrument which could only have been wielded by such a man as Keble was. No- thing which his most intimate friends say of his personal character can be exaggerated, or can be irrelevant, when we are discussing his poetry. To separate the man from the poem I hold to be always a foolish experiment ; in this case it is Ilea) ly an impossible one. I reverence the man without having had the slightest per- sonal acquaintance with him, or caring for any of his peculiar opinions. I reverence his poetry as the true speech of the man, far truer, I apprehend, than any of his opinions, with however much of honesty and fervour they might be entertained.
Next, as to the school itself, which The Christian Year, as all admit, did so much to create, and which has produced so much verse after the same type. That this school is open to the charge of being feminine and artificial, and of cultivating feminine and arti- ficial habits of thought and expression, I do not deny. But I felt, when I watched its infancy, I have felt more strongly in observing the different stages of its growth, that its worst faults and its worst effects have proceeded, not from that which it em- braces, but from that which it rejects, not from its reverence, but from its scorn. The primary article of its poetical confession may be that we should honour Keble the High-Churchman; its second anti equally fundamental article, sanctioned by terrors as tremendous, is that we should renounce Milton the Puritan. A member of the London Committee for electing Mr. Williams as Professor of Poetry in Mr. Keble's place appealed to a friend of mine—as one who did not wish to mix questions of divinity with questions of literature—whether he would not, when a poetical chair was to be contended for, support the man who had given most proof of in- terest in poetry. My friend's answer was, that it was true he cared little for either of their houses, and would never turn his vote on such a question into a weapon against either ; but that he would not help to make any one a teacher of poetry in Oxford who would hold himself pledged to tell the undergraduates that Paradise Lost and Comes were bad poems, and that their author was a badman. All who preach that negative doctrine, or any approach to it, must, I think, if they connect their poetry with their Christian life, be feminine and artificial. I agree with you that Keble is not masculine precisely because he is utterly unlike those Hebrew psalmists and prophets with whom Milton was in such living sympathy. A masculine Pagan- ism—at least an unfeminine Paganism—may be reproduced in our days ; it will be unreal, I think, but it may be a very tolerable coun- terfeit. But the Christian Church, if it looks at the Jewish records merely as parts of a divine book, or as types of its own history, must be feminine, and the feminine side being robbed of its pro- per complement and counterpart, will always tend to become not truly feminine, but artificial, fantastic, sickly. Dr. Posey, with all his devotion to the letter of the Old Testament, with all his knowledge of its language, is as essentially anti-Hebraic as Bishop Colenso. The history of the divine education of a nation, except so far as it involves certain dogmatic opinions or certain religious'sentiments, is a dead thing to one as to the other. To Keble it was not a merely dead thing. He had English, however they might be reduced into mere Anglican, sympathies ; when he wrote The Christian Year, the grander events of the Jewish history were at least living pictures to his imagination, if they were not substantive facts of his life. But evidently the idolatry of the fathers who had no country robbed him of this precious pos- session. The living pictures became poor likenesses or adumbra- tions of some New Testament notion or symbol. What was there in such a conception to match the faith of the Puritans, who believed that the sword of Gideon was the sword of the Lord at all times, and might be unsheathed in their days as much as in the days of the Midianites ? That was a masculine faith ; not quite satisfactory, I fancy, without some feminine accompani- ments, but better perhaps than any which is purely feminine, for that may scratch with nails, if it cannot lift any stouter weapon. If I am right in these observations—if this school has enfeebled itself by its contemptuous treatment of the writers whom it could not understand, and perhaps had no call to understand—should we not be very careful of imitating its narrowness and exclusiveness ? Can we make men masculine by denouncing them for being femi- nine? Can we exalt the higlier poetry or quicken the growth of any such among ourselves, by denouncing that which we consider
lower—that which may have produced very mean imitations, but which has served to cheer some of the best spirits among us, nay, which has ministered greatly to the refinement and purifica-
tion of English society? I cannot say how I am oppressed by the
thought that the most beautiful faculty of our times is employed chiefly in this negative destructive work, chiefly in showing us what we are not to prize and love. I do not mean that this use of criticism specially belongs to the present generation. We and our fathers have all turned it to that account, our children are only improving upon the example that we set them.
The Edinburgh reviewers and all the fashion of the day denounced Wordsworth. He proved too strong for them.
The critics bowed before the poet. But the poet's disciples became saucy critics. They spoke contemptuously of Pope, whom their fathers honoured. The revenge came. I do not know if the study of Pope has increased. The study of Wordsworth has certainly diminished. We cannot transmit our admirations to our sons. It is not fit that we should. They ought to have their own heroes and prophets. Tennyson and Browning must be more
to them than Wordsworth. But we can (and, alas ! do) transmit to them our habits of contempt, only by a just retribution they
are turned against men who have been our benefactors. And as we grow older and colder, we lose our early attachments, without entering into the sympathies of the coming age and learning to respect its teachers.
But surely this need not be so. Cannot you, who are critics, caltivate in us, both young and old, a better and truer mind ?
Why will you not teach us how we may profit by each of the writers that have been given us, whether they wrote masculine or feminine verses? Why will you not show us that one has a coat- Mission to do what another cannot do, and that if he has executed his commission imperfectly, we may be the wiser for that very imperfection? Mr. Swinburne, who has undertaken to instruct us about Lord Byron, would be greatly amused at such a discus- sion as I have been engaged in. He would regard it as the attempt of one member of the parti pretre to defend another, arid to prove that all poetry should be the minister of divinity. No,
Sir, I do not speak of Mr. Keble as a doctor in divinity ; I have learnt more of that froin Lord Byron. Most men who were young
men or boys in the Regency, or in the early part of George IV.'s reign, passed through the Byronic fever. It might vary in degrees of virulency ; it might last through the twenty-one days, or the crisis might come earlier. Anyhow, I believe, it was meant to strengthen, not to enfeeble, the constitutions which underwent it. Most perhaps laughed at themselves for this experience, as Lord Byron laughed at himself for having caused it. But now, in looking back and trying to understand the nature of the epidemic,—in trying to trace its stages through the books which called it forth;—I do perceive profound lessons of morality and divinity in them which I have not been able to derive from Wordsworth or from Keble. If I were left to The Christian Year and The Excursion, I might fancy that some sacerdotal medicines could heal the consciences of ordinary men, that a mixture of Pantheism with these potions could make them available for philosophers. Manfred cures me of that delusion.
When he—a representative of our age—asks the spirits to give him forgetfulness, and they answer that they can give him any- thing but that, he drives me back upon Luther. I see that our century needs a divine redemption and reconciliation as much as the sixteenth century needed them, needs them without the limi- tations which that century supposed to be reasonable and possible.
But having grounded myself in my theology by assiduous attend- ance on the discourses of Mr. Swinburne's favourite preacher, may I not improve my humanity by listening to less terrible
instructors ? One may be called "feminine," the other "culi- nary." I can discern much cleverness and some appropriateness in each epithet. But surely the talent of discovering and label- ling defect's is not the one to be most esteemed in a liberal and comprehensive age.—Your obedient servant,
[Our correspondent surely mistakes in supposing that because a criticism is partly negative in form it is negative in essence.
We agree with him in thinking criticism purely negative on any great writer, any truly popular writer, bad. Whatever the defects of the criticism on Keble, we do not hesitate to say that its writer has seldom put more positive conviction into any criti- cism.—En. Spectator.]