[The following review comes from the author’s Lectures and Essays. In adapting it from the Project Gutenberg text, I have followed modern house styles and italicized titles of books. Links take you to material in the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow]

Sir John Coleridge, the writer of this Life of Keble, was for many years one of the Judges of the Court of Queen's Bench, is now a Privy Councillor, and may be regarded almost as the lay head of the High Church party in England. Sharing Keble's opinions, and entering into all his feelings, he is at the same time himself always a man of the world and a man of sense. Add to these qualifications his intimate and lifelong friendship with the subject of his work, and we have reason to expect a biography at once appreciative and judicial. Such a biography, in fact, we have; one full of sympathy, yet free from exaggeration, and a good lesson to biographers in general. The intimacy of the friendship between the writer and his subject might have interfered with his impartiality and repelled our confidence if the case had been more complex and had made greater demands on the inflexibility of the judge. But in the case of a character and a life so perfectly simple, pure, and transparent as the character and the life of Keble, there was but one thing to be said.

The author of Life of Keble was the son of a country clergyman of the Church of England, and was educated at home by his father, so that he missed, or, as he would probably have said himself, escaped, the knowledge of minds differently trained from his own which a boy cannot help picking up at an English public school. At a very early age he became a scholar of Corpus Christi, a very small and secluded college of the High Church and High Tory University of Oxford. As the scholarships led to fellowships—the holders of which were required to be in holy orders—and to church preferment, almost all the scholars were destined for the clerical profession. Of Keble's student friendships one only seems to have been formed outside the walls of his own college, and this was with Miller, a student of Worcester College, who afterwards became a High Church clergyman. Among the students destined for the Anglican priesthood in the Junior Common Room of Corpus Christi College, there was indeed one whose presence strikes us like the apparition of Turnus in the camp of AEneas — Thomas Arnold. Arnold was already Arnold, and he succeeded in drawing the young champions of the divine right of kings and priests into a struggle against the divine right of tutors which 'secured the liberty of the subject' at Corpus—the question at issue between the subject and the ruler being by which of two clocks, one of which was always five minutes before the other, the recitations should begin. The friendship between Arnold and Keble, however, was merely personal, Arnold evidently never exercised the slightest influence over Keble's mind, and even in this 'great rebellion'—the only rebellion, great or small, of his life—Keble was induced to take part, as he has expressly recorded, at the instigation of Coleridge, a middle term between Arnold and himself.

The college teachers were all clergymen and the university curriculum in their days was regulated and limited by clerical ascendancy, and consisted of the Aristotelian and Butlerian philosophy, classics, and pure mathematics, without modern history or physical science. The remarkable precocity of Keble's intellect enabled him to graduate with the highest honours both in classics and mathematics at an age almost miraculously early even when allowance is made for the comparative youthfulness of students in general in those days. He was at once elected a Fellow of Oriel, and translated to the Senior Common Room of the College — another clerical society consisting of men for the most part considerably his seniors, among whom, in spite of the presence of Whately, High Church principles probably predominated already, and were destined soon to predominate in the most extreme sense, for the college presently became the focus of the Ritualistic and Romanizing movement. Thus, up to twenty-three, Keble's life had been that of a sort of acolyte, and though not ascetic (for his nature appears to have been always genial and mirthful), entirely clerical in its environments and its aspirations. At twenty-three he took orders, and put round his neck, with the white tie of Anglican priesthood, the Thirty-nine Articles, the whole contents of the Anglican Prayer Book and all the contradictions between those two standards of belief. For some time he held a tutorship in his college then he went down to a country living in the neighbourhood of a cathedral city, where he spent the rest of his days. His character was so sweet and gentle that he could not fail to be naturally disposed to toleration. He even goes the length of saying that some profane libellers whom his friend Coleridge was going to prosecute, were not half so dangerous enemies to religion as some wicked worldly-minded Christians. But it is no wonder, and implies no derogation from his charity, that he should have regarded the progress of opinions different from his own as a mediaeval monk would have regarded the progress of an army of Saracens or a horde of Avars. His poetic sympathies could not hinder him from disliking the rebel and Puritan Milton.

