Arthur Middleton on poetry and vision in John Keble
John Keble (29 March) was a creative artist and lived at that creative centre which is Christ and the Church. Christ and the Church can never be separated because Christ is the Church. Keble learned to live with that reality, seeking to know the meaning of life not only with his head but with his whole being, by living it in depth and purity, and thus uniting himself with the Source of life, so passing over the abyss between reason and vision, between thought about things to immediate perception of things.
This real and living source of life is not an abstract idea in the head. It is infinite, boundless, limitless, never-ending, immeasurable and too real to be contained within any word or concept because that would limit the limitless and the experience perceived. Here we are in the realm where reality, image and symbol meet.
It is the realm of contemplation where we intuitively perceive life in its infinite Source. We are in the presence of him who revealed himself as the unnamable ‘I am’, and who made himself known as Man in Christ. This intuitive experience of God’s presence is a divine gift and needs the poet to communicate it.
Poetry is essentially for Keble a relief to the poet, the utterance of feelings which struggle for expression, but which are too deep for perfect expression at all, much more for expression in language and conversation, the prose of daily life.
Feeling of any kind, he points out, is always seeking some form of expression for itself; the infant in cries and gestures; the adult in the power of speech. Psalm 39.3 expresses the secret of all poetry: ‘My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled, and at last I spake with my tongue’. This is true of all feelings, but most true of the deepest feelings, which are stirred either by the sight of external nature or by the facts of human life and experience. In New Every Morning Is the Love, we read: Old friends, old scenes will lovelier be,
Sadly, the New English Hymnal omits this verse. Seeing more of heaven in our friends and scenes of daily life sheds a light of love and prayer on life’s crosses and cares. We do not need a monastic cell in which to experience and know such feelings. They come in life’s trivial round and common tasks. Nature stirs the feelings, either by its mystery, in the resilience of the daffodil in wind and snow or the sky at night in its vastness. Wordsworth saw a crowd of golden daffodils, an experience that awakened his visionary power. Facts of nature stir our wonder, questioning, awe; the tranquil beauty of the natural world soothes our wearied spirits.
On the beach we notice the barren cliff face and marvel at the sight of a flower bursting from a crevice. A seed has found a congenial resting place in which to die in order that it might live. It stirs our vision to see and feel something of the secret or mystery of creation, to feel after that paradox that the Resurrection reveals that only through death comes life. ‘Except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies…’