In a review of Josiah Conder's Star in the East, John Keble declares Edmund Spenser preeminently "the sacred poet of his country, as most likely, in every way, to answer the purposes of his art." Keble's early essay on sacred poetry makes an extended comparison between Spenser and Milton, very much to Spenser's advantage. Like John Wilson's later writingson Spenser in Blackwood's Magazine, "Sacred Poetry" departs from the recent tendency, most notable in Hazlitt, to aestheticize the Faerie Queene; Spenser is valued as a moral writer whose subtle and pervasive allusions call forth a contemplative response. The praise accorded the Faerie Queene is perhaps the more notable since it is very apparent that everywhere else lyric is preferred in sacred poetry. John Keble, remembered as devotional poet, was a quintessential Oxford writer who would have been as much at home in the milieu of Bowles and the Wartons as in the Oxford movement of the nineteenth century. His throne-and-altar predilections are already very apparent in this anonymous review.
William Hazlitt: "No statement in the Quarterly Review is to be trusted: there is no fact that is not misrepresented in it, no quotation that is not garbled, no character that is not slandered, if it can answer the purposes of party to do so" Spirit of the Age (1825) 298.
W. Davenport Adams: "John Keble, Vicar of Hursley (b. 1792, d. 1866), wrote The Christian Year (1827); De Poeticae Vi Medica (1844); Lyra Innocentium (1846), besides contributing to Tracts for the Times (1834-36), and editing an edition of the works of Hooker. In conjunction with Dr. Pusey and Father Newman, he edited the Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church anterior to the Division of the East and West, the publication of which commenced at Oxford in 1838. His Occasional Sermons appeared in 1851" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 324.
George Saintsbury: "Ignorance may sneer, but Knowledge will not even smile, at the dictum that not the least critical genius that ever adorned the Oxford Chair [of Poetry] was possessed by John Keble. There is some faint excuse for Ignorance. The actual Praelections of the author of The Christian Year, being Latin, are not read: his chief English critical works, though collected not so very long ago, were collected too late to catch the flood-tide, in their own sense, which is unfortunately, as a rule, needed to land critical works out of reach of the ordinary ebb. Moreover, there is no question but Keble requires 'allowance'; and the allowance which he requires is too often of the kind least freely granted in the present day. If we have anywhere (I hope we have) a man as holy as Keble, and as learned, and as acute, he will hardly express the horror at Scott's occasional use of strong language which Keble expresses. Our historic sense, and our illegitimate advantage of perspective, have at least taught us that to quarrel with Scott again, for not being 'Catholic' enough, is almost to quarrel with Moses for not having actually led the children of Israel into Palestine. And no man, as honest as Keble was, would now echo that other accusation against the great magician (whom, remember, Keble almost adored, and of whom he thought far more highly as a poet than many good men do now) of tolerating intemperance; though some might feign it to suit a popular cant" History of English Criticism (1911) 531.
The essay opens with a brief review of Josiah Conder's Star of the East, which Keble faults for its "effort and constrained stateliness" in contrast to Conder's more domestic poems; he takes particular exception to "The Nightingale," a poem "far nearer than we could wish, to the most vicious of all styles, the style of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his miserable followers" p. 216. The natural descriptions in Burns's lyrics are preferred to those in Cowper's The Task for similar reasons. Simplicity is to be valued in sacred poetry; why, asks Keble, "if tones of deep but subdued emotion are what our minds naturally suggest to us upon the mention of sacred music — why should there not be something analogous, a kind of plain chant, in sacred poetry also?" p. 219.
Keble demurs from Samuel Johnson's opinion that sacred poetry suffers from a paucity of topics: "The novelty there consists, not in the original topic, but in continually bringing ordinary things, by happy strokes of natural ingenuity, into new associations with the ruling passion" p. 220. Additional objections of Johnson's are addressed: "Let the reader, as he goes over it, bear in mind the Psalms of David, and consider whether every one of his statements and arguments is not there practically refuted" p. 223. But there remains a difficulty: sacred poets must choose either conceal their devotional intention, or limit themselves to a small number of readers. These might be considered the direct and indirect modes of sacred poetry.
Spenser is not to be considered as a sacred poet only in his Fowre Hymnes: the Faerie Queene "is a continual, deliberate endeavour to enlist the restless intellect and chivalrous feeling, of an inquiring and romantic age, on the side of goodness and faith, of purity and justice" p. 225. Allegory prevented Spenser from "indulging in such liberties as the Italian poets, in other respects his worthy masters, were too apt to take. The consequence is, that even in his freest passages, and those which one would most wish unwritten, Spenser is by no means a seductive poet. Vice in him, however truly described, is always made contemptible or odious" pp. 225-26. All of Spenser's writings are replete with "tacit allusions to the language and the doctrines of sacred writ; allusions, breathed; if we may, so speak, rather than uttered, and much fitter to be silently considered, than to be dragged forward for quotation or minute criticism" p. 226.
Milton, "a manly and devout spirit," was attracted to sacred poetry by the temper of the times. But he was given to intellectual pride; moreover, "It is a well-known complaint among many of the readers of Paradise Lost, that they can hardly keep themselves from sympathizing, in some sort, with Satan, as the hero of the poem. The most probable account of which surely is, that the author himself partook largely of the haughty and vindictive republican spirit, which he has assigned to the character, and consequently, though per haps unconsciously, drew the portrait with a peculiar zest" p. 229. Milton's republicanism and occasional faulty judgments, "do not affect his claim to be considered as the very lodestar and pattern of that class of sacred poets in England."