Thus it was impossible that he should be in a very broad sense a poet of humanity. His fundamental conception of the world was essentially mediaeval, his ideal was that of cloistered innocence or, still better, the innocence of untempted and untried infancy. For such perfection his Lyra Innocentium was strung. When his friend is thinking of the profession of the law, he conjures him to forego the brilliant visions which tempted him in that direction for "visions far more brilliant and more certain too, more brilliant in their results, inasmuch as the salvation of one soul is worth more than the framing the Magna Charta of a thousand worlds, more certain to take place since temptations are fewer and opportunities everywhere to be found. These words remind us of a passage in one of Massillon's sermons, preached on the delivery of colours to a regiment, in which the bishop after dwelling on the hardships and sufferings which soldiers are called upon to endure, intimates that a small part of those hardships and sufferings, undergone in performance of a monastic vow, would merit the kingdom of heaven. If souls are to be saved by real moral influences, Sir John Coleridge has probably saved a good many more souls as a religious judge and man of the world than he would have saved as the rector of a country parish, and if character is formed by moral effort, he has probably formed a much higher character by facing temptation than he would have done by flying from it. Keble himself, in his Morning Hymn, has a passage in a different strain, but the sentiment which really prevailed with him was probably that embodied in his advice to his friend.

Whatever of grace, worth, or beneficence there could be in the half cloistered life of an Oxford fellow of those days or in the rural and sacerdotal life of a High Church rector, there was in the life of Keble at Oriel, and afterwards at Hursley. The best spirit of such a life together with the image of a character rivalling in spiritual beauty, after its kind that of Ken or Leighton, is found in Keble's poetry, and for this we may be, as hundreds of thousands have been, thankful.

The biographer declines to enter into a critical examination of the Christian Year, but he confidently predicts its indefinite reign, founding his prediction on the causes of its original success. He justly describes it, in effect as rather a poetical manual of devotion than a book of poetry for continuous reading. It is in truth, so completely out of the category of ordinary poetry that to estimate its poetic merits would be a very difficult task. Sir John Coleridge indicates this, when he cites as an appropriate tribute to the excellence of the book the practice of the clergyman who used, every Sunday afternoon instead of a sermon to read and interpret to his congregation the poem of the Christian Year for the day. The object of the present publication says the Preface will be attained if any person find assistance from it in bringing his own thoughts and feelings into more entire unison with those recommended and exemplified in the Prayer Book. This connection with the Prayer Book and with the Anglican Calendar, while it has given the book an immense circulation necessarily limits its range and interest. Yet those who care least for being brought into unison with the Prayer Book fully admit that the Christian Year gives proof of real poetic power. Keble himself, as his biographer attests, had a very humble opinion of his own work, seldom read it, hated to hear it praised, [and] consented with great difficulty to its glorification by sumptuous editions. It was his saintly humility suggests the biographer which made him feel that the book which flowed from his own heart would inevitably be taken for a faithful likeness of himself, that he would thus be exhibiting himself in favourable colours and be in danger of incurring the woe pronounced on those who win the good opinion of the world. If this account be true it is another proof of the mediaeval and half monastic mould in which Keble's religious character was cast.

The comparative failure of the Lyra Innocentium is probably to be attributed not only to its inferiority in intrinsic merit but to the fact that whereas the "Christian Year" has as little of a party character as any work of devotion written by an Anglican and High Church clergyman could have, the Lyra Innocentium was the work of a leading party man. The interval between the two publications had been filled by a great reactionary movement among the clergy, one of the back-streams to that current of Liberalism, which setting in after the termination of the great French war, not only swept away the Rotten boroughs and the other political bulwarks of Tory dominion but threatened to sweep away the privileges of the Established Church, and compelled Churchmen to look out for a basis independent of State support. Keble was the associate of Hurrell Froude, Newman, Pusey and the other great Tractarians.

