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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Shows what the thoughts of unbiassed contemporaries were


Many

of the constituents of this remarkable and perhaps unexampled success--Pusey's personal saintliness, his unselfish use of his considerable income, his unwearied benevolence in other than pecuniary ways--do not concern us here. But his works, which are numerous, and the most literary of which are his _Sermons_ and his _Eirenicon_, contributed not a little to it. Pusey's style was accused by some of bareness and by others of obscurity; but these accusations may be safely dismissed as due merely to the prevalent fancy for florid expression, and to the impatience of somewhat scholastically arranged argument which has also distinguished our times.

The second of this remarkable trio, John Keble, was the eldest, having been born on 24th April 1792, at Fairford, in Gloucestershire, with which county his family had for some centuries been connected. Keble's father was a clergyman, and there was a clerical feeling and tradition in the whole family. John went to no public school, but was very carefully educated at home, obtained an open scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, when he was only fourteen, and went into residence next year--for just at this time extremely early entrance at the University was much commoner than a little earlier or later. He had only just entered his nineteenth year when he took a double first, and had not concluded it when he was elected, at the same time with Whately, to an Oriel fellowship. He followed this up by winning

both the Chancellor's Essays, English and Latin, and established his reputation as the most brilliant man of his day. He was ordained as soon as he could be, and served the usual offices of tutor in his College and examiner in the University. But even such semi-public life as this was distasteful to him, and he soon gave up his Oriel tutorship for a country curacy and private pupils. Indeed the note, some would say the fault, of Keble's whole life was an almost morbid retiringness, which made him in 1827 refuse even to compete with Hawkins for the Provostship of Oriel. It is possible that he would not have been elected, for oddly enough his two future colleagues in the triumvirate, both Fellows, were both in favour of his rival; but his shunning the contest has been deeply deplored, and by some even blamed as a _gran rifiuto_. The publication of _The Christian Year_, however, which immediately followed, probably did more for the Movement and for the spiritual life of England than any office-holding could have done; and in 1831, Keble, being elected Professor of Poetry, distinguished himself almost as much in criticism as he had already done in poetry. He obtained, and was contented with, the living of Hursley, in Hampshire, where he resided till his death on 29th March 1866.

Keble's very generally granted character as one of the holiest persons of modern times, and even his influence on the Oxford Movement, concern us less here than his literary work, which was of almost the first importance merely as literature. The reaction from an enormous popularity of nearly seventy years' date, and the growth of anti-dogmatic opinions, have brought about a sort of tendency in some quarters to belittle, if not positively to sneer at, _The Christian Year_, which, with the _Lyra Innocentium_ and a collection of _Miscellaneous Poems_, contains Keble's poetical work. There never was anything more uncritical. The famous reference which Thackeray--the least ecclesiastically inclined, if by no means the least religious, of English men of letters of genius in this century--makes to its appearance in _Pendennis_, shows what the thoughts of unbiassed contemporaries were. And no very different judgment can be formed by unbiassed posterity. With Herbert and Miss Rossetti, Keble ranks as the greatest of English writers in sacred verse, the irregular and unequal efforts of Vaughan and Crashaw sometimes transcending, oftener sinking below the three. If Keble has not the exquisite poetical mysticism of Christina Rossetti he is more copious and more strictly scholarly, while he escapes the quaint triviality, or the triviality sometimes not even quaint, which mars Herbert. The influence of Wordsworth is strongly shown, but it is rendered and redirected in an entirely original manner. The lack of taste which mars so much religious poetry never shows itself even for a moment in Keble; yet the correctness of his diction, like the orthodoxy of his thought, is never frigid or tame. There are few poets who so well deserve the nickname of a Christian Horace, though the phrase may seem to have something of the paradox of "prose Shakespeare." The careful melody of the versification and the exact felicity of the diction exclude, it may be, those highest flights which create most enthusiasm, at any rate in this century. But for measure, proportion, successful attainment of the proposed end, Keble has few superiors.


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