Sir J. T. Coleridge (essay date 1869)
SOURCE: A Memoir of the Rev. John Keble, M. A., Late Vicar of Hursley, James Parker and Co., 1869, 620 p.
[In the following excerpt, Coleridge recounts the early publication history of Keble's The Christian Year.]
Keble returned to a home sadly changed by the death of his sister. I do not think that in the course of his life he sustained any loss which he felt more acutely; beyond the privation to himself in the death of a sister so loved, a companion at once so bright and lively, so sensible and good, he could not but be affected by the blow to his father, and even more his invalide and suffering sister, now left alone. Dyson, who visited at Fairford more often than I did, and knew Mary Anne more familiarly, wrote to me at the time, and I transcribe a part of his letter, as in a few words he does her so much more justice than I have been able to do in many:—
Oh, Coleridge, what a sad blow to her family, the loss of Mary Anne Keble; poor I must not call her after the common usage, since she has so infinitely the advantage of all left behind. John Keble sent me word of her loss soon after it happened, and gave, as far as could be given so early after the blow, a comfortable account of his father and sister; and to be sure, if the truest piety, and most practical submission can give any comfort under such a loss, they will have it, and I dare to say, will perhaps at first feel it less, than their immediate friends will for them. But when I think what a loveable being she was in herself, what an affectionate, gentle, guileless, and truly simple heart she had, and how little the cares and affection of the best and tenderest men can supply the unwearying, assiduous, self-denying, attachment of a daughter and sister, I must be apprehensive of the effect upon her father and Elizabeth from such a loss, a loss to be perceived not in one stunning blow, and all is over, but to be felt daily and hourly; I hope, however, and I pray for the best for them.
This was written early in October, 1826. The letters which both Dyson and I received in the following months shew that any apprehension of permanent depression of spirits would have been groundless; all three of the survivors were strong in their common faith, and the picture which Keble draws of his aged father and sister, and unconsciously of himself, under this visitation is most cheering and instructive.
He says to Dyson early in November:—
Amongst all the friendly letters we received, your's seemed one of the most valuable, because you both of you understood dearest Mary Anne so well, and loved her so truly. Whenever we meet or hear from you, it will seem something of an approach to her, and do not fear but by the blessing of God our meetings may be cheerful and happy enough. I am sure you would think so, if you could see how very comfortable both my father and Elizabeth are, and how unaffectedly they enter into the spirit of everything that is going on around them. Indeed, I don’t think you would see any difference in my father, and I am not sure that you would in Elizabeth.
It was an additional trial to the former during this winter, that his increasing weakness prevented him from discharging his duties at Coln personally, to which Keble alludes in writing to me on the 22nd of January, 1827:—
You would like to see my father, how very quietly he takes his suspension from clerical duties, which I used always to fear would be too sharp a trial for him whenever it took place. But it really does not seem to vex him at all. He stays at home, and is quite contented and cheerful, in the office, as he says, of Chaplain to Elizabeth. And Elizabeth's great delight is to do all the things that Mary Anne used to do, and fancy her only gone away for a short visit to a place where she is very happy, and soon to shew herself again; if one may call it fancy, which one verily believes to be the real truth.
He speaks of himself as—
… Having swung comfortably back to his old moorings, and certainly,” says he, “it is more comfortable to have some one to say ‘good bye’ to every night, and not to have to eat and drink, and talk by oneself, only it remains to be proved whether one who has been usually very idle, when he had a good deal to do, will suddenly turn industrious, when his sphere of action is so much diminished. Certainly the days do not seem long, or irksome, but I am afraid that is a very equivocal sign of industry. …
But he was not idle; he was now supplying his father's place at Coln entirely, and as Coln was three miles off, it occupied more of his time than if he had been strictly resident. Moreover, that tax was now beginning to be imposed upon him, which in after life became very burthensome, the answering the letters of those who consulted him in their religious doubts and difficulties. This, it is well known, is the lot of many distinguished persons; but it is remarkable that it should have commenced with him at a time when he would have seemed to be so little known.
