FORM AND FAITH IN VICTORIAN POETRY AND RELIGION by Kirstie Blair, Reviewed by Karen Dieleman

By Kirstie Blair
(Oxford, 2012) vi + 258 pp.
Reviewed by Karen Dieleman on 2012-09-11.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

"Oh! this old-time religion . . . is good enough for me," sang the Fisk Jubilee Singers in America in 1873. But as Kirstie Blair demonstrates in this book, few Victorians shared that conviction -- not even about that old-time religion of England called Anglicanism, and certainly not about its forms of worship. Multiple studies have documented the divided nature of Victorian Christianity, but in this book, her second, Blair highlights a new element of that division: a key word in the Victorians' public debate about worship was "form." It encompassed a range of meanings not identified in current histories of the term, such as the fixed liturgy of the Prayer Book, the rituals of the High Church, the structures of Gothic architecture, and the rhythms of plainsong. These and other religious practices were vigorously debated by Victorians of all Christian traditions, with the Tractarians and some Catholics endorsing them, dissenters deriding them, Broad Churchmen vacillating over them, and virtually no one ignoring them. Poets too entered and shaped the conversation. Many of them, canonical and otherwise, not only made religious form the subject of their poems but embedded their convictions about forms of worship in the very rhythms and meters of their lines. In short, Blair contends, strategic formalism strongly exercised poets as well as writers on religion in the Victorian era (16).

In taking up this subject, Blair identifies herself as "part of a group of scholars who are engaged in revisiting the Victorian poetry of faith and questioning critical embarrassment in the face of its apparently outdated beliefs" (3). Other recent monographs in this developing field include F. E. Gray's Christian and Lyric Tradition in Victorian Women's Poetry (2010), Charles LaPorte's Victorian Poets and the Changing Bible (2011), and my own just published Religious Imaginaries (2012); earlier books include Dinah Roe's Christina Rossetti's Faithful Imagination (2006), Mary Arseneau's Recovering Christina Rossetti (2004), and Cynthia Scheinberg's Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England (2002). As Blair rightly observes, though, much of this work has chiefly examined religious poetry by women, whereas Form & Faith considers religious poetry by men as well as women, both canonical and lesser known -- a range of figures that strengthens her claim for the pervasiveness of attention to form in Victorian poetry. More important than the range and genders of the poets she covers, however, is Blair's contention that whatever their particular Christian leanings, the poets studied here believed in God as a "constant, transcendent presence," and this belief provided "the bedrock for their explorations of formal concerns" (17). "Where there is form," she writes, "there is faith" (2). Moreover, she specifies, the Victorians not only assigned a "religious function" to their poetry but a "poetic function" to their religion, "and . . . these functions depended on form" (8). While newly registering this dependence, Form & Faith persuasively establishes its depth and range.

Structurally, the book develops from the author's own practice of what Caroline Levine calls strategic formalism, which means reading form in light of cultural experience (9, 14, 16-17). After the introduction, the six chapters fall into two parts, with the first building the thesis and laying an extensive context for the second. In the first three chapters, which show how form and religious poetry pervaded the discourses of Tractarian poetics, ecclesiastical architecture, and liturgy, Blair convincingly demonstrates that Anglicanism -- particularly Tractarianism -- shaped the religious discourse of the nation. Whether or not one identified with the Anglican church, whatever one endorsed or opposed, one could not ignore the Tractarians. Of course, since the publication of G. B. Tennyson's Victorian Devotional Poetry (1981), Victorianists have often discussed Tractarian thought, particularly the doctrine of reserve. But Blair breaks new ground by showing that the Tractarians linked reserve to form, both poetic and religious. In insisting that only the ancient forms of worship truly expressed scriptural principles, and that only such forms could properly channel potentially dangerous surges of religious feeling, the Tractarians made the use of forms a religious duty, and made form itself the necessary bastion of calmness and sobriety (27-29). For instance, in his popular poetry collection The Christian Year (1827), John Keble aimed to provide devotional instruction not only through his subject matter but also through his carefully regulated stanzaic and metrical choices. As Blair demonstrates in her reading of several of the poems, Keble "carefully deploys variations to convey effectively the difficulties of achieving the appropriate state of submissive calmness," but the deliberately traditional meter in most of the poetry provides "underlying reassurance of God's presence" (42, 44).