A sermon which he preached before the University of Oxford was regarded by Newman as the beginning of the movement. He contributed to the Tracts for the Times, though as a controversialist he was never powerful, sweetness not strength being the characteristic of his mind. He gradually embraced, as it seems to us, all the principles which sent his fellow Tractarians over to Rome. The posthumous alteration made in the Christian Year by his direction shows that he held a doctrine respecting the Eucharist not practically distinguishable from the Roman doctrine of Transubstantiation. A poem intended to appear in the Lyra Apostolica but suppressed at the time in deference to the wishes of cautious friends and now published by his biographer proves that he was, as a Protestant putting it plainly would say, an advanced Mariolater. He was a thoroughgoing sacerdotalist and believer in the authority of the Church in matters of opinion. He mourned over the abandonment of auricular confession. He regarded the cessation of prayers for the souls of dead founders and benefactors as a lamentable concession to Protestant prejudice. Like his associates he repudiated the very name of Protestant. He deemed the state of the Church of England with regard to orthodoxy most deplorable—two prelates having distinctly denied an article of the Apostles Creed and matters going on altogether so that it was very difficult for a Catholic Christian to remain in that communion. Why then did he not with Newman and the rest accept the logical conclusions of his premises and go to the place to which his principles belonged? His was not a character to be influenced by any worldly motives or even by that sense of ecclesiastical position which perhaps has sometimes had its influence in making Romanizing leaders of the Anglican clergy unwilling to merge their party and their leadership in the Church of Rome. There was nothing in his nature which would have recoiled from any self abnegation or submission. The real answer is we believe that Keble was a married man. We can hardly imagine him making love. His marriage was no doubt one not of passion but of affection, as small a departure from the sacerdotal ideal as it was possible for a marriage to be. Still, he was married and tenderly attached to his good wife. Thus it was probably not any subtle distinction between Real Presence and Transubstantiation, not misgivings as to the exact degree of worship to be paid to the Virgin, not doubts as to the limits of the personal infallibility of the Pope or objections to practical abuses in the Church of Rome—which kept Keble and has kept many a Romanizing clergyman of the Anglican Church from becoming a Roman Catholic. Nor is the reason when analysed one of which Anglican philosophy need be ashamed for to the pretentions of sacerdotal asceticism the best answer is domestic love.

Keble stopped his ears with wax against the siren appeal of his seceding chief John Henry Newman and refused at first to read the Essay on Development. When at last he was drawn into the controversy he constructed for his own satisfaction and that of other waverers who looked up to him for support and guidance an argument founded on the Butlerian principle of probability as the guide of life. But Butler, with all deference to his great name be it said, imports into questions of conscience and into the spiritual domain a principle really applicable only to worldly concerns. A man will invest his money or take any other step in relation to his worldly affairs as he thinks the chances are in his favour, but he cannot be satisfied with a mere preponderance of chances that he possesses vital truth and that he will escape everlasting condemnation. The analogy drawn by Keble between the late recognition of the Prayer Book instead of the too Protestant Articles as the real canon of the Anglican faith and the lateness of the Christian Revelation in the world's history was an application of the analogical method of reasoning which showed to what strange uses that method might be put.

It is singular but consistent with our theory as to the real nature of the tie which prevented Keble from joining the secession that he should have determined if compelled to leave the Church of England (a contingency which from the growth of heresy in that Church he distinctly contemplated) to go not into the communion of the Church of Rome but out of all communion whatever. He would have gone we suppose into some limbo like the phantom Church of the Nonjurors. It is difficult to see how such a course can have logically commended itself to the mind of any member of the theological school which held that the individual reason afforded no sort of standing ground and that the one thing indispensable to salvation was visible communion with the true Church.

