Keble was not merely, like Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, a writer of hymns. He was a real poet. Their works, no doubt, have occasional flashes of poetry, but their main object is didactic, devotional, theological. Not so the Christian Year, the Lyra Innocentium, or the Psalter. Very few of his verses can be used in public worship. His hymns are the exception. His originality lies in the fact that whilst the subjects which he touches are for the most part consecrated by religious usage or Biblical allusion, yet he grasps them not chiefly or exclusively as a theologian, or a Churchman, but as a poet. The Lyra Innocentium, whilst its more limited range of subjects, and perhaps its more subtle turn of thought, will always exclude it from the rank occupied by the Christian Year, has more of the true fire of genius, more of the true rush of poetic diction. The Psalter again differs essentially from Sternhold and Hopkins, Tate and Brady, not merely in execution, but in design. It is the only English example of a rendering of Hebrew poetry by one who was himself a poet, with the full appreciation of the poetical thought as well as of the spiritual life which lies enshrined in the deep places of the Psalter. A striking instance of this is the version of the 93rd Psalm. The general subject of that Psalm must be obvious to every one in any translation, however meagre. But it required the magic touch of a kindred spirit to bring out of the rugged Hebrew sentences the splendour and beauty of the dashing and breaking waves, which doubtless was intended, though shrouded in that archaic tongue from less keen observers.
Keble was not a sacred but, in the best sense of the word, a secular poet. It is not David only, but the Sibyl, whose accents we catch in his inspirations. The "sword in myrtle drest" of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, "the many-twinkling smile of ocean" from Aeschylus, are images as familiar to him as "Bethlehem's glade," or "Carmel's haunted strand." Not George Herbert, or Cowper, but Wordsworth, Scott, and perhaps more than all, Southey, are the English poets that kindled his flame, and coloured his diction. The beautiful stanza, "Why so stately, maiden fair?" and the whole poem on "May Garlands," might have been written by the least theological of men. The allusions to nature are even superabundantly inwoven with the most sacred subjects. Occasionally a thought of much force and sublimity is lost by its entanglement in some merely passing phase of cloud or shadow. The descriptions of natural scenery display a depth of poetical intuition very rarely vouchsafed to any man. The exactness of the descriptions of Palestine, which he had never visited, have been noted and verified on the spot, as very few such descriptions ever have been. There are not above two or three failures, even in turns of expression. One example of this minute accuracy is so striking as to deserve special record. Amongst the features of the Lake of Gennesareth, one which most arrests the attention is the belt of oleanders which surrounds its shores. But this remarkable characteristic had, as far as we know, entirely escaped the observation of all travellers before the beginning of this century; and, if we are not mistaken, the first published notice of it was in that line of the Christian Year—
All through the summer night,
Those blossoms red and bright—
by one who had never seen them, and who must have derived his knowledge of them from careful cross-examination of some traveller from the Holy Land. It was an instance of his curious shyness that, when complimented on this singular accuracy of description of the Holy Land, he replied, "It was by a happy accident." Not less precise, if we knew exactly where to look for the original spots which suggested them, are his descriptions of the scenery of England. With the single exception of the allusion to the rocky isthmus at the Land's End said to be found in the lines,
Lo, on a narrow neck of land,
'Twist two unbounded seas I stand:
there is probably no local touch through the whole of the poems of the two Wesleys. But Oxford, Bagley Wood, and the neighbourhood of Hursley, might, we are sure, be traced through hundreds of lines, both in the Christian Year and the Lyra Innocentium.
Though Keble's pastoral life was retired and his ecclesiastical life narrow, as a poet he not only touched the great world of literature, but he was also a free-minded, free-speaking thinker. Both in form and in doctrine his poetry has a broad and philosophical vein, the more striking from its contrast to his opposite tendencies in connexion with his ecclesiastical party.
That eagerness to give the local colour of the sacred events, which runs through these volumes, is the "first step which costs everything" in the attempt to treat these august topics historically, and not dogmatically.
The rude sandy lea,
Where stately Jordan flows by many a palm—
Green lake, and cedar tuft, and spicy glade,
Shaking their dewy tresses now the storm is laid;
In Kedron's storied dell,
The vaulted cells where martyr'd seers of old,
Far in the rocky walls of Sion sleep.
