03 June 1869 Edward Dowden to Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden

03 February 1871 Edward Dowden to Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden

12 July 1872 Edward Dowden to Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden

11 December 1872 Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden to Edward Dowden

29 November 1872 Edward Dowden to Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden

17 December 1873 Edward Dowden to Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden

[18–] Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden to Edward Dowden

All of these letters are contained in the Victorian Collection of the Armstrong Browning, Library, and can be accessed digitally through the following link:


Portrait of Edward Dowden

Rare Item Analysis: Keble in Conversation: Reception and Use of Keble’s Language in the Letters of Edward and Elizabeth Dickinson Dowden

By Stewart Riley

Click here to visit an interactive timeline and map related to this post on Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE).


Though few read the poetry of John Keble today, the significant influence he had on English Victorian readers through his Christian Year (1827), a volume of devotional poems organized around the Anglican Church calendar, is undeniable. As the writer for The Quarterly Review remarks in 1869, upon the publication of the first major biography of Keble after his death, “[The Christian Year] appealed to the religious heart of the nation, and at once won [its] way, not only with the different schools of thought within the English Church, but also with the leading sectarian bodies” (114). According to the periodical, Keble had managed in The Christian Year through “perfect naturalness, full as it is at every turn of a deep humanity” to “[speak] home to every other human heart” (117). Though such a review might seem a touch glowing, especially from a periodical that was fairly sympathetic to Anglican politics, the reception of Keble’s verse and thought by fairly diverse Victorian readers demonstrates how such characterizations were justified. The reception and use of Keble’s language in the letters of Edward Dowden and Elizabeth Dickinson West Dowden shows how Keble did succeed in “speaking home” to even those hearts which did not necessarily find his work of great or peculiar genius. Keble’s language and expressions in the Dowdens’ letters, used as a means to facilitate conversation, illustrate the degree of Keble’s influence, both as a representative of Anglicanism as well as a poet in his own right – not, perhaps, as a writer of audacity or distinction, but rather of a quiet, appropriately reserved, and nevertheless attentively “heard” voice (For a more detailed exploration of The Christian Year and the influence of some of its particular poems, see Christopher Yang’s post on the subject).

The series of letters under consideration represent several years of correspondence between Edward Dowden and (at the time) Elizabeth Dickinson West, who would later be married after the death of Edward’s first wife in 1892. These, along with many others from their correspondence, are held and digitized in the Victorian Collection of the Armstrong Browning Library, which can be accessed here: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/p17178coll3. Of particular interest for this post are those written between 1869 and 1873, in the aftermath of Keble’s death and the subsequent national reflection on his legacy in 1866. During this period, Edward was working as the newly founded chair of English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Though a minor poet himself, he was known primarily for his writings on Shakespeare and the Shelleys, in addition to his lectures on later literary figures like Newman, Browning, and Walt Whitman (Gwynn and Sherbo). In these letters, Edward and Elizabeth both indicate a limited degree of appreciation for Keble as a literary figure, highlighting how he was seen at the time as an important “representative” of Anglican poetics. Additionally, their uses of phrases and language from Keble to punctuate and emphasize diverse points in their various conversations demonstrate Keble’s legacy as a devotional writer who truly could “speak home” to many hearts, even decades after the initial publication of his writings (Selections from several of these letters as well as the primary text from Keble discussed below can be found transcribed in a link to the “handout” at the beginning of this post).

Edward first begins a conversation on Keble in a letter to Elizabeth on November 29, 1872, to which she responds a few days later. Edward starts his letter with a comparison between John Henry Newman’s “zeal, severity … dogma & orthodoxy” and William Frederick Faber’s “polytheistic” and “tender, overflowing, warm sentimentality.” Keble, in contrast to the Roman Catholic poets, is according to Edward “Anglican of the Anglicans; & in spite of your valuing him (which I do too, as a representative writer) I cannot think him a poet by nature; while, if he were, his position as an Anglican would have put him, as a poet at a disadvantage (Anglicanism being poetical only through infinite refinement & delicacy – not through greatness and audacity).” Edward Dowden’s comment does not seem to originate from religious prejudice, since he himself was an Anglican, though perhaps of a more liberal bent. He began his work at Trinity College in 1867, several years before its religious tests were abolished. His brother John Dowden, moreover, was elected the bishop of Edinburgh in 1886 in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Some of Dowden’s comments regarding the nature of Christ and the church suggest that his personal religious views tended to be more liberal than Tractarian. He writes to Elizabeth in July of 1869, for instance, that “[It is] my faith … that in the end there will be no World & No Church; but the two, one – Christ being at last in a larger sense very God & Very Man.” Perhaps like Tennyson, Dowden hopes for the eventual “Christ that is to be,” but in the meantime he finds his academic and spiritual home within the Anglican world, insofar as it was manifested in the fraught political context of Ireland of that time (Tennyson, “In Memoriam,” CVI.32).

