John Keble’s “Morning” (from The Christian Year, 1827)

John Keble’s The Christian Year, first published in 1827, consists of a little more than a hundred poems, arranged according to the liturgical calendar. The volume rapidly became popular. Its first print run of 500 copies was followed by a second edition that November, only four months later, and a third arrived in 1828 quick on its heels (Butler). The volume continued to be reprinted often, reaching sixteen editions after a decade in print, and ninety-five by Keble’s death in 1866. When the copyright expired in 1873, 158 editions had been printed, and over 379,000 copies sold (Butler). Michael Wheeler goes so far as to declare it “the most popular volume of verse in the nineteenth century” (60). “Morning,” the first poem in the volume, may therefore be the most-read poem of the Victorian era—not all 379,000 owners of the book would have finished the volume entirely, but most of them would, at least, have read its first pages. “Moreover, unlike the other poems in the volume, which are only appropriate once a year, “Morning” can be read any day—perhaps even every day. 

The poem itself, through its language and through the activities it describes, promotes a particular kind of religious practice. This practice, rather than revolving around the church or matters of doctrine, is rooted an appreciation for the natural world. At the start of the poem, God’s role is imaginatively occupied by the sun: the poem addresses the morning itself, asking why the dawn wastes its goodness on those who “seldom of heaven and you partake” (line 16), conflating heaven with the sunrise.  The sun is then described as “the beam celestial […] / Which evermore makes all things new” (19-20), and the footnote in the original text directs the reader to a passage in Revelations in which this task is ascribed to God. The poem’s view of religious practice is also highly domestic. A faithful heart will find a reward in “Old friends, old scenes” that are made “lovelier” (33), and not just in the glory of heaven. As the poem moves on to promote “sacrifice” (32) as the path to virtue, it is careful to note that this sacrifice does not require isolation in a “cloister’d cell” (59), but can instead occur in the context of “Our neighbour and our work”(50). The poem’s closing request to God—“help us, this and every day, / To live more nearly as we pray” (63-64)—reinforces its final focus on life, rather than the afterlife.

The poem also suggests that the foundation of this natural, domestic religious practice ought to be daily reflection—a suggestion that serves to instruct the reader on how to read The Christian Year itself. The poem focuses on God’s love and on the individual’s faith as something that is present “every morning” (epigraph; line 21), “each returning day” (25), “on our daily course” (29), “daily” (54), and “this and every day” (63), establishing religious devotion as something that can be acquired as a habit. The poem’s own role in that habit is implied in its contextual presentation as “improving” literature. The opening biblical epigraph establishes from the first that the poem will treat on moral topics. The footnoted reference on the second page, directing the reader to further biblical study, further emphasizes the poem’s goal of advancing its audience’s religious education. Both reinforce the purpose of the volume as a whole: to be read in installments each week, as part of a habit of religious reflection.

LE/Engl550/Uvic/Fall2013

ChristianYear0001 ChristianYear0002ChristianYear0003-2

THE

 

CHRISTIAN YEAR

 

———

 

MORNING

 

His compassions fail not. They are new every morning.

Lament. iii. 22, 23.[1]

HUES of the rich unfolding morn, 1

That, ere the glorious sun be born,

By some soft touch invisible

Around his path are taught to swell; —

Thou rustling breeze so fresh and gay, 5

That dancest forth at opening day,

And brushing by with joyous wing,

Wakenest each little leaf to sing; —

Ye fragrant clouds of dewy steam,

By which deep grove and tangled stream 10

Pay, for soft rains in season given,

Their tribute to the genial heaven; —

Why waste your treasures of delight

Upon our thankless, joyless sight;

Who, day by day, to sin awake, 15

Seldom of heaven and you partake?

/page break/

Oh! timely happy, timely wise,

Hearts that with the rising morn arise!

Eyes that the beam celestial view,

Which evermore makes all things new! * 20

New every morning is the love

Our wakening and uprising prove;

Through sleep and darkness safely brought,

Restored to life, and power, and thought.

New mercies, each returning day, 25

Hover around us while we pray;

New perils past, new sins forgiven,

New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

If on our daily course our mind

Be set, to hallow all we find, 30

New treasures still, of countless price,

God will provide for sacrifice.

Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be,

As more of heaven in each we see:

Some softening gleam of love and prayer 35

Shall dawn on every cross and care.

As for some dear familiar strain

Untir’d we ask, and ask again,

Ever, in its melodious store,

Finding a spell unheard before; 40

Such is the bliss of souls serene,

When they have sworn, and steadfast mean,

Counting the cost, in all to espy

Their God, in all themselves deny.

* Revelations xxi, 5.[2]

/ page break /

O could we learn that sacrifice, 45

What lights would all around us rise!

How would our hearts with wisdom talk

Along life’s dullest dreariest walk!

We need not bid, for cloister’d cell,

Our neighbour and our work farewell, 50

Nor strive to wind ourselves too high

For sinful man beneath the sky:

The trivial round, the common task,

Would furnish all we ought to ask;

Room to deny ourselves; a road 55

To bring us, daily, nearer God.

Seek we no more; content with these,

Let present Rapture, Comfort, Ease,

As Heaven shall bid them, come and go: —

The secret this of Rest below. 60

Only, O Lord, in thy dear love

Fit us for perfect rest above;

And help us, this and every day,

To live more nearly as we pray.


[1] “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” (King James Version, Lamentations 3:22-23)

[2] “And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” (KJV, Revelations 21:5)

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