The chapters on ecclesiology and liturgy extend this case for the influence of Victorian poetry on religion. The "deeply conservative religious outlook" (50) of Keble's poetry, Blair argues, shaped not only subsequent religious poetry but the actual structures of Victorian worship. As explained in Chapter 2, Keble was read by many of the thinkers and writers who reconceived the relationship between church architecture and faith: by men such as Augustus Welby Pugin, John Mason Neale, Benjamin Webb, John Ruskin, Coventry Patmore, William Wordsworth, Lord John Manners, Isaac Williams, and George Edmund Street. All agreed that church structure works as "an insistent religious force" by "embodying faith to the senses" and "making the divine comprehensible and present to fallen humans" (53). Gothic architecture particularly, it was felt, conveyed God's order and harmony and made religious space reverent. As Blair shows, scores of poems took up this topic, either allusively, as in Wordsworth's Excursion, which explores worship in the structures of the natural world, or more directly, as in his Ecclesiastical Sonnets or in Williams's The Cathedral and The Baptistery. Like the poems of Keble, these works testify that restraint, regularity, steady measure, balanced form, and all such disciplines properly convey the presence of an orderly God.

With equal richness Chapter 3 explains how religious and poetic discourses converged on form, but the subject now shifts from architecture to liturgy, particularly the use of the Prayer Book, the restoration of plainsong and daily service, and the impact of religious nostalgia on literary representations of the church. Many people, Blair shows, believed the Prayer Book touched worshippers through its forms as well as its content; they thought repetition "essential to the growth of love for God" (94). In the words of a poem by the popular religious poet Robert Montgomery, "Not to inform, but to affect the Man, / Proves the deep wisdom of our Church's plan" (94). Supporters of re-establishing plainsong in the services likewise argued that chanting (as opposed to hymn-singing) cultivated proper affect in worship, "a suitable dignity and restraint" (98). Channeling and calming emotion through its disciplined structures, Blair notes, chanting required a concentration that helped "train the worshipper in religious obedience" (99). Like Tractarian poetry and Gothic architecture, chant relied on its formal properties -- particularly rhythm -- to do religious work. Regrettably, however, the chapter does not show just how the rhythms of chant were supposed to work. While Blair earlier explains Keble's use of form through careful study of representative poems, here she provides no reading of an actual plainsong, either text or notation, to help us hear its dignified and disciplining rhythms (though plainsongs appear in William Dyce's 1843 edition of the Prayer Book and Thomas Helmer's The Psalter Noted [1849]).

The remainder of the chapter on liturgy outlines a strong literary tradition of nostalgia for the familiar rhythms of the church service, particularly its sounds (recitations, songs, and bells). Blair finds such nostalgia is the work of writers both devoted to and estranged from the Christian faith: George Eliot, Thomas Westwood, Cecil Frances Alexander, Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold, and Thomas Hardy. Blair's wide and deep reading in the nineteenth century shines here as elsewhere. But while she demonstrates that "loss of faith in the doctrines of the Church of England did not preclude an affective attachment to its forms" (115), her readings focus much more on what writers say about religious forms than on how they say it. Formal analysis persists, but loses some of the specificity displayed in earlier chapters.