Image of Edward's letter

Were this Edward’s only comment on Keble, readers might rightly think of him as anticipating contemporary assessments; Keble is, perhaps, worth engaging as a writer representing Tractarianism and Anglican poetics, but The Christian Year contains no great aesthetic qualities on its own to recommend itself. In spite of Edward’s characterization, however, Elizabeth makes a point of emphasizing Keble’s value to her. In her letter from December 11th, 1872, she remarks that “I had an idea once of writing a comparison of Newman, Faber, and Keble, as religious poets. I do value Keble still though I haven’t cared to open the ‘Christian Year’ for a good while back.” Elizabeth’s insistence of valuing Keble, though qualified by the fact that she has not read his verse for some time, is quite firm in light of Edward’s comments. It is evident that Elizabeth must have referred to Keble before, and perhaps on multiple occasions, for Edward to mention that Keble is not “by nature” a poet, in spite of her “valuing him so.” Moreover, Elizabeth underlines the word “do” in her statement, emphasizing that she really does value Keble’s poetic voice. She even manages to change Edward’s mind, to some extent, for he remarks in a later letter, “I learned from you to do more justice than I used to do, to the beautiful, bounded harmoniousness of such an Anglican type as Keble represents” (“15 November 1873”). Again, Keble is cast primarily as a “representative” writer, here, but his qualities are described as more aesthetically positive than in Edward’s earlier assessment. Anglican poetics might still be “refined” and “delicate” for Edward, but Keble’s type also shows a kind of beauty and “bounded” harmoniousness. Additionally, Edward’s characterization of a “bounded” quality in Anglican poetics might reflect the Tractarian doctrine of reserve, or the “restraint” which Newman says Keble “practiced himself” and “recommended to others” (Newman 381). Keble, then, according to these careful Victorian readers, is at the very least remarkable for expressing an Anglican poetics, being placed alongside Newman for his significance as a representative writer. Moreover, despite their qualified estimations, the significance of Keble becomes even more evident for both Elizabeth and Edward when they use Keble’s language in their writing to emphasize and highlight certain points of conversation.

Image of Elizabeth's letter

Interestingly, one poem emerges as particularly influential in these letters. Keble’s “24th Sunday After Trinity” from The Christian Year is quoted directly by Edward and Elizabeth in different contexts, and both are referring to previous conversations. Edward speaks of “a desire” to which one Dean Gwynn “gave expression for the ‘softening veil in mercy drawn’ … [which] is very absent from men I think. They have seldom had experience of a justice which ennobles” (“17 December 1873”). Elizabeth correspondingly mentions how her brother once “said that [the revealment] … wasn’t at all desirable, & that it would be more comfortable if God would always ‘Keep the softening veil in mercy drawn’ (Keble) between soul and soul. I said I thought it would be far more desirable to have absolute revealment between any souls that had trusted each other” (“[18–]”). Because of the fragmented nature of this letter from Elizabeth and its consequent lack of a specified date, it is unclear whether either she or Edward are directly responding to each other when quoting Keble. Given their conversational contexts, it seems more likely that these references are made independently. John Keble’s phrase, therefore, happens to be an appropriate and helpful punctuation for their conversations in at least two separate and unrelated instances.