Keble quickly runs over the later names in sacred poetry, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, faulting Cowper again for his "unsparing descriptions." Even in the "indirect" mode of sacred poetry the eighteenth century was remarkably deficient; only Gray's Elegy and "possibly some of the more perfect of Collins's poems" might be considered successful. He concludes: "To Spenser therefore, upon the whole, the English reader must revert, as being, preeminently, the sacred poet of his country, as most likely, in every way, to answer the purposes of his art; especially in an age of excitation and refinement, in which the gentler and more homely beauties, both of character and of scenery, are too apt to be despised: with passion and interest enough to attract the most ardent, and grace enough to win the most polished; yet by a silent preference every where inculcating the love of better and more enduring things; and so most exactly fulfilling what he has himself declared to be 'the general end of all his book' — 'to fashion a gentleman, or noble person, in virtuous and gentle discipline'" p. 231.
The Star in the East; with other Poems. By Josiah Conder. London. Taylor and Hessey. 1824. 12mo. pp. 195.
There are many circumstances about this little volume, which tend powerfully to disarm criticism. In the first place, it is for the most part, of a sacred character: taken up with those subjects, which least of all admit, with propriety, either in the author or critic, the exercise of intellectual subtlety. For the practical tendency, indeed, of such compositions, both are most deeply responsible; the author who publishes, and the critic who undertakes to recommend or to censure them. But if they appear to be written with any degree of sincerity and earnestness, we naturally shrink from treating them merely as literary efforts. To interrupt the current of a reader's sympathy in such a case, by critical objections, is not merely to deprive him of a little harmless pleasure, it is to disturb him almost in a devotional exercise. The most considerate reviewer, therefore, of a volume of sacred poetry, will think it a subject on which it is easier to say too much than too little.
In the present instance, this consideration is enforced by the unpretending tone of the volume, which bears internal evidence, for the most part, of not having been written to meet the eye of the world. It is in vain to say, that this claim on the critic's favour is nullified by publication. The author may give it up, and yet the work may retain it. We may still feel that we have no right to judge severely of what was not, at first, intended to come before our judgment at all. This of course applies only to those compositions, which indicate, by something within themselves, this freedom from the pretension of authorship. And such are most of those, to which we are now bespeaking our readers' attention.
Most of them, we say, because the first poem in the volume, "The Star in the East," is of a more ambitious and less pleasing character. Although in blank verse, it is, in fact, a lyrical effusion; an ode on the rapid progress and final triumph of the Gospel. It looks like the composition of a young man: harsh and turgid in parts, but interspersed with some rather beautiful touches. The opening lines are a fair specimen.
O to have heard th' unearthly symphonies,
Which o'er the starlight peace of Syrian skies
Came floating like a dream, that blessed night
When angel songs were heard by sinful men,
Hymning Messiah's advent! O to have watch'd
The night with those poor shepherds, whom, when first
The glory of the Lord shed sudden day—
Day without dawn, starting from midnight, day
Brighter than morning — on those lonely hills
Strange fear surpris'd — fear lost in wondering joy,
When from th' angelic multitude swell'd forth
The many voiced consonance of praise:—
Glory in th' highest to GOD, and upon earth
Peace, towards men good will. But once before,
In such glad strains of joyous fellowship,
The silent earth was greeted by the heavens,
When at its first foundation they looked down
From their bright orbs, those heavenly ministries,
Hailing the new-born world with bursts of joy.
Notwithstanding beauties scattered here and there, there is an effort and constrained stateliness in the poem, very different from the rapidity and simplicity of many of the shorter lyrics, which follow under the titles of Sacred and Domestic Poems. Such, for instance, as the Poor Man's Hymn.
As much have I of worldly good
As e'er my master had:
I diet on as dainty food,
And am as richly clad,
Tho' plain my garb, though scant my board,
As Mary's Son and Nature's Lord.
The manger was his infant bed,
His home, the mountain-cave,
He had not where to lay his head,
He borrow'd even his grave.
Earth yielded him no resting spot,—
Her Maker, but she knew him not.
As much the world's good will I bear,
Its favours and applause,
As He, whose blessed name I bear,—
Hated without a cause,
Despis'd, rejected, mock'd by pride,
Betray'd, forsaken, crucified.
Why should I court my Master's foe?
Why should I fear its frown?
Why should I seek for rest below,
Or sigh for brief renown?
A pilgrim to a better land,
An heir of joys at Gon's right hand.
Or the following sweet lines on Home, which occur among the Domestic poems.
That is not home, where day by day
I wear the busy hours away.
That is not home, where lonely night
Prepares me for the toils of light—
'Tis hope, and joy, and memory, give
A home in which the heart can live—
These walls no lingering hopes endear,
No fond remembrance chains me here,
Cheerless I heave the lonely sigh—
Eliza, canst thou tell me why?
'Tis where thou art is home to me,
And home without thee cannot be.
There are who strangely love to roam,
And find in wildest haunts their home;
And some in halls of lordly state,
Who yet are homeless, desolate.
The sailor's home is on the main,
The warrior's, on the tented plain,
The maiden's, in her bower of rest,
The infant's, on his mother's breast—
But where thou art, is home to me,
And home without thee cannot be.
There is no home in halls of pride,
They are too high, and cold, and wide.
No home is by the wanderer found:
'Tis not in place: it hath no bound.
It is a circling atmosphere
Investing all the heart holds dear
A law of strange attractive force,
That holds the feelings in their course;
It is a presence undefin'd,
O'er-shadowing the conscious mind,
Where love and duty sweetly blend
To consecrate the name of friend;—
Where'er thou art, is home to me,
And home without thee cannot be.
My love, forgive the anxious sigh—
I hear the moments rushing by,
And think that life is fleeting fast,
That youth with us will soon be past.
Oh! when will time, consenting, give
The home in which my heart can live?
There shall the past and future meet,
And o'er our couch, in union sweet,
Extend their cherub wings, and shower
Bright influence on the present hour.
Oh! when shall Israel's mystic guide,
The pillar'd cloud, our steps decide,
Then, resting, spread its guardian shade,
To bless the home which love hath made?
Daily, my love, shall thence arise
Our hearts' united sacrifice;
And home indeed a home will be,
Thus consecrate and shar'd with thee.
We will add one more specimen of the same kind, which forms a natural and pleasing appendix to the preceding lines.
