Recently I was delighted to purchase a beautiful illustrated edition of The Christian Year from a National Trust bookshop. I don’t suppose many people (outside academia, at least) have read John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827), and certainly some of it can be a little hard going, but it’s one of those books that is too easily under-estimated. Keble held the Chair of Poetry at Oxford (largely due to the success of The Christian Year) and his book was extremely popular. Keble was one of the Tractarians, so called because they produced Tracts for the Times, a kind of commentary on the state of the church and religious faith at the time. The Tractarian, or Oxford Movement, was a High Church development in mid-nineteenth century Christianity, whose active members included John Henry Newman, Edward Bouverie Pusey, and John Keble. Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Yonge were two literary adherents, and may well have been attracted by the literary aspects of the movement, including Keble’s book. Indeed, Christina Rossetti is known to have owned a well-thumbed copy for which she drew her own illustrations.
There is no doubt that the book was hugely influential. It has been described as one of the most popular books of poetry of the nineteenth century, and it seems as though most Victorian households must have owned a copy. Yet it is now all but forgotten. Perhaps this is partly due to its intensely religious nature (unsurprisingly, given the title!) – the book features poems which celebrate the events of the Christian calendar according to the Book of Common Prayer. Its liturgical nature and solemnity of its verse perhaps makes it unappealing to modern readers, but in its significance both theologically and historically, it’s worth a look. Also, the poetry is often appealing and moving, though it also occasionally lapses into greeting-card-style rhymes.
The nature of Tractarian writing encourages the reader to respond actively, rather than passively taking it in. This is an approach used by Christina Rossetti, whose devotional poems invite the reader to join her in prayer or penitence; her poems, like Keble’s, require careful reading, re-reading, unpacking and understanding. For Keble, Rossetti and other Tractarian writers, the idea is to encourage spiritual growth in their readers, rather than ‘mere’ pleasure in the text. Keble wrote that ‘It is to the awakening of some moral or religious feeling, not by direct instruction (that is the office of morality or theology) but by way of association, that we would refer all poetic pleasure’.
Third Sunday After Epiphany (extract from The Christian Year)
I marked a rainbow in the north,
What time the wild autumnal sun
From his dark veil at noon looked forth,
As glorying in his course half done,
Flinging soft radiance far and wide
Over the dusky heaven and bleak hill-side.
It was a gleam to Memory dear,
And as I walk and muse apart,
When all seems faithless round and drear,
I would revive it in my heart,
And watch how light can find its way
To regions farthest from the fount of day.