John Keble Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Keble 1792-1866

English poet, priest, critic, essayist, and biographer.

Keble was a principal advocate of the Tractarian, or Oxford, Movement in England of the 1830s—the leaders of which argued that the Anglican Church was one of three valid branches of the Catholic Church, the other two being the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox. As a poet, Keble is regarded for The Christian Year (1827), a collection of Victorian devotional verse which proposes that God is revealed analogically through nature. The work is counted among the most popular poetic collections in English of the nineteenth century. A noted clergyman, Keble produced a number of sermons on politico-religious themes, and also wrote critical essays and literary theory, a biography, and several more collections of religious poetry, including Lyra Innocentium (1846). While a decline in esteem for Keble's verse has occurred since his death, he is generally regarded as an influential figure of nineteenth-century Anglicanism and an important devotional poet.

Biographical Information

Keble was born near Fairford in Gloustershire, England. His father John Keble, Sr. was the vicar of Coln St. Aldwyn's, and had graduated from Corpus Christi, Oxford, a school both John and his younger brother Thomas attended. Following his distinguished years at Oxford, which brought him in contact with many of the leading intellectual figures of the England of his day, Keble was ordained a deacon in 1815, and a priest the following year. He embarked on the career of a clergyman by serving as a curate in Gloustershire, and later, following his mother's death in 1823, in Southrop. By this time Keble had begun to write the poems of The Christian Year. In 1825, Keble moved to Hampshire after accepting a position at Hursley. His first departure from Hursley was swift; in response to the death of his youngest sister he returned to Fairford, eventually taking his father's place as vicar of Coln St. Aldwyn. A year after his father had died in 1835, Keble renewed his vicarship at Hursley, where he would reside for the remainder of his life. In addition to his priestly vocation, Keble continued writing poetry and prose until his death on 29 March 1866 in Bournemouth.

Major Works

The Christian Year, which features numerous structural parallels to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, contains a verse for every Sunday and holy day of the year, and offers a Wordsworthian view of nature as a revelation of God. In National Apostasy Considered in a Sermon (1833), Keble reviled the British government for its encroachment on the decision-making power of the Church of England, specifically in regard to the distribution of bishoprics in Ireland. Primitive Tradition Recognized in Holy Scripture (1836) illustrates the essential conservatism of Keble's religious thought. Though somewhat labored and verbose, Keble's eight-volume biography of a seventeenth-century Anglican bishop, The Life and Work of the Right Reverend Father in God, Thomas Wilson, nevertheless exhibits Keble's devoutness and dedication to detail in ecclesiastical matters. Among the eight pieces Keble contributed to Tracts for the Times, a collection of essays elucidating the views associated with the Oxford Movement, “On the Mysticism Attributed to the Early Church Fathers” (1841) reveals the Tractarian notion of Analogy—the belief that God is revealed in the Bible and in nature analogically. Keble's critical work is exemplified in his 1844 De Poeticae vi Medica: Praelectiones Academicae (Lectures on Poetry). In this work, Keble lays out his aesthetic theory, which hinges on a religious interpretation of poetry as a spiritual catharsis necessary to calm the soul.

Critical Reception

While Keble's works of prose and priestly sermons brought him early notoriety, his first nationwide recognition came with the publication of his poetry, notably the verses of The Christian Year, which became enormously popular. Later esteem came with Keble's involvement in the Oxford Movement, anticipated by the poems of this collection and by his sermons. As Keble's contemporary and fellow Tractarian John Henry Newman claimed, the Tractarian Movement was inaugurated with the delivery of Keble's 1833 Assize Sermon, a piece later published as National Apostasy Considered in a Sermon. Modern critics have since frequently compared his sermons to those of Newman, whose ideas and expression are thought to compliment Keble's own. Overall, commentators generally perceive Keble's lasting contribution in terms of his prose writings on Tractarian aesthetics and influence as a seminal member of the Oxford Movement. He is additionally regarded for the devotional verse of The Christian Year—a work principally viewed as an enduring statement of Victorian piety.