Louise! you wept, that morn of gladness
Which made your Brother blest;
And tears of half-reproachful sadness
Fell on the Bridegroom's vest:
Yet, pearly tears were those, to gem
A sister's bridal diadem.
No words could half so well have spoken,
What thus was deeply shewn
By Nature's simplest, dearest token,
How much was then my own;
Endearing her for whom they fell,
And Thee, for having loved so well.
But now no more — nor let a Brother,
Louise, regretful see,
That still 'tis sorrow to another,
That he should happy be.
Those were, I trust, the only tears
That day shall cost through coming years.
Smile with us. Happy and light-hearted,
We three the time will while.
And when sometimes a season parted.
Still think of us, and smile.
But come to us in gloomy weather;
We'll weep, when we must weep, together.
Now, what is the reason of the great difference between these extracts and that from the Star in the East? a difference which the earlier date of the latter, so far from accounting for, only makes the more extraordinary. In some instances, the interval of time is very short, but at all events more effort and turgidness might have been expected in the earlier poems, more simplicity and care and a more subdued tone in the later. We suspect a reason, which both poets and poetical readers are too apt to leave out of sight. There is a want of Truth in the Star in the East — not that the author is otherwise than quite in earnest — but his earnestness seems rather an artificial glow, to which he has been worked up by reading and conversation of a particular cast, than the overflowing warmth of his own natural feelings, kindles by circumstances in which he was himself placed. In a word, when he writes of the success of the Bible Society, and the supposed amelioration of the world in consequence, he writes from report and fancy only: but when he speaks of a happy home, of kindly affections, of the comforts which piety can administer in disappointment and sorrow; either we are greatly mistaken, or he speaks from real and present experience. The poetical result is what the reader has seen:
—mens onus reponit, et peregrino
Labore fessi venimus Larem ad nostrum.—
We turn gladly from our fairy voyage round the world to refresh ourselves with a picture, which we feel to be drawn from the life, of a happy and innocent fireside. Nor is it, in the slightest degree, derogatory to an author's talent, to say, that he has failed, comparatively, on that subject, of which he must have known comparatively little.
Let us here pause a moment to explain what is meant when we speak of such prospects as are above alluded to, being shadowy and unreal in respect of what is matter of experience. It is not that we doubt the tenor of the Scripture, regarding the final conversion of the whole world, or that we close our eyes to the wonderful arrangements, if the expression may be used, which divine providence seems every where making, with a view to that great consummation. One circumstance, in particular, arrests our attention, as pervading the whole of modern history, but gradually standing out in a stronger light as the view draws nearer our own times: we mean the rapid increase of colonization, from Christian nations only. So that the larger half of the globe, and what in the nature of things will soon become the more populous, is already, in profession, Christian. The event, therefore, is unquestionable: but experience, we fear, will hardly warrant the exulting anticipations, which our author, in common with many of whose sincerity there is no reason to doubt, has raised upon it. It is but too conceivable, that the whole world may become nominally Christian, yet the face of things may be very little changed for the better. And any view of the progress of the gospel, whether in verse or in prose, which leaves out this possibility, is so far wanting in truth, and in that depth of thought, which is as necessary to the higher kinds of poetical beauty, as to philosophy or theology itself.
This, however, is too solemn and comprehensive a subject to be lightly or hastily spoken of. It is enough to have glanced at it, as accounting, in some measure, for the general failure of modern poets in their attempts to describe the predicted triumph of the gospel in the latter days.
To return to the sacred and domestic poems; thus advantageously distinguished from that which gives name to the volume. Affection, whether heavenly or earthly, is the simplest idea that can be; and in the graceful and harmonious expression of it lies the principal beauty of these poems. In the descriptive parts, and in the developement of abstract sentiment, there is more of effort, and occasionally something very like affectation: approaching, in one instance, (the Nightingale,) far nearer than we could wish, to the most vicious of all styles, the style of Mr. Leigh Hunt and his miserable followers.
Now, these are just the sort of merit and the sort of defect, which one might naturally expect to find united: the very simplicity of attachment, which qualifies the mind for sacred or domestic poetry, making its movements awkward and constrained, when scenes are to be described, or thoughts unravelled, of more complication and less immediate interest. This is the rather to be observed, as many other sacred poets have become less generally pleasing and useful, than they otherwise would have been, from this very circumstance. The simple and touching devoutness of many of Bishop Kenn's lyrical effusions has been unregarded, because of the ungraceful contrivances, and heavy movement of his narrative. The same may be said, in our own times, of some parts of Montgomery's writings. His bursts of sacred poetry, compared with his Greenland, remind us of a person singing enchantingly by ear, but becoming languid and powerless the moment he sits down to a note-book.
Such writers, it is obvious, do not sufficiently trust to the command which the simple expression of their feelings would obtain over their readers. They think it must be relieved with something of more variety and imagery, to which they work themselves up with laborious, and therefore necessarily unsuccessful efforts. The model for correcting their error is to be found in the inspired volume. We can, in general, be but incompetent judges of this, because we have been used to it from our boyhood. But let us suppose a person, whose ideas of poetry were entirely gathered from modern compositions, taking up the Psalms for the first time. Among many other remarkable differences, he would surely be impressed with the sacred writer's total carelessness about originality, and what is technically called effect. He would say, "This is something better than merely attractive poetry; it is absolute and divine truth." The same remark ought to be suggested by all sacred hymns; and it is, indeed, greatly to be lamented, that such writers as we have just mentioned should have ever lost sight of it — should have had so little confidence in the power of simplicity, and have condescended so largely to the laborious refinements of the profane muse.
