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A Saint at Oxford

John Keble

by Georgina Battiscombe
Knopf, 395 pp., $8.50

This is apparently the first full-length life of John Keble (1792-1866), but there is nothing to be surprised at in the placid patience of the years. Of the dignitaries of the Oxford Movement, Keble was the dullest, lacking either the sharpness of intellect of Newman or the stubborn hardihood of Pusey. The Movement itself now has a tinge of the tragicomic. Determined to restore to a dusty Church of England the color, traditions, and authority of a “Catholic Church,” the worthies watched with pained bemusement as one by one their supporters decided that if you really wanted the virtues of a Catholic Church, you have to seek them in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a tellingly compact account of Keble in Sir Geoffrey Faber’s classic study, Oxford Apostles—a book more effective than Mrs. Battiscombe’s in relating Keble to the Movement as a whole. Not that she tells the life ineptly. We pass from the dim religious light of Keble’s childhood to his faintly priggish years at Oxford, culminating in the Fellowship at Oriel College which was then the highest of honors. So begins the friendship with Newman, a friendship never shattered though often imperiled. (The most moving moment in the book is when, long after Newman’s defection to Rome, the two old men meet again with awe and affection.) Then Keble’s winning of a larger fame and influence with his best-selling “poems,” The Christian Year (1827). And the first fine careless rapture of the Tracts for the Times, their aspiration that the Church of England could be protected against all its encircling enemies: Romish beguilements, Low Church aridity, Broad Church liberalism (i.e. impiety). Then the shock of Newman’s remorseless strictness with himself, ending in his departure. And so into a series of tarnished controversies: the Gorham case (he being unsound on baptismal regeneration), the Colenso case (he doubting the literal accuracy of the Pentateuch).

In all this Keble seems to have been important and marginal. Important, because of his personal influence and prestige. Marginal, because in the end he was insufficiently interested in the one problem which the Oxford Movement was really about: authority. Whence the authority of Christian teaching? Not always from Scripture, but then from what institution? If the Church of England defied the ancient authority of Rome, on what grounds could it ask obedience to its own authority?

Keble alone of the three leaders of the Oxford Movement was not primarily concerned or convinced by this question of authority, although, of course, he regarded it as a matter of very great importance.

But in that case, what was Keble primarily concerned with? Hence the feeling that he was marginal. There is something appealing about his total unawareness of the level of mind at which Newman worked, but really what would a thinker think of this sort of thing? Keble’s conversation as summarized by Charlotte Yonge:

No doubt we could ask Roman Catholics many questions they could not answer, and they could ask us many which we could not answer; we can only each go on our own way, holding on to the truth which we know we have.

Very amiable, but hardly the metal of which sharp-edged controversialists are made. Any more than is Keble’s pathetic plea to Ryder not to join the Church of Rome: “It would be quite another thing if Providence had caused one to be bred up in that faith: then to question it, I should say, was as presumptuous as in me it should be to receive it, upon my own private judgement.” Such a concept of Providence is intellectually very debilitating, and clear evidence of Keble’s limitations.

Mrs. Battiscombe frankly grants these limitations. A closed mind, total lack of sympathy with anyone who doubted (whether “honestly” or not), “blindness” to the need for social reform, and (his “besetting sin”) “intellectual indolence.” What is left? There is always saintliness, and Keble was a saint. So piercing a goodness never emanates from these decent pages. Keble, insofar as he comes alive at all, does so as a thoroughly respectable man whose character must indeed be presumed to have influenced men like Newman and Pusey, but whose strength of personality can now be only asserted and not shown. True, the Victorians said he was a saint, but they seem in general to have had a very low threshold for sanctity. One feels about their saints much as Gibbon did about early miracles: “We may surely be allowed to observe that a miracle, in that age of superstition and credulity, lost its name and its merit, since it could scarcely be considered as a deviation from the ordinary and established laws of nature.” And for all her mention of his limitations, Mrs. Battiscombe often shifts and palliates. Anglicans are a tolerant lot, but one could have done with less equanimity in the telling of how Keble “never hesitated to put his stick across the shoulders of any boy who neglected to touch his cap to the Vicar.” Some will find Mrs. Battiscombe’s epithet a little good-natured when she remarks: “and strange as some of Keble’s ideas may seem to modern minds (in one poem, for instance, he implies that the Almighty deliberately willed a small girl to be burnt to death)….” Not strange, disgusting.

