Woodhouse (1965:201) posits that the quality of Keble's verse is "certainly higher in religious than in poetic value". A perusal of The Christian Year would seem to confirm that Keble harnessed his poetic talent in the service of his religious beliefs rather than the reverse. The scope of this collection, which the poet sub-titles: Thoughts in verse for the Sundays and Holydays throughout the Year, encompasses reflections on the various readings and gospels delivered from the Anglican pulpit throughout the year. These poems are marked by deep spiritual insight and moments of great elation and simplicity set against the backdrop of a ponderous Victorian pedantry, expressed in alliterative terms such as lowly lofty brows (53). An example of the simple elation is found in the ninth stanza of the reflection on the fourth Sunday in Lent (41-45) :
As when the holy Maid beheld
Her risen Son and lord:
Thought has not colours half so fair
That she to paint that hour may dare,
In silence best ador'd.
There is nothing laboured or artificial about this verse which expresses Mary's silence in the face of the glorious rainbow experience of seeing her Son and Creator restored to her after he had seemed to be lost for all eternity. To the modern reader, the fact that the poet seems to over-indulge in preambling turns his poetry into a true rose encompassed by numerous artificial leaves. Occasionally we discern a gloriously simple stanza like the above but we have to track through a progression of Victorianisms to uncover it.
In the poem The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which follows here, we mark a laborious build-up and a developing argument which, though it may be excellent theology, has an almost tranquillising effect on the modern reader, although there is nothing soporific in the emotion of the penultimate three stanzas:
THE ANNUNCIATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (AVE MARIA)
And the Angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that
art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou
among women. St Luke i.28.
Oh Thou who deign'st to sympathize
With all our frail and fleshly ties,
Maker yet Brother dear,
Forgive the too presumptuous thought,
If, calming wayward grief, I sought
To gaze on Thee too near.
Yet sure 'twas not presumption, Lord,
'Twas thine own comfortable word
That made the lesson known:
Of all the dearest bonds we prove, 10
Thou countest sons' and mothers' love
Most sacred, most thine own.
When wandering here a little span,
Thou took'st on Thee to rescue man,
Thou hadst no earthly sire;
That wedded love we prize so dear,
As if our heaven and home were here,
It lit in Thee no fire.
On no sweet sister's faithful breast
Wouldst thou thine aching forehead rest, 20
On no kind brother lean:
But who, O perfect filial heart,
E'er did like Thee a true son's part,
Endearing, firm, serene?
Thou wept'st, meek maiden, mother mild,
Thou wept'st upon thy sinless child,
Thy very heart was riven:
And yet, what mourning matron here
Would deem thy sorrows bought too dear
By all on this side heaven? 30
A son that never did amiss,
That never sham'd his mother's kiss,
Nor cross'd her fondest prayer:
Even from the tree he deign'd to bow
For her his agonized brow,
Her, his sole earthly care.
Ave Maria! blessed Maid!
Lily of Eden's fragrant shade,
Who can express the love
That nurtur'd thee so pure and sweet, 40
Making thy heart a shelter meet
For Jesus' holy Dove?
Ave Maria! Mother blest,
To whom caressing and caress'd,
Clings the Eternal Child;
Favour'd beyond Archangels' dream,
When first on thee with tenderest gleam
Thy new-born Saviour smil'd: -
Ave Maria! Thou whose name
All but adoring love may claim, 50
Yet may we reach thy shrine;
For He, thy Son and Saviour, vows
To crown all lowly lofty brows
With love and joy like thine.
Bless'd is the womb that bare Him - bless'd (1)
The bosom where his lips were press'd,
But rather bless'd are they
Who hear his word and keep it well,
The living homes where Christ shall dwell,
And never pass away. 60
(1) St Luke xi 27, 28
The laborious, rigorously formal Victorian introduction of this poem lacks the naïve spontaneity of the mediæval Marian lyrics which we find in the penultimate three verses. Having acknowledged that God the Son is fully human and therefore able to comprehend humanity's need for reciprocated human affection, the poet tamely asserts that Christ shared a marvellous mother-Son relationship with the Blessed Virgin. Outstanding among the rest, one lilting phrase occurs in the eighth stanza: Mother blest/to whom, caressing and caress'd/clings the Eternal Child (43-45).
The alliteration, which is used repeatedly, is so uninspired that it is not clear why it has been introduced. Word pairs such as frail and fleshly (2), mourning matron (28) and Son and Saviour (52) appear laboured and unimaginative. Only in the final stanza - and then mainly on account of the broken, halting effect of the caesura - does the alliteration achieve an arresting effect:
Bless'd is the womb that bare Him - bless'd
The bosom where his lips were press'd
After the ponderous introduction of the five stanzas, marred by the sentimental: On no sweet sister's faithful breast/Wouldst thou thine aching forehead rest/On no kind brother learn; (19-21), the sixth verse, though it starts off with a simple, stark, clean line in: A son that never did amiss (31) is tarnished by the regrettably mawkish Victorianism: That never sham'd his mother's kiss (32). The line: nor cross'd her fondest prayer (33) might have been likewise contaminated if it had not been redeemed by the arresting pun. A similarly effective pun is contained in the third line of the fifth stanza in which the poet tells the Blessed Virgin: Thy very heart was riven (27). Here the imagery of anguish piercing Mary's heart as the nails pierced Christ's hands and feet, the thorns penetrated his brow and the side cut into his side is effective, demonstrating that what is good in the poem chiefly owes its existence to the depth of Keble's spiritual fervour, which often leads him to touch his reader's heart profoundly.
Incremental poetic tension marks verses seven, eight and nine, which jointly constitute the poem's climax, containing as they do the essence of that love for the Blessed Virgin which the poet both expresses himself and appears to be endeavouring to enkindle among his readers. To achieve this end he employs repetition. The three times he addresses Mary in the words of the angelic salutation by saying: Ave Maria (31;37;43) have the effect of intensifying the sentiment of humility before one so uniquely privileged. The last four lines of the final stanza disappoint on account of their watering-down effect.
Dr Luky Whittle
Edited by Catherine Nicolette