To put the same truth in a light somewhat different; it is required, we apprehend, in all poets, but particularly in sacred poets, that they should seem to write with a view of unburthening their minds, and not for the sake of writing; for love of the subject, not of the employment. The distinction is very striking in descriptive poetry. Compare the landscapes of Cowper with those of Burns. There is, if we mistake not, the same sort of difference between them, as in the conversation of two persons on scenery, the one originally an enthusiast in his love of the works of nature, the other driven, by disappointment or weariness, to solace himself with them as lie might. It is a contrast which every one must have observed, when such topics come under discussion in society; and those who think it worth while, may find abundant illustration of it in the writings of this unfortunate but illustrious pair. The one all overflowing with the love of nature, and indicating, at every turn, that whatever his lot in life, he could not have been happy without her. The other visibly and wisely soothing himself, but not without effort, by attending to rural objects, in default of some more congenial happiness, of which he had almost come to despair. The latter, in consequence, laboriously sketching every object that came in his way: the other, in one or two rapid lines, which operate, as it were, like a magician's spell, presenting to the fancy just that picture, which was wanted to put the reader's mind in unison with the writer's. We would quote, as an instance, the description of Evening in the Fourth Book of the Task:—
Come, Ev'ning, once again, season of peace;
Return, sweet Ev'ning, and continue long!
Methinks I see thee in the streaking west
With matron-step slow-moving, while the night
Treads on thy sweeping train; one hand employ'd
In letting fall the curtain of repose
On bird and beast, the other charg'd for man
With sweet oblivion of the cares of day:
Not sumptuously adorn'd, nor needing aid,
Like homely featur'd night, of clust'ring gems;
A star or two, just twinkling on thy brow,
Suffices thee; save that the moon is thine
No less than her's, not worn indeed on high
With ostentatious pageantry, but set
With modest grandeur in thy purple zone,
Resplendent less, but of an ampler round.
Come then, and thou shalt find thy vot'ry calm,
Or make me so. Composure is thy gift.
And we would set over against it that purely pastoral chant—
Now rosy May comes in wi' flowers
To deck her gay, green spreading bowers;
And now comes in my happy hours,
To wander wi' my Davie.
Meet me on the warlock knowe
Dainty Davie, dainty Davie,
There I'll spend the day wi' you
My ain dear dainty Davie.
The crystal waters round us fa,'
The merry birds are lovers a',
The scented breezes round us blaw,
A wandering wi' my Davie.
Meet me, &c.
When purple morning starts the hare,
To steal upon her early fare,
Then thro' the dews I will repair,
To meet my faithfu' Davie.
Meet me, &c.
When day, expiring in the west,
The curtain draws o' nature's rest,
I flee to his arms I loe best,
And that's my ain dear Davie.
Meet me, &c.
There is surely no need to explain how this instinctive attachment to his subject is especially requisite in the sacred poet. If even the description of material objects is found to languish without it, much more will it be looked for when the best and highest of all affections is to be expressed and communicated to others. The nobler and worthier the object, the greater our disappointment to find it approached with any thing like languor or constraint.
We must just mention one more quality, which may seem, upon consideration, essential to perfection in this kind: viz. — that the feelings the writer expresses should appear to be specimens of his general tone of thought, not sudden bursts and mere flashes of goodness. Wordsworth's beautiful description of the Stock-dove might not unaptly be applied to him.
He should sing "of love with silence blending,
Slow to begin, yet never ending,
Of serious faith and inward glee."
Some may, perhaps, object to this, as a dull and languid strain of sentiment. But before we yield to their censures we would inquire of them what style they consider, themselves, as most appropriate to similar subjects in a kindred art. If grave, simple, sustained melodies — if tones of deep but subdued emotion are what our minds naturally suggest to us upon the mention of sacred music — why should there not be something analogous, a kind of plain chant, in sacred poetry also? fervent, yet sober; aweful, but engaging; neither wild and passionate, nor light and airy; but such as we may with submission presume to be the most acceptable offering in its kind, as being indeed the truest expression of the best state of the affections. To many, perhaps to most, men, a tone of more violent emotion may sound at first more attractive. But before we indulge such a preference, we should do well to consider, whether it is quite agreeable to that spirit, which alone can make us worthy readers of sacred poetry. [Greek characters], it is true: there must be rapture and inspiration, but these will naturally differ in their character as the powers do from whom they proceed. The worshippers of Baal may be rude and frantic in their cries and gestures; but the true Prophet, speaking to or of the true GOD, is all dignity and calmness.
If then, in addition to the ordinary difficulties of poetry, all these things are essential to the success of the Christian lyrist — if what he sets before us must be true in substance, and in manner marked by a noble simplicity and confidence in that truth, by a sincere attachment to it, and entire familiarity with it — then we need not wonder that so few should have become eminent in this branch of their art, nor need we have recourse to the disheartening and unsatisfactory solutions which are sometimes given of that circumstance.
"Contemplative piety," says Dr. Johnson, "or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man, admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator, and plead the merits of his Redeemer, is already in a higher state than poetry can confer." [Author's note: Life of Waller.]
The sentiment is not uncommon among serious, but somewhat fearful, believers; and though we believe it erroneous, we desire to treat it not only with tenderness, but with reverence. They start at the very mention of sacred poetry, as though poetry were in its essence a profane amusement. It is, unquestionably, by far the safer extreme to be too much afraid of venturing with the imagination upon sacred ground. Yet, if it be an error, and a practical error, it may be worth while cautiously, to examine the grounds of it. In the generality, perhaps, it is not so much a deliberate opinion, as a prejudice against the use of the art, arising out of its abuse. But the great writer just referred to has endeavoured to establish it by direct reasoning. He argues the point, first, from the nature of poetry, and afterwards from that of devotion.
"The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights. The topics of devotion are few."
It is to be hoped that many men's experience will refute the latter part of this statement. How can the topics of devotion be few, when we are taught to make every part of life, every scene in nature, an occasion — in other words, a topic — of devotion? It might as well be said that connubial love is an unfit subject for poetry, as being incapable of novelty, because, after all, it is only ringing the changes upon one simple affection, which every one understands. The novelty there consists, not in the original topic, but in continually bringing ordinary things, by happy strokes of natural ingenuity, into new associations with the ruling passion.