In the same letter, from which my last extract was made, he tells me that he had gone “through every word of an immense bundle of papers,” the remains of a deceased convert from Quakerism, with a view to advising whether they should be published or not. He asks for information on the question whether the present Quakers maintained the opinions of George Fox and Co.; on which the answer in that case seemed to him to turn. Again, and about the same time, Cornish had consulted him on the conscientious difficulties of a young lady; and his answer is so sensible, that I cannot forbear transcribing it; many persons, I believe, are occasionally in the condition of the young lady; who may perhaps profit by the advice:—
I am clearly of opinion the young lady should discontinue these observances which seem to fret and distract her so much. It seems like Fasting, which no one is tied to, even by the laws of the Church, when it is bonâ fide against their health: much less by any rule they can set themselves. Clearly this is a case of melancholy from bodily constitution, and the person should be recommended to avoid all vows and singularities of every kind, as mere snares. I seem to be speaking so positively about what I must be ignorant of, that I am afraid my opinion is worth even less than usual: but supposing the representation in your friend's letter to be correct, and Jeremy Taylor right in his Ductor Dubitantium, touching the management of a scrupulous conscience, (p. 158 et seqq.,) I don’t think I can be very wide of the mark; besides you have given me a pretty broad hint in what way you mean to proceed, and wish to be advised. At any rate a person of this temperament should be cautioned, as matter of duty, to refrain from binding herself by anything like voluntary vows in future; it is a mere snare, and should be repressed like any other temptation. If she cannot be quite satisfied, (as at times I suppose she will not,) with having broken through her own rule in this instance, why cannot she add one sentence to her morning or evening devotions, relating to this particular subject; this, if made habitual, would, as it seems to me, answer all purposes; but she must not be fanciful, and imagine one's prayers do no good if one is uncomfortable all the time. I am sure it would be bad enough with some of us, if we let present comfort come into our calculations on that matter.
“Fairford, April 28, 1827.”
These are but instances; he was busy too in his theological reading, and acquiring that intimate knowledge of the Fathers, which had such a marked influence on his theological feeling, if I may use that term, and the habitual train of his thoughts on any religious question. He was examining too, with an interest awakened by the times, the foundation and the limits of the alliance of Church and State, specially of the right of the latter to interfere with the former in matters purely ecclesiastical. In the letter dated June 22, 1827, in which he mentions the publication of The Christian Year, he goes on to a consideration which seems to me very interesting, and which I know not whether any other writer has ever noticed or enlarged on. It was clearly an original thought to Keble:—
“The speculation,” says he, “I referred to in a former letter, and on which you desired more explanation, was this. It seems clear to me, on reading over the Old Testament, that the example of the Jews as a nation, is there held out in such a way as to regulate and correct the religious conduct of us Christians as individuals. The covenant with them collectively was a type of that made with us separately; and the faults into which they fell analogous to what may be expected, and to what we really experience, in our own private dealings with the Almighty; this, I suppose, is what makes the Old Testament, as a whole, so useful to be considered by every Christian; and in this I persuade myself that I see a strong auxiliary evidence of the truth of both dispensations, as well as divers other useful corollaries, if I could but develope them; but it will take a great deal of reading, thinking, and writing, to make out the matter properly and usefully, and I have only, as it were, begun to think about it. I mention it to you, that you may tell me if it seems absurd at first sight, or sufficiently done already. I should like, if I could, to turn my hours to some account; but long habits of idleness are not got over in a moment. I have been to Oxford once or twice lately, and it makes one quite fidgetty to see what a bustle and business every one is always in. I had half a mind to go to Bishop Lloyd and ask him to set me some task.”
He had a great regard and respect for that good, and able, and original man, and he thought his services as Divinity Professor, especially the private Lectures which he instituted, extremely valuable. The Bishop also was very fond of him.
Although Keble speaks of his idleness, which indeed he was fond of doing, the preceding months of the year had brought about the completion, and finished the printing of The Christian Year. Pursuing my plan of giving all details which seem to me at all interesting in respect of this great work, I must go back a little in my narrative and my extracts from his letters. In the beginning of February he acknowledges to me the return of some part of the manuscript which had been under my hands; he does this with his usual overflowing kindness, and I could hardly transcribe the passage, if I had not to qualify it by adding, that I believe after all he rejected, and with good reason, a very large proportion of my suggestions. The passage, moreover, adds a fact worth preserving as to the adviser to whom we owe the beautiful Verses on the Occasional Services, which, curiously enough, seem not to have formed part of his original plan:—
Now I must thank you with all my might for the very kind trouble you have taken about my concerns; you have set to work like a true friend, and I shall always love you the better for it, only I am afraid you have been taking a good deal more trouble than the affair was worth. I have set myself at work rather hardish to revise the MS., and have made a good many corrections, one or two I hope to re-write entirely; and I also want to add something on each of the Occasional Services, in pursuance of a hint I had from Davison. I have done a few stanzas for the Communion, and if I have a good spring-flow of rhyme, I hope to be ready with the others, as far as the Commination, in a month or six weeks, and then I purpose to go up to Oxford, and print without delay. I had wished to put it off for a year for the sake of the vignettes, but my father seems really anxious to have it done without loss of time, and I think one should be uncomfortable, if one did not try one's best to meet his wishes; at the same time, I am quite aware of the defects you mention, and will do my best to mend them. I shall, however, be the more easy in not sending the rest of the MS. to you, as most of the passages you have marked were places which I was before dissatisfied with, and wished to alter; in some few you have not caught my meaning, as I believe, through hurry, and in some I differ in grammar or taste; but on the whole, I am exactly of your mind, and I hope to be a tolerable substitute for you in the office of criticising the rest. My theological plans, about which you enquire, are hardly plans enough to be stated on paper; they are mere schemes floating loosely in my head. But when I have done this job, and read one or two more of the Father, I hope to tell myself something more clearly about it. Farewell, my most dear friend.
