Keble, John


b Fairford, Glos 1792, d Bournemouth, Hants 1866. Taught at home by his old-style ‘high-church’ father, he then proceeded immediately to Corpus Christi Coll Oxford; in 1811 he gained a rare double first followed by an Oriel Fellowship, at the age of only 19, and was a university examiner at 21. He was ordained (CofE) in 1815; tutor at Oriel Coll 1817–1823, followed by a short curacy at Hursley, nr Winchester, Hants, and some years assisting his father’s rural ministry nr Cirencester. There in the Cotswolds he wrote the devotional poems which at his friends’ urging he published in 1827 as The Christian Year, many of which have been used as hymns. Like many authors of all persuasions, however, his work has been greatly abbreviated for congregational use, so that much of the context is lost in our usual abridgements (e.g. of no.219, 806 being a special case; see notes). The book made a ‘deep impression’, even exerting an ‘extraordinary hold’, on the religious and even literary public, remaining a best-seller throughout the 19th c. It was published in everything from cheap popular versions to lavish ‘coffee-table’ edns, with illustrations and/or notes by later editors. Even today some of his lines appear in general literature, sometimes well-removed from their original setting.

In 1831 Keble was elected Oxford’s Prof of Poetry, succeeding H H Milman, qv. In 1833 he preached his landmark ‘assize sermon’ on what he saw as national apostasy, anti-clericalism and encroaching liberalism, then co-operating with J H Newman in writing Tracts for the Times—for which he and his friends were dubbed Tractarians. Having married in 1835 he returned to Hursley as its vicar in the following year, serving that parish for his remaining 30 years, neither seeking nor accepting any other post. Proceeds from the sales of The Christian Year enabled him to finance the restoration of the church fabric.

He edited the works of Richard Hooker and some of the early church fathers, working closely with Newman but (like E B Pusey) greatly regretting the latter’s secession to Rome in 1845. The ‘exquisite’ Lyra Innocentium, celebrating childhood, was published a year later; one reviewer called it ‘this sweet and fragrant book’. Unlike many of his successors in the ‘Oxford movement’, Keble was far more concerned with the theology of the church, as he saw it, than with ritual detail and ornament, though he believed firmly in beauty and reverence in worship. He contributed to other collections of sacred verse including a metrical version of the Psalms (1836–39) which Ellerton considered to have been ‘unduly deprecated’, , though its author longed for the day ‘when the Psalter would be almost universally chanted in the Christian Church’ – from the Introduction by Archbp Wm Alexander of Armagh to a 1906 reprint. These versions are poetic, true to the Heb originals, deliberately archaic in tone (a practice defended in his own Preface), and unusual in varying the metre between two or more parts of the longer Psalms. Nearly every line rhymes with another; 40 metrical doxologies (‘Gloria Patri’) are provided, one for each of the metres used, though with much verbal overlap. The most interesting final section is an Appendix with the author’s rhythmic but non-metrical versions of 7 Pss, where Keble appears at his most ‘modern’.
In JK’s and in his prose works he defended the sanctity of marriage as well as a high view of the church’s ministry and sacraments. Keble Coll Oxford was founded in his memory. The Hursley years in particular were captured in writing by Sir J Coleridge and by Keble’s sometime neighbour, the novelist Charlotte M Yonge (1823–1901). But Keble’s heyday was his own century and the early 20th; J H Overton was being over-optimistic when prophesying (in Julian) that ‘The Christian Year will live as long as the Prayer Book’. Keble no longer features, for instance, in The Oxford Book of English Verse, although his lines on ‘November’ appeared in earlier editions. However, of the 3 texts in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (1981), one is a hymn still in current use. Hail, gladdening light is also a much-loved and unique translation which has been maintained in current Anglican liturgies as well as many hymn-books. Nos.219, 806*.

Hymns and songs by Keble, John

Number Hymn Name
219 New every morning is the love
806 Blessed are the pure in heart