There's not a bonnie flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's not a bonnie bird that sings
But minds me of my Jean.
Why need we fear to extend this most beautiful and natural sentiment to "the intercourse between the human soul and its Maker"! possessing, as we do, the very highest warrant for the analogy which subsists between conjugal and divine love.
Novelty, therefore, sufficient for all the purposes of poetry, we may have on sacred subjects. Let us pass to the next objection.
"Poetry pleases by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than things themselves afford. This effect proceeds from the display of those parts of nature which attract, and the concealment of those which repel, the imagination: but religion must be shown as it is; suppression and addition equally corrupt it; and, such as it is, it is known already."
A fallacy may be apprehended in both parts of this statement. There are, surely, real landscapes which delight the mind as sincerely and intensely as the most perfect description could; and there are family groups which give a more exquisite sensation of domestic happiness than any thing in Milton, or even Shakspeare. It is partly by association with these, the treasures of the memory, and not altogether by mere excitement of -the imagination, that Poetry does her work. By the same rule sacred pictures and sacred songs cannot fail to gratify the mind which is at all exercised in devotion: recalling, as they will, whatever of highest perfection in that way she can remember in herself, or has learned of others.
Then again, it is not the religious doctrine itself, so much as the effect of it upon the human mind and heart, which the sacred poet has to describe. What is said of suppression and addition may be true enough with regard to the former, but is evidently incorrect when applied to the latter: it being an acknowledged difficulty in all devotional writings, and not in devotional verse only, to keep clear of the extremes of languor on the one hand, and debasing rapture on the other. This requires a delicacy in the perception and enunciation of truth, of which the most earnest believer may be altogether destitute. And since, probably, no man's condition, in regard to eternal things, is exactly like that of any other man, and yet it is the business of the sacred poet to sympathise with all, his store of subjects is clearly inexhaustible, and his powers of discrimination — in other words, of suppression and addition — are kept in continual exercise.
Nor is he, by any means, so straitly limited in the other and more difficult branch of his art, the exhibition of religious doctrine itself, as is supposed in the following statement:—
"Whatever is great, desirable, or tremendous, is comprised in the name of the Supreme Being. Omnipotence cannot be exalted; infinity cannot be amplified; perfection cannot be improved."
True: all perfection is implied in the name of GOD; and so all the beauties and luxuries of spring are comprised in that one word. But is it not the very office of poetry to develope and display the particulars of such complex ideas? in such a way, for example, as the idea of GOD'S omnipresence is developed in the 139th Psalm? and thus detaining the mind for a while, to force or help her to think steadily on truths which she would hurry unprofitably over, how strictly soever they may be implied in the language which she uses. It is really surprizing that this great and acute critic did not perceive that the objection applies as strongly against any kind of composition of which the Divine Nature is the subject, as against devotional poems.
We forbear to press the consideration, that even if the objection were allowed in respect of natural religion, it would not hold against the devotional compositions of a Christian; the object of whose worship has condescended also to become the object of description, affection and sympathy, in the literal sense of these words. But this is, perhaps, too solemn and awful an argument for this place; and therefore we pass on to the concluding statement of the passage under consideration, in which the writer turns his view downwards, and argues against sacred poetry from the nature of man, as he had before from the nature of GOD.
"The employments of pious meditation are faith, thanksgiving, repentance and supplication. Faith, invariably uniform, cannot be invested by Fancy with decorations. Thanksgiving, the most joyful of all holy effusions, yet addressed to a Being without passions, is confined to a few modes, and is to be felt rather than expressed."
What we have said of the variation of the devout affections, as they exist in various persons, is sufficient, we apprehend, to answer this. But the rest of the paragraph requires some additional reflection.
"Repentance, trembling in the presence of the Judge, is not at leisure for cadences and epithets."
This is rather invidiously put, and looks as if the author had not entire confidence in time truth of what he was saying. Indeed, it may very well be questioned; since many of the more refined passions, it is certain, naturally express themselves in poetical language. But repentance is not merely a passion, nor is its only office to tremble in the presence of the Judge. So far from it, that one great business of sacred poetry, as of sacred music, is to quiet and sober the feelings of the penitent — to make his compunction as much of "a reasonable service" as possible.
"Supplication of man to man may diffuse itself through many topics of persuasion but supplication to God can only cry for mercy."
Certainly, this would be true, if the abstract nature of the Deity were alone considered. But if we turn to the sacred volume, which corrects so many of our erring anticipations, we there find that, whether in condescension to our infirmities, or for other wise purposes, we are furnished with inspired precedents for addressing ourselves to God in all the various tones, and by all the various topics, which we should use to a good and wise man standing in the highest and nearest relation to us. This is so palpably the case throughout the scriptures, that it is quite surprizing how a person of so much serious thought as Dr. Johnson could have failed to recollect it when arguing on the subject of prayer. In fact, there is a simple test, by which, perhaps, the whole of his reasoning on Sacred Poetry might be fairly and decisively tried. Let the reader, as he goes over it, bear in mind the Psalms of David, and consider whether every one of his statements and arguments is not there practically refuted.
It is not, then, because sacred subjects are peculiarly unapt for poetry, that so few sacred poets are popular. We have already glanced at some of the causes to which we attribute it — we ought to add another, which strikes us as important. Let us consider how the case stands with regard to books of devotion in prose.
We may own it reluctantly, but must it not be owned? that if two new publications meet the eye at once, of which no more is known, than that the one is what is familiarly called a good book, the other a work of mere literature, nine readers out of ten will take up the second rather than the first? If this be allowed, what ever accounts for it will contribute to account also for the comparative failure of devotional poetry. For this sort of coldness and languor in the reader must act upon the author in more ways than one. The large class, who write for money or applause, will of course be carried, by the tide of popularity, towards some other subject. Men of more sincere minds, either from true or false delicacy, will have little heart to expose their retired thoughts to the risk of mockery or neglect; and if they do venture, will be checked every moment, like an eager but bashful musician before a strange audience, not knowing how far the reader's feelings will harmonize with their own. This leaves the field open, in a great measure, to harder or more enthusiastic spirits; who offending continually, in their several ways, against delicacy, the one by wildness, the other by coarseness, aggravate the evil which they wished to cure; till the sacred subject itself comes at last to bear the blame, due to the indifference of the reader and the indiscretion of the writer.