The next three chapters situate selected canonical poets within their chosen Christian traditions and related writing communities, which included many minor poets. Chapter 4 treats Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as Congregationalists who carried their dissent from the Established Church into their poetic subjects and forms. Unlike Tractarian poets, both the Brownings "emphasize forms as dynamic, potentially unstable, on the verge of splitting open" (123). Blair first carefully explains that in keeping with "a fundamental ideology of early Victorian dissent" (134), both Brownings emphasized love over formal allegiance to the church, and were neither as heterodox nor as rigid as past studies have suggested. She then considers Robert Browning's Christmas-Eve (1850) and EBB's Aurora Leigh (1856) as manifestations of the relationship between religious and poetic form. Of Christmas-Eve she argues, "if the content of the poem engages with the question of which religious forms the speaker should adhere to, the form . . . returns him to the grotesque, comic, lower-class milieu of the dissenting congregation" (143). In wonderfully explaining how the speaker compares the behavior of the dissenting congregation to the speaker's own experience of train travel, Blair shows that for Browning, jolting rhythms signal modernity, both in worship and in poetry, even if they also display some crudeness of form (147-48). In Browning's case, Blair concludes, "unsettled form" represents not "uncertainty about Christianity" but rather "playfulness, liveliness, and awkwardness as components of faith" (152, 151). EBB's poetry reflects similar beliefs, though with the addition of Swedenborgian theories of correspondence. Her religious-dramatic poems of the mid-century reveal her conviction that "divinely influenced language . . . should be perceived as another kind of form through which the divine breath sweeps" (156). "Influent" and "inform" are EBB's keywords for an organicist poetry that "celebrates . . . variety, disorder, and imperfection" (157). Reading in this light the "organic imperfections of the verse" (159) in Aurora Leigh, Blair helpfully distinguishes EBB's organicism from that of the Tractarians, whose "natural form" meant what God's fixed laws determined rather than what overflowed from the correspondence between spiritual and natural worlds.

Chapter 5, on Tennyson, has two excellent features. First, it thoroughly examines the conflicts that sometimes ruffled the Broad Church's attitude toward religious form. On the one hand, Broad Church adherents widely agreed that "all religious forms deserved respect, but they were helpful rather than essential" (171); on the other hand, these adherents gave "unqualified assent to Coleridge's statement that the Church of England was 'unequalled in its liturgical forms'" (171). Blair convincingly argues that In Memoriam (1850) was not only influenced by Broad Church thinking but also "seminal in the development of the Broad Church as a movement" (176). A second strong feature of the chapter is Blair's "counter-reading" (182) of section 33 of In Memoriam, a section usually read as dismissive of religious form. In Blair's reading, the section may express more sympathy for the sister's faith (which has arisen "through form" [l. 11]), than for the speaker's faith (which "has centre everywhere" [l. 3]), since it is the sister, not the speaker, who seems to understand how divinity and immortality are associated with the human body (183-84). Like a few earlier parts of the book, however, Blair's fascinating account of In Memoriam tells more about its content than its form. Despite her innovative claim that religious language is itself a form, she passes too quickly over Tennyson's poetic structures to persuade us that the poem as a whole works "most of all" through its form (188). But in turning to one of Tennyson's last poems, "Akbar's Dream," Blair successfully demonstrates both his interest in comparative religion and the poem's "appreciation of the shared values of all forms" (192), even those that need to be "created or altered"-- i.e. don't arise organically (194). In concluding this chapter, Blair astutely notes that the variety of forms across the volume containing "Akbar's Dream" "indicates in itself the possibility of harmonizing discordant voices into one underlying set of principles" (195). In Tennyson's case, that underlying principle remained the Christian faith, though not -- as the poet laureate's formal choices reveal -- unequivocally so.

Chapter 6, which also serves as a conclusion, returns to more "definite forms," this time in relation to Catholic poetics. By turns agreeing with and differing from Tractarian precepts, most Catholic writers endorsed the Tractarian doctrine of reserve yet accepted and practiced devotional display. Once again demonstrating the scope of her research, Blair's findings on Victorian Catholicism furnish a rich context for her analysis of form and faith in Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Carefully structured worship patterns, she argues, shaped the ideas of form in the minds of these and other Catholic poets including Aubrey De Vere, Adelaide Procter, Frederick Faber, Dora Greenwell, and Digby Dolben. While recognizing that the formal qualities of Rossetti's and Hopkins's poetry have been extensively scrutinized, Blair sheds new light on them. She discusses the forms and subjects of the poems Rossetti offered to Anglo-Catholic religious anthologies, which had more influence in High Church ritualist debates than Rossetti's separate volumes could have. And she uses just one of Hopkins's sonnets to show how the poet makes the relationship between form and faith "a determining force in his poetry" (232). The decision to treat Catholic Christianity as "one grouping" (199) has its limitations: Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism get conflated too readily, and the divisions within Roman Catholicism get too little attention. But the decision springs from Blair's aim, stated at the outset, to establish the central role of Anglicanism -- not the nuances of every denomination involved -- in the debates over form. Throughout this fine, substantive study of form and faith in Victorian poetry and religion, she certainly achieves this goal.

Karen Dieleman is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.