The Biblical scenery is treated graphically as real scenery, the Biblical history and poetry is real history and poetry: the wall of partition between things sacred and things secular is broken down; the dogmatist, the allegorist, have disappeared; the critic and the poet have stepped into their place.
O for a sculptor's hand,
That thou might'st take thy stand,
Thy wild hair floating on the Eastern breeze.
This is the true poetic fire of Gray's Bard, not the language of convention.
The moist pearls now bestrewing
Thymy slope and rushy vale;
Comrades — what our sires have told us,
Watch and wait, for it will come;
Not by manna showers at morning
Shall our wants be then supplied;
But a strange pale gold adorning
Many a tufted mountain side.
This is the tone, not of the mystical commentator, but of the creative poet.
In doctrine too, whether in points distinctive of high Anglicanism or in those common to Christian controversialists in general, it is noticeable how the view of the poet transcends the view of the theologian. The beautiful poem of the "Waterfall" in the Lyra Innocentium is a direct contradiction to the rigid opinions of its author, in his theological writings, on the hope expressed by Origen and Tillotson of the final restoration of lost souls. He speaks of the ancient world as Zwinglius or Spinoza regarded it, not as the scholastic divines spoke of it:—
Now of Thy love we deem.
As of an ocean vast,
Mounting in tides against the stream
Of ages gone and past.
That warning still and deep,
At which high spirits of old would start
Even from their pagan sleep.
In direct opposition to the spirit which would make not moral excellence but technical forms of belief the test of safety he writes such verses as these—
In one blaze of charity
Care and remorse are lost, like motes in light divine;...
Whole years of folly we outlive
In His unerring sight, who measures Life by Love.
Lord, and what shall this man do?
Ask'st thou, Christian, for thy friend?
If his love for Christ be true,
Christ hath told thee of his end:
This is he whom God approves.
This is he whom Jesus loves.
Wouldst thou the life of souls discern?
Not human wisdom nor divine
Helps thee by aught beside to learn;
Love is life's only sign.
Again, the doubts and difficulties, which in the rude conflict of theological controversy are usually ascribed to corrupt motives and the like, are treated in his Ode on St. Thomas's Day with a tenderness worthy of the most advanced of modern thinkers:—
Is then on earth a spirit frail
Who fears to take their word;
Scarce daring through the twilight pale
To think he sees the Lord?
With eyes too tremblingly awake
To bear with dimness for His sake?
Read and confess the Hand Divine
That drew thy likeness here so true in every line!
And the beautiful analysis of the character and position of Barnabas, which is one of the masterpieces of Renan's work on the Apostles, is all but anticipated in the lines on that saint in the Christian Year.
Never so blest as when in Jesus' roll,
They write some hero-soul,
Move pleased upon his brightening road
To wait, than if their own with all his radiance glow'd.
Such a keen discrimination of the gifts and relations of the Apostles belongs to the true modern element of theology, not to the conventional theories of former days.
And with regard to the more special peculiarities of the High Church schools it is remarkable how at every turn he broke away from them in his poetry. It is enough to refer to the justification of marriage as against celibacy in the Ode on the Wednesday in Passion Week; the glorification of the religion of common against conventual life in his Morning Hymn, and in his Ode on St. Matthew's Day. The contending polemic schools have themselves called attention to the well-known lines on the Euchasist in the poem on Gunpowder Treason. It is clear that, whatever may have been the subtle theological dogma which he may have held on the subject, the whole drift of that passage, which no verbal alteration can obliterate, is to exalt the moral and spiritual elements of that ordinance above those physical and local attributes on which later developments of his school have so exclusively dwelt.
These instances might be multiplied to any extent. It would, of course, be preposterous to press each line of poetry into an argument. But the whole result is to show how far nobler, purer, and loftier was what may be called the natural element of the poet's mind, than the artificial distinctions in which he became involved as a partisan and as a controversialist. This is no rare phenomenon. Who has not felt it hard to recognise the author of the Paradise Lost and of the Penseroso in the polemical treatises on Divorce and on the Execution of Charles I? Who does not know the immeasurable contrast between Wordsworth the poet of nature and of the human heart, and Wordsworth the narrow Tory and High Churchman of his later years? In an these cases it is the poet who is the real man — the theologian and politician only the temporary mask and phase.