Such, we apprehend, would be a probable account of the condition of sacred poetry, in a country where religion was coldly acknowledged, and literature earnestly pursued. How far the description may apply to England and English literature, in their various changes since the Reformation — how far it may hold true of our own times — is an inquiry which would lead us too far at present; but it is surely worth considering. It goes deeper than any question of mere literary curiosity. It is a sort of test of the genuineness of those pretensions, which many of us are, perhaps, too forward to advance, to a higher state of morality and piety, as well as knowledge and refinement, than has been known elsewhere or in other times.
Those who, in spite of such difficulties, desire in earnest to do good by the poetical talent which they may happen to possess, have only, as it should seem, the following alternative. Either they must veil, as it were, the sacredness of the subject — not necessarily by allegory, for it may be done in a thousand other ways — and so deceive the world of taste into devotional reading—
Succhi amari intanto ei beve,
E dall' inganno sua vita riceve—
or else, directly avowing that their subject as well as purpose is devotion, they must be content with a smaller number of readers; a disadvantage, however, compensated by the fairer chance of doing good to each.
It may be worth while to endeavour to trace this distinction, as exemplified in the most renowned of the sacred poets of England; and to glean from such a survey the best instruction we can in the happy art of turning the most fascinating part of literature to the highest purposes of religion.
We must premise, that we limit the title of "sacred poet" by excluding those, who only devoted a small portion of their time and talent now and then, to sacred subjects. In all ages of our literary history it seems to have been considered almost as an essential part of a poet's duty to give up some pages to scriptural story, or to the praise of his Maker, how remote soever from any thing like religion the general strain of his writings might be Witness the Lamentation of Mary Magdalene in the works of Chaucer, and the beautiful legend of Hew of Lincoln, which he has inserted in his Canterbury Tales; witness also the hymns of Ben Jonson. But these fragments alone will not entitle their authors to be enrolled among sacred poets. They indicate the taste of their age, rather than their own; a fact which may be thought to stand rather in painful contrast with the literary history of later days.
There is another class likewise, of whom little need be said in this place; we mean those who composed, strictly and only, for the sake of unburthening their own minds, without any thought of publication. But as Chaucer's sacred effusions indicate chiefly the character of the times, so poems such as those, we now allude to, mark only the turn of mind of the individual, writers; and our present business is rather with that sort of poetry which combines both sorts of instruction; that, namely, which bears internal evidence of having been written by sincere men, with an intention of doing good, and with consideration of the taste of the age in which they lived.
Recurring then to the distinction above laid down, between the direct and indirect modes of sacred poetry; at tile head of the two classes, as the reader may perhaps have anticipated, we set the glorious names of Spenser and of Milton. The claim of Spenser to be considered as a sacred poet does by no means rest upon his hymns alone: although even these would be enough alone to embalm and consecrate the whole volume which contains them; as a splinter of the true cross is supposed by catholic sailors to ensure the safety of the vessel. But whoever will attentively consider the Fairy Queen itself, will find that it is, almost throughout, such as might have been expected from the author of those truly sacred hymns. It is a continual, deliberate endeavour to enlist the restless intellect and chivalrous feeling, of an inquiring and romantic age, on the side of goodness and faith, of purity and justice.
This position is to be made good, not solely or perhaps chiefly, yet with no small force, from the allegorical structure of the poem. Most of us, perhaps, are rather disposed to undervalue this contrivance; and even among the genuine admirers of Spenser; there are not a few who on purpose leave it out of their thoughts; finding, as they say, that it only embarrasses their enjoyment of the poetry. This is certainly far from reasonable: it is a relic of childish feeling, and mere love of amusement, which ill becomes any one who is old enough to appreciate the real beauties of Spenser. Yet it is so natural, so obviously to be expected, that we must suppose a scholar and philosopher (for such Spenser was, as well as a poet) to have been aware of it, and to have made up his mind to it, with all its disadvantages, for some strong reason or other. And what reason so likely as the hope of being seriously useful, both to himself and his readers?
To himself; because the constant recurrence to his allegory would serve as a check upon a fancy otherwise too luxuriant, and would prevent him from indulging in such liberties as the Italian poets, in other respects his worthy masters, were too apt to take. The consequence is, that even in his freest passages, and those which one would most wish unwritten, Spenser is by no means a seductive poet. Vice in him, however truly described, is always made contemptible or odious. The same may be said of Milton and Shakspeare; but Milton was of a cast of mind originally austere and rigorous. He looked on vice as a judge, Shakspeare as a satirist. Spenser was far more indulgent than either, and acted therefore the more wisely in setting himself a rule, which should make it essential to the plan of his poem to be always recommending some virtue; and remind him, like a voice from heaven, that the place on which he was standing was holy ground.
Then as to the benefit which the readers of the Fairy Queen may derive from its allegorical form; a good deal surely is to be gained from the mere habit of looking at things with a view to something beyond their qualities merely sensible; to their sacred and moral meaning, and to the high associations they were intended to create in us. Neither the works nor the word of GOD; neither poetry nor theology; can be duly comprehended without constant mental exercise of this kind. The comparison of the Old Testament with the New is nothing else from beginning to end. And without something of this sort, poetry, and all the other arts, would indeed be relaxing to the tone of the mind. The allegory obviates this ill effect, by serving as a frequent remembrancer of this higher application. Not that it is necessary to bend and strain every thing into conformity with it; a little leaven, of the genuine kind, will go a good way towards leavening the whole lump. And so it is in the Fairy Queen; for one stanza of direct allegory there are perhaps fifty of poetical embellishment; and it is in these last, after all, that the chief moral excellency of the poem lies; as we are now about to show.