Yet it is the Movement itself, with its overriding interest in authority and “the Church,” which is now engrainedly dusty. Such concerns seem so distant from the fiercer problems of Christian morality, in the sense both of the morals taught by Christianity, and of the morality of the religion itself. So that the book quickens when it reaches the liberal manifesto Essays and Reviews (1860). Here at last are men concerned not only with authority (though with that too—any discussion of the authority of Scripture would be foolish to ignore what Jowett wrote in 1860), but also with morality, including the doctrine of eternal punishment. Even a twentieth-century atheist, who would prefer everyone to agree with Gibbon and Swinburne on the subject of Christianity, has to concede the strong goodness of men like Jowett, Tennyson, and F.D. Maurice (who lost his Professorships for doubting eternal torment). Keble did not come well out of the controversy. For one thing he interested himself in a Declaration of Belief “in the certainty of the Everlasting Punishment of the Wicked.” Certainty: who does He think He is? Mrs. Battiscombe does her best for him: “this pitiless attitude was forced on Keble by his warm compassion for the souls of men.” Oh yes, and how come?

Mrs. Gaskell tells how these same Hampshire people would roast a cat alive, believing that the wretched animal’s cries were an infallible charm to compel the co-operation of the Powers of Darkness. People who could believe in such primitive and horrible superstitions would certainly go in wholesome fear of the fires of Hell.

Not everyone agrees as to what is “wholesome.” But at any rate Mrs. Battiscombe’s argument ought to consider the possibility that people are actually encouraged to burn cats alive if their God burns people (and for ever). Keble held that “superstition is a great deal better than irreligion.” Not all the consequences of such a view are saintly. Keble may well have spoken soundly and beautifully on matters such as Eucharistic Adoration. On almost all the moral matters where his religion met life-on-earth, he either had nothing to say or else said something stridently uncomprehending. Mrs. Battiscombe more than once compares him to George Herbert, a thing which on tactical grounds only the dislikers of John Keble should do.

Subtitle: “A Study in Limitations.” It needs to be added that the limitations are as much those of Mrs. Battiscombe as of Keble. Hers is a C. of E. book: amiable and sensible, staid and amateurish. Keble in later years

made a good joke of the story about Routh being asked to give a young man some piece of good advice to carry through life and saying gravely, “Always verify your quotations,” but John Keble’s friends noticed that he himself was always careful to abide by this excellent rule.

In which case Keble was not like his biographer. The opening words of her book are: ” ‘Geography is not Biography’—so begins a famous clerihew.” It does not. And from then she never looks back, or up. She misquotes her little illustrations from Tennyson, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and she misquotes her major sources, the great Victorian studies of the Oxford Movement. Finding a not despicable line of verse in Keble’s The Christian Year, she concedes: “Yet even this lacks the immediacy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The world is shot through with the glory of God, It will out, like shining from shook foil.’ ” But if those words have immediacy, what would she feel at the lines Hopkins actually wrote? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out….” She gives quotations in her own words, as it were. Take the very important prophecy made by Sikes of Guilsborough (quoted by Pusey) as to what would come to be said of “the Church.” When Sikes says, quite precisely, of the Church: “Some will take it up and admire it as a beautiful picture, others will be frightened and run away“; she ad libs: “Some will take it up as a beautiful theory unrealised; others will be frightened and scandalised.” Likewise with the manuscript material which she, as they say, exploits. A reviewer need hardly trudge along after a biographer, especially when the giving of references is as slapdash as Mrs. Battiscombe’s. But judging from her use of the MS. material in the Bodleian Library, one should expect the worst. She misdates and she misquotes. Keble’s letter did not say of Newman’s defection to Rome that “his love [was] too much for his patience,” but that it was too keen. Keble did not, when depressed, speak of his perversity in turning over in his mind “one or two fancied evils,” but of turning over in his thoughts “one or two real or fancied evils.” Virtually every quotation checked, whether from printed or MS. material, was inaccurate. There are many other errors too; Keble as Professor of Poetry at Oxford was not elected by Congregation but (a very different thing) by Convocation. The index ought to be put on the Index; it omits names as important as Tennyson and F.D. Maurice, and it conflates those very different men Frederic Faber and Sir Geoffrey Faber into one eerie Methuselah. Plus a great many misprints throughout the book. So not a word ought to be relied on, and all the research will have to be done again by anyone who really cares about Keble.