“Fairford, Feby 9, 1827.”
The natural wish of his aged father to see the work published before he died, made it now to him an imperative duty to delay no longer; from this time he neither hesitated nor flagged in the prosecution of the work. His mention of vignettes had reference to a scheme, which he rather favoured at this time, of illustrating the book, with the help of some accomplished lady friends. Several vignettes, as he calls them, were indeed drawn; but he abandoned this idea, which Cornish dissuaded him from; and thenceforward he always opposed anything of the kind, though it was more than once pressed on him. I rather think he did not abide by the prudent resolution he announces of sending no more of the MS. to me for my criticism, for I possess a later and detailed acknowledgment, in which I was more surprised than pleased, to find that I had actually recommended the suppression entirely of the verses on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity. He meets this very simply with the remark, that it was a special favourite with some others of his critics.
On the 22nd of June, 1827, he announced to me that my copy of The Christian Year was on the road from Oxford, and on the next day I received it. His announcement was short and simple, and without comment, and then he passed on, as he said, “to more interesting affairs.” I am certain that he had not the slightest idea at the time how important was the gift he had made to the world, nor how decisive a step he had taken in respect of his own character and reputation. We who had watched the work from the beginning were somewhat more enlightened, perhaps; but we had not, I think, fully comprehended the importance of the volume; we had, indeed, a very high opinion of it; we thought it would gradually win its way, and would exercise a great influence on its readers, but we were none of us prepared for its immediate success, still less for such a success as befel it. I have lying before me Mr. J. H. Parker's summary of the account from the beginning to January, 1854; in this period of less than twenty-six years I find 108,000 copies were issued in forty-three editions. The sale of the work never flagged through the remainder of his life; and in the Memoir of Mr. Moor, to which I have so often referred, a statement is made (especially remarkable considering a circumstance to which I must advert presently), that in the nine months immediately following his death seven editions were issued of 11,000 copies.
After what I have said above of my critical success in regard to this work in the prime of my life, I should be very unwise if in advanced old age I were to venture on an elaborate criticism of it here. Indeed, it seems to me hardly the fit subject for mere literary criticism as a volume of poetry. Whatever can be desired of that kind, however, has been admirably done already by Professor Shairp, of St. Andrews, in an “Essay on the Author of the Christian Year,” published at Edinburgh in 1866, and those of my readers who shall be induced by this notice to read that masterly little book, will thank me, I am sure, for having referred them to it.
Yet the publication of The Christian Year was such an event in Keble's life, and the work itself so interesting and important, that I venture to set down, not with any system or order, what are rather my personal experiences in the reading it, than anything like regular criticism upon it. This may, perhaps, be the way in which my remarks may be most useful, especially to young persons. I will say, then, that it is one of those volumes of poetry which no one should take up to read through at once, or as a continued study; few volumes even of miscellaneous poetry will bear this; but the very design of The Christian Year protests against it; it was meant, and should be taken, as an accompaniment to the services of the Prayer-book. It will be found to have a special significance, if read as such; and for this mode of study and meditation, it is particularly fitted by two among other qualities. The first that it is so wonderfully Scriptural. Keble's mind was by long, and patient, and affectionate study of Scripture, so imbued with it, that its language, its train of thought, its mode of reasoning, seem to flow out into his poetry, almost, one should think, unconsciously to himself. They are always there, yet never intruded. Many times, I may say for myself, the meaning of what had been an obscure passage in Holy Writ, or the true character and teaching of an incident, has flashed on me in reading the verses, of which it has been made the text for the day's meditation. I have heard of a clergyman in a rural parish in Worcestershire who was in the habit of reading, and explaining from the pulpit, in lieu of an afternoon sermon, the poem for the Sunday; and I have no doubt such a practice, with proper comments, might be pursued with very good effect. It has often struck me, what an excellent skeleton of a sermon this or that poem suggests. The second quality I would notice, is its almost inexhaustible novelty; whether this be owing to the depth of the thought, the pregnancy of the language, or, as severer critics have said, to the imperfect expression of the thought, or to all combined, I will not undertake to decide; but speaking generally, I should say, read it as often as you will, you...
(The entire section is 7582 words.)