But to be understood rightly, we would premise, that there is a disposition, — the very reverse of that which lead to parody and caricature, — which is common indeed to all generous minds, but is perhaps unrivalled in Spenser. As parody and caricature debase what is truly noble, by connecting it with low and ludicrous associations; so a mind, such as we are now speaking of, ennobles what of itself might seem trivial; its thoughts and language, on all occasions taking a uniform and almost involuntary direction towards the best and highest things.
This, however, is a subject which can be hardly comprehended without examples. The first which occurs to us is the passage which relates the origin of Belphaebe.
Her birth was of the womb of morning dew,
And her conception of the joyous prime,
And all her whole creation did her shew
Pure and unspotted from all loathly crime
That is ingenerate in fleshly slime.
So was this Virgin-born, so was she bred,
So was she trained up from time to time,
In all chaste virtue and true bounti-hed,
Till to her due perfection she was ripened.
It is evident how high and sacred a subject was, present to the poet's mind in composing this stanza; and any person who is well read in the Bible, with a clue like this may satisfy himself that all Spenser's writings are replete with similar tacit allusions to the language and the doctrines of sacred writ; allusions, breathed; if we may, so speak, rather than uttered, and much fitter to be silently considered, than to be dragged forward for quotation or minute criticism. Of course, the more numerous and natural such allusions are, the more entirely are we justified in the denomination we have ventured to bestow on their author, of a truly sacred poet.
It may be felt, as some derogation from this high character, what he has himself avowed — that much of his allegory has a turn designedly given it in honour of Queen Elizabeth; a turn which will be called courtly or adulatory according to the humour of the critic. But in the first place, such was the custom of the times; it was adopted even in sermons by men whose sincerity it would be almost sacrilege to question. Then, the merits of Queen Elizabeth in respect of the Protestant cause were of that dazzling order, which might excuse a little poetical exuberance in her praise. And what is very deserving of consideration, it is certain that the most gentle and generous spirits are commonly found laying themselves open to this charge of excessive compliment in addressing princes and patrons. Witness the high style adopted by the venerable Hooker, in speaking of this very Queen Elizabeth: "Whose sacred power, matched with incomparable goodness of nature, hath hitherto been GOD'S most happy instrument, by him miraculously kept for works of so miraculous preservation and safety unto others," &c. Another instance of the same kind may be seen in Jeremy Taylor's dedication of his Worthy Communicant to the Princess of Orange. Nor is it any wonder it should be so, since such men feel most ardently the blessing and benefit as well as the difficulty of whatever is right in persons of such exalted station; and are also most strongly tempted to bear their testimony against the illiberal and envious censures of the vulgar. All these things, duly weighed, may seem to leave little, if any thing, in the panegyrical strains of this greatest of laureates, to be excused by the common infirmity of human nature; little to detract from our deliberate conviction, that he as seriously guided in the exercise of his art, by a sense of duty, and zeal for what is durably important.
Spenser then was essentially a sacred poet; but the delicacy and insinuating gentleness of his disposition were better fitted to the veiled than the direct mode of instruction. His was a mind which would have shrunk more from the chance of debasing a sacred subject by unhandsome treatment, than of incurring ridicule by what would be called unseasonable attempts to hallow things merely secular. It was natural therefore for him to choose not a scriptural story, but a tale of chivalry and romance; and the popular literature, and, in no small measure the pageantry and manners of his time, would join to attract his efforts that way. In this way too he was enabled, with more propriety and grace, to introduce allusions, political or courtly, to subjects with which his readers were familiar; thus agreeably diversifying his allegory, and gratifying his affection for his friends and patrons, without the coarseness of direct compliment.
In Milton, most evidently, a great difference was to be expected: both from his own character and from that of the times in which he lived. Religion was in those days the favourite topic of discussion; and it is indeed painful to reflect, how sadly it was polluted by intermixture with earthly passions: the most awful turns and most surprizing miracles of the Jewish history being made to serve the base purposes of persons, of whom it is hard to say whether they were more successful in misleading others, or in deceiving themselves. It was an effort worthy of a manly and devout spirit to rescue religion from such degradation, by chusing a subject, which, being scriptural, would suit the habit of the times, yet, from its universal and eternal importance, would give least opportunity for debasing temporary application. Then it was the temper of the man always to speak out. He carried it to a faulty excess, as his prose works too amply demonstrate. The more unfashionable his moral was, the more he would have disdained to veil it: neither had he the shrinking delicacy of Spenser to keep him back, through fear of profaning things hallowed by an unworthy touch.
Thus the great epic poem of our language came to be, avowedly, a sacred poem. One hardly dares to wish any thing other than it is in such a composition; yet it may be useful to point out, in what respects the moral infirmity of the times, or of the author, has affected the work; so that we are occasionally tempted to regret even Milton's choice. But as the leading error of his mind appears to have been intellectual pride, and as the leading fault of the generation with which he acted was unquestionably spiritual pride, so the main defects of his poetry may probably be attributed to the same causes.
There is a studious undervaluing of the female character, which may be most distinctly perceived by comparing the character of Eve with that of the Lady in Comus: the latter conceived, as we imagine, before the mind of the poet had become so deeply tainted with the fault here imputed to him. A remarkable instance of it is his describing Eve as unwilling, or unworthy, to discourse herself with the angel.
Such pleasure she reserved,
Adam relating, she sole auditress.—
The sentiment may be natural enough, since the primaeval curse upon women: but does it not argue rather too strong a sense of her original inferiority, to put it into her mind before the fall?