Sir John Coleridge deals with the question as to the posthumous alteration in The Christian Year the discovery of which caused so much scandal among its Protestant admirers and brought to a stand, it was said, the subscription for a memorial college in honour of its author. It is made clearly to appear that the alteration was in accordance with Keble's expressed desire, and the suspicion which was cast upon his executors and those who were about him in his last moments is proved to be entirely unfounded. But, on the other hand, we cannot think that the biographer (or rather Keble, who speaks for himself in this matter) will be successful in convincing many people that the alteration was merely verbal. The mental interpolation of "only" after "not" in the words "not in the Hands," is surely a tour de force, and it must be remembered that the passage occurs in the lines on the "Gunpowder Treason," and is evidently pointed against the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. The Roman Catholics do not deny that the Eucharist is received "in the heart," but the Protestants deny that it is is received "in the hands" at all, and the vast majority of Keble's readers could not fail to construe the passage as an assertion of the Protestant doctrine. Sir John Coleridge does not confront the real difficulty, because he does not give the two versions side by side, or exhibit the passage in its context. A more natural account of the matter is suggested by a letter of Keble, written when he was contemplating the publication of the Lyra Innocentium, and included in the present memoir. In that letter he says:

No doubt, there would be the difference in tone which you take notice of between this and the former book, for when I wrote that, I did not understand (to mention no more points) either the doctrine of Repentance or that of the Holy Eucharist, as held, e. g., by Bishop Ken, nor that of Justification, and such points as these must surely make a great difference. But may it please God to preserve me from writing so unreally and deceitfully as I did then, and if I could tell you the whole of my shameful history, you would join with all your heart in this prayer."

The biographer, while he proves his integrity by giving us the letter, of course protests against our taking seriously the self accusations of a saint. We certainly shall not take seriously any charge of deceitfulness against Keble, whether made by himself or by any other human being, but he was liable, to a certain extent, like all other human beings, to self-deception. His opinions, like those of his associates, on theological questions in general and on the question of the Eucharist in particular, had been moving rapidly in a Romanizing direction during the interval between the publication of The Christian Year and that of the Lyra Innocentium. In the passage just quoted, we see that he was conscious of this, but it was not unnatural that he should sometimes forget it, and that he should then put upon the words in The Christian Year a construction in conformity with his opinions as they were in their most advanced stage. It is strange, however, that he and the rest of his party, if they were even dimly and at intervals conscious of the fact that their own creed had undergone so much change, should still have been able to take the ground of immutability and infallibility in their controversies with other parties and churches.

It has been almost forgotten that Keble held for ten years a (non-resident) Professorship of Poetry at Oxford. His lectures were unfortunately written, as the rule of the Chair then was, in Latin. He thought of translating them, and Sir John Coleridge seems still to hold that the task would be worth undertaking. For the examples, which are taken from the Greek and Latin poets, it would be necessary to substitute translations or examples taken from the modern poets. Mr. Gladstone chooses, the apt epithet when he calls the lectures "refined." Refinement rather than vigour or depth was always the attribute of Keble's productions. His view of poetry, however, as the vent for overcharged feelings or an imagination oppressed by its own fulness—as a vis medica, to use his own expression—if it does not cover the whole ground, well deserves attention among other theories.

To the discredit, perhaps, rather of the dogmatic spirit than of either of the persons concerned, religious differences were allowed to interfere with he personal friendship formed in youth between Keble and Arnold. With this single and slight exception, Keble's character in every relation—as friend, son, husband, tutor, pastor—seems to have been all that the admirers of The Christian Year can expect or desire. The current of his life, but for the element of theological controversy and perplexity which slightly disturbed his later days, would have been limpid and tranquil as that of any rivulet in the quiet scene where the years of his Christian ministry were passed. He and his wife, the partner of all his thoughts and labours, and the mirror and partaker of the beauty of his character, died almost on the same day; she dying last, and rejoicing that her husband was spared the pain of being the survivor.

Within these walls [of the Church] each fluttering guest
Is gently lured to one safe nest—
Without 'tis moaning and unrest.

The writer of those lines perfectly as well as beautifully realized his ideal.


Coleridge, J.T. A Memoir of the Rev. J. Keble, M.A., late Vicar of Hursley. Oxford and London: James Parker & Co., 1869.

Smith, Goldwin. Lectures and Essays. Toronto, 1881. A Project Gutenberg text 2004 [EBook #6570] produced by Tonya Allen, Juliet Sutherland, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Web. 18 June 2018.

Last modified 18 June 2018