The Christian Year is a book of devotional poetry written by John Keble. First published in 1827, The Christian Year is considered to be one of the most popular works of poetry published and read in the Victoria era, selling 379,000 copies between its original publication date and the expiration of its copyright in 1873 (Altick 386). The collection was originally unsigned, as Keble believed in posthumous publication, and therefore, refused to have his name attributed to the book while he was alive (McKelvy 86). Despite Keble’s intended anonymity, his authorship was extremely well known (King 417).
The poems in this book are organized in correlation with the Anglican liturgical calendar and are intended to compliment the Book of Common Prayer. In the advertisement to The Christian Year, Keble explicitly states this intent: “the object of the present publication will be attained, if any person find assistance from it in bringing his own thoughts and feelings into more entire unison with those recommended and exemplified in the Prayer Book” (Keble vi). The majority of the collection is comprised of short poems that correspond to every Sunday in the liturgical calendar, where each poem connects with the weekly Biblical reading in the Book of Common Prayer. These poems present an artistic rendering of these Biblical teachings, realigning biblical learning with a spiritual poetic. Accordingly, The Christian Year also includes religiously inspired poetry for specific occasions. These occasional poems correspond to prayers in the Book of Common Prayer and include poems for “Morning” (12) and “Evening,” (15) as well as poems for specific religious events such as, “Holy Communion,” (280) “Holy Baptism,” (283) “Matrimony,” (289) and “The Burial of the Dead” (293). Significantly, Keble precedes each poem within The Christian Year with a biblical quote that reconnects the poetic subject back to the poem’s original religious source.
Keble, a theologian and poet, is known for writing The Christian Year, as well as his involvement in Tractarianism (the Oxford Movement). Dominated by Anglicans, this movement strove to reintroduce Catholic influences into the Anglican Church (Schlossber). Thus, Keble wrote The Christian Year in a significant cultural context of social transition. During the 1820s, there was a significant cultural shift in the nature of biblical reading and interpretation. In specific, Broughamism, a rising political movement of the time period aimed at reforming the national school system, presented what Keble considered to be a potentially problematic shift in the nature of biblical interpretation. This movement sought to increase education and literacy among the lower classes, thus giving the general public increased opportunity for unguided biblical interpretation (McKelvy 78). Likewise, the rise of Historical Criticism, the concept that the Bible was composite text of both myth and history, went against the Tractarian ideology of typology. Typology is the study of biblical symbolism and encourages interpreting elements of the Old Testament as symbols that prefigure Christ in the New Testament (“Typology”). These cultural opportunities for changed biblical reading in Victorian society created an atmosphere with fear for misguided biblical interpretation. In the advertisement to The Christian Year, Keble addresses, what he considered to be the problem of biblical disconnect in Victorian society. He describes the Church of England as producing feelings of sobriety and happiness, yet he warns that “in times of much leisure and unbounded curiosity, when excitement of every kind is sought after with a morbid eagerness, this part of the merit of out liturgy is likely in some measure to be lost, on many even sincere admirers” (v). Without explicitly addressing the problem of unguided biblical interpretation, Keble asserts a need to refocus general reading practices to biblically inspired texts.
The Christian Year achieved enormous success in its own time. It was read across Christian denominations, by all classes, and in the United States (Blair 8). Significantly, the reading practices for The Christian Year differed from the typical popular publication because this book followed the liturgical calendar. The Christian Year was potentially re-read on an annual basis and its religious poetry remained compelling for an extended time, as is evidenced by its sales figures. Every edition of the book published the Advertisement with the same date of “May 30th 1827” perpetually situating it in a fixed time (McKelvy 86).
The poems within The Christian Year are uniformly compositions praising God and are thus considered to be “devotional lyrics,” or “hymns.” While Keble’s poems were written for specifically religious purpose, they still presented a great poetic value, accordingly influencing many poets of the Victorian era, such as Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Matthew Arnold (Blair 9). Keble’s poems were situated in the transitional period between the Romantic and Victorian era and his poetic style often draws on Romantic influences, by focusing on producing an expressive affect within the poems (Blair 9). These poems represent the Tractarian goal to assert the beauty of Christian religion and to realign the spiritual experience with the poetic experience. Overall, Keble’s poems and their popularity are representative of artistic connection between personal faith and devotion in the Victorian era.
Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1957.
Blair, Kirstie. “Introduction.” John Keble in Context. Ed. Kristie Blair. London: Anthem Press, 2004. 1-16. Print.
Keble, John. The Christian Year. Second American Edition. Philedelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1840. Print.
King, Joshua. “John Keble’s The Christian Year: Private Reading and Imagined National Religious Community.” Victorian Literature and Culture. 40 (2012): 397-420. Web. September 30 2013.
McKelvy, William. “Ways of Reading 1825: Leisure, Curiosity, and Morbid Eagerness.” John Keble in Context. Ed Kristie Blair. London: Anthem Press, 2004. 75-88. Print.
Schlossber, Herbet. “The Tractarian Movement.” Victorian Web. 4 April 2012. Web. September 30 2013.
“Typology.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2013. Web. September 30 2013.