What again can be said for the reproachful and insulting tone, in which, more than once, the good angels are made to address the bad ones? or of the too attractive colours, in which, perhaps unconsciously, the poet has clothed the Author of Evil himself'? It is a well-known complaint among many of the readers of Paradise Lost, that they can hardly keep themselves from sympathizing, in some sort, with Satan, as the hero of the poem. The most probable account of which surely is, that the author himself partook largely of the haughty and vindictive republican spirit, which he has assigned to the character, and consequently, though per haps unconsciously, drew the portrait with a peculiar zest.
These blemishes are in part attributable to the times in which he lived: but there is another now to be mentioned, which cannot be so accounted for: we mean a want of purity and spirituality in his conceptions of Heaven and heavenly joys. His Paradise is a vision not to be surpassed; but his attempts to soar higher are embarrassed with too much of earth still clinging as it were to his wings. Remarks of this kind are in general best understood by comparison, and we invite our readers to compare Milton with Dante, in their descriptions of Heaven. The one as simple as possible in his imagery, producing intense effect by little more than various combinations of three leading ideas — light, motion, and music — as if he feared to introduce any thing more gross and earthly, and would rather be censured, as doubtless he often is, for coldness and poverty of invention. Whereas Milton, with very little selection or refinement, transfers to the immediate neighbourhood of God's throne, the imagery of Paradise and Earth. Indeed he seems himself to have been aware of something unsatisfactory in this, and has inserted into the mouth of an angel, a kind of apology for it.
Though what if earth
Be but the shadow of heav'n, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
These are blemishes, and sometimes almost tempt us to wish, that even Milton had taken some subject not so immediately and avowedly connected with religion. But they do not affect his claim to be considered as the very lodestar and pattern of that class of sacred poets in England. As such we have here considered him next to Spenser; not that there were wanting others of the same order before him. In fact, most of the distinguished names in the poetical annals of Elizabeth, James I. and Charles I., might be included in the list. It may be enough just to recollect Drayton and Cowley, Herbert, Crashaw and Quarles.
The mention of these latter names suggests the remark, how very desirable it is to encourage as indulgent and, if we may so term it, catholic a spirit as may be, in poetical criticism. From having been over-praised in their own days, they are come now to be as much undervalued; yet their quaintness of manner and constrained imagery, adopted perhaps in compliance with the taste of their age, should hardly suffice to overbalance their sterling merits. We speak especially of Crashaw and Quarles: for Herbert is a name too venerable to be more than mentioned in our present discussion.
After Milton, sacred poetry seems to have greatly declined both in the number and merit of those who cultivated it. No other could be expected from the conflicting evils of those times; in which one party was to brand every thing sacred with the name of Puritanism, and the other to suspect every thing poetical of being contrary to morality and religion.
Yet most of the great names of that age, especially among the Romanists, as Dryden, Pope, and before them Habington, continued to dedicate some of their poetry to religion. By their faith they were remote from the controversies which agitated the established church, and their devotion might indulge itself without incurring the suspicion of a fanatical spirit. Then the solemnity of their worship is fitted to inspire splendid and gorgeous strains, such as Dryden's paraphrase of the Veni Creator; and their own fallen fortunes in England, no less naturally, would fill them with a sense of decay very favourable to the plaintive tenderness of Habington and Crashaw.
A feeling of this kind, joined to the effect of distressing languor and sickness, may be discerned, occasionally, in the writings of Bishop Kenn; though he far indeed from being a Romanist. We shall hardly find, in all ecclesiastical history, a greener spot than the later years of this courageous and affectionate pastor; persecuted alternately by both parties, and driven from his station in his declining age; yet singing on, with unabated cheerfulness, to the last. His poems are not popular, nor, probably, ever will be, for reasons already touched upon; but whoever in earnest loves his three well-known hymns, and knows how to value such unaffected strains of poetical devotion, will find his account, in turning over his four volumes, half narrative and half lyric, and all avowedly on sacred subjects; the narrative often cumbrous, and the lyric verse not seldom languid and redundant: yet all breathing such an angelic spirit, interspersed with such pure and bright touches of poetry, that such a reader as we have supposed will scarcely find it in his heart to criticise them.
Between that time and ours, the form of sacred poetry which has succeeded best in attracting public attention, is the didactic: of which Davies in Queen Elizabeth's reign, Sir Richard Blackmore in King William's, Young in the middle, and Cowper in the close, of the last century, may fairly be taken as specimens, differing from each other according to the differences of their respective literary aeras. Davies, with his Lucretian majesty, (although he wants the moral pathos of the Roman poet,) representing aptly enough the age of Elizabeth; Blackmore, with his easy paragraphs, the careless style of King Charles's days; Young, with his pointed sentences, transferring to graver subjects a good deal of the manner of Pope; and Cowper, with his agreeable but too unsparing descriptions, coming nearer to the present day; which appears, both in manners and in scenery, to delight in Dutch painting, rather than in what is more delicately classical. With regard to the indirect, and, perhaps, more effective, species of sacred poetry, we fear it must be acknowledged, to the shame of the last century, that there is hardly a single specimen of it (excepting, perhaps, Gray's Elegy, and possibly some of the most perfect of Collins's poems), which has obtained any celebrity. We except the writers of our own times, who do not fall within the scope of this inquiry.
To Spenser therefore, upon the whole, the English reader must revert, as being, preeminently, the sacred poet of his country, as most likely, in every way, to answer the purposes of his art; especially in an age of excitation and refinement, in which the gentler and more homely beauties, both of character and of scenery, are too apt to be despised: with passion and interest enough to attract the most ardent, and grace enough to win the most polished; yet by a silent preference every where inculcating the love of better and more enduring things; and so most exactly fulfilling what he has himself declared to be "the general end of all his book" — "to fashion a gentleman, or noble person, in virtuous and gentle discipline": and going the straight way to the accomplishment of his own high-minded prayer:—
That with the glory of so goodly sight,
The harts of men, which fondly here admire
Fair-seeming shews, and feede on vain delight,
Transported with celestial desire
Of those fair forms, may lift themselves up higher,
And learn to love, with zealous humble duty,
Th' eternal fountain of that heavenly beauty.