It is also interesting to note that some of Keble’s key concerns in the original context of his poem have more to do with the problem of isolation than conscience, showing how his phrase could be adapted and applied to new situations. In the poem’s argument, Keble poses the problem of the isolated self, asking:

Why should we faint and fear to live alone,

Since all alone, so Heaven has willed, we die,

Nor e’en the tenderest heart, and next our own,

Knows half the reasons why we smile and sigh?


Each in his hidden sphere of joy or woe

Our hermit spirits dwell, and range apart … (1-6).

Here, Keble elegantly articulates the fear and isolation which might come when one realizes that one’s soul is a “hidden sphere” and “hermit.” It is only after this initial concern that he turns in stanzas four, five, and six to the additional problem of human sin, as the mind contains “rude bad thoughts” and does not “heed Love’s gentle call” (19-20). Consequently, “we” would be “friendless,” he argues, were all our thoughts revealed to our neighbors (24). Therefore, in the beginning of stanza seven, Keble prayerfully requests, “Then keep the softening veil in mercy drawn, / Thou who canst love us, tho’ Thou read us true” (25-26). The problem of isolation and guilty conscience is resolved, for Keble, by a benevolent knower in God, not merely the veil itself. While the concerns of Dean Gwynn and Elizabeth’s brother certainly contain the “horizontal” problem of sin and solution of the “softening veil,” neither of them mentions the particular anxiety regarding isolation nor the further “vertical” solution in God “[loving] us better than He knows” (56). This might illustrate how Keble’s influence pertains more to his expression than his argument. The “arc” of his poem is lost in translation, but his characterization of the softening veil remains. This also applies to Edward’s “favorite sentence from Keble,” which was published in a pastoral letter (Dowden “12 July 1872”; Keble, Letters, 106). Keble’s expression, “we are sad children & must deal cunningly with ourselves” originally pertained to universal human frailty in light of original sin, but Edward uses it to underscore his foolishness in a social situation as well as how writers must sometimes trick themselves into becoming interested in publishable topics (“03 February 1871,” “12 July 1872”).

Therefore, I argue that these letters, in addition to the various thoughtful and keen insights they offer on matters of literature and theology generally, first underscore Keble’s value as a writer as well as his limitations, demonstrating a facet of Keble’s influence which is not always recognized: namely, his quotable and “malleable” phrases. Secondly, these letters can be used to contextualize Keble’s work as an influence on Victorian literary thought in academic circles. Though Keble was seen as an influential representative poet in his own immediate context, these letters suggest that the lack of “greatness” or “audacity” in Keble’s poetics and prose arguably contributed to its broad appeal as well as its malleability. His turns of phrase with their earnest spirit are lofty enough to be memorable, but general enough to be “appropriated” for new concerns and conversations. A phrase like “the softening veil in mercy drawn” is precise and poetically “elevated” enough to punctuate a thought in conversation, but also general enough to appropriately apply to different contexts. The thought that “we are sad children, and must deal cunningly with ourselves” is both earnest enough to punctuate emotion, but vague enough to be plucked out for one’s own use. Edward and Elizabeth’s letters suggest that the category of “malleability” is applicable to Keble, and scholars might use them to provide context for the reception of Keble’s work in Victorian writings and contexts. Moreover, they might justify new research regarding where Keble’s writings have made a similar impact in conversational language, providing quotable and appropriable phrases, if not arguments or concepts.

Works Cited

“Art IV.–A Memoir of the Rev. John Keble, M.A. By the Right Hon. Sir J.T. Coleridge. Second Edition. London, 1869.” The Quarterly Review, vol. 127, no. 253, July 1869, pp. 98–134.

Gwynn, E. J., and Arthur Sherbo. “Dowden, Edward (1843–1913), literary scholar and poet.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  October 03, 2013. Oxford University Press. Date of access 13 Oct. 2019.

Keble, John. Letters of Spiritual Counsel and Guidance, edited by R. F. Wilson, James Parker and Co, 1870.

—. “Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Trinity.” The Christian Year, 97th ed., James Parker and Co., 1866, pp. 258–60.

Newman, John Henry. “John Keble.” The Dublin Review, vol. 143, no. 286/287, July 1908, pp. 376–83.

Tennyson, Alfred. “In Memoriam A. H. H.” Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 331–484.