Henry Charles Beeching, ed. (18591919). Lyra Sacra: A Book of Religious Verse. 1903.
THE ENGLISH are, or at any rate were, a very serious people, and therefore to bring a representative collection of their religious poetry within the compass of a single handy volume requires an editor to draw his lines of limitation sharply and clearly. The principles that have governed the present anthology are these: first, that while being representative on the whole of the current of religious verse, it should not necessarily represent any particular period that fell short in certain essential characteristics. Accordingly, the eighteenth century, which, however interesting in many respects, was not especially poetical or religious, supplies but twenty pages as against the hundred and fifty from the seventeenth. A second canon of choice has been, that no piece, however theologically sound or devotionally fervid, should find place which had not about it a genuine ring of poetry; and, by complement, that none should be admitted which though poetical in treatment was not distinctly religious in temper. In the third place, the book has not been weighted with hymns to be found in every collection; so that religious poets, whose writing has chiefly taken this form, such as Cowper and Wesley, and in more modern days Heber, Lyte, and Bonar, may seem to have scant justice done to them.
The standard of excellence has been kept as high as possible, but the very circumstances of the case prevent its being uniform. The high-water mark of the religious lyric in England is fixed by Herbert; Vaughan in one or two pieces reaches as high; so, in another style, do Crashaw and Marvell: but an anthology restricted to the best work of these few poets, and the one or two of our own day who might rank with them, would lack variety; which should be an essential characteristic. An anthology must, by its nature, admit excellence in many degrees and in many styles. In pursuit of this various excellence the Editor has cast his net as wide as possible. He has opened the book with the anonymous poets of the fifteenth century, now first restored from their honourable limbo in the reprints of learned societies to the full light and warmth of English homes. The occasional strangeness of the vocabulary or stiffness of the metre should not hinder the appreciation of so lovely an allegory as Quia Amore Langueo, or such direct and simple appeals as Be my comfort, Christ Jesu, and Jesu, Lord, that madest me. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it has not been the Editors good fortune to add any new stars to the map of the heavens, but he may claim that certain of the brighter luminaries, Donne, Giles Fletcher, and Crashaw, are here for the first time on their religious side exhibited to the public in their proper greatness; and Mr Bertram Dobell has allowed him to select from the poems of Thomas Traherne, a poet whose works he lately discovered and is now editing for the press. In regard to Herbert, the question of choice has been a difficult one. In thought and in style he is one of the most equal of writers, and it seemed absurd to transfer to an anthology some forty or fifty pages of a volume which is on the shelves, if not in the memory, of every educated Christian; on the other hand, it seemed equally absurd to pass him by. Accordingly, the Editor has chosen what seem to him the most generally interesting of the less personal poems.
The difficulty felt about selecting from Herbert recurs in the case of Keble, though in a somewhat different shape. The Christian Year, though a work of very inferior genius to the Temple, is written in a style of as uniform if not as high an excellence, and it is far more widely popular. It had reached its 145th edition before the copyright expired in 1872; and since then every publisher of religious books has had his own editions. It seemed sufficient therefore to represent the Christian Year by separate stanzas which rise above the level of their surroundings, and to give more space to poems by Keble not in that collection; some of which indeed must be allowed to rank among his finest works.
Since this anthology was first issued in 1895 many poems by distinguished writers have passed out of copyright. Owing to the kindness of the representatives of A. H. Clough and Matthew Arnold and Archbishop Trench the Editor was able in the first edition to include such poems by these writers as he desired, so that he has no need to add to them now. The three poems of Newmans then allowed him by the Rev. Father Nevile, as the literary executor of the Cardinal, have been supplemented by others; and the anthology is richer in consequence. It is richer also by the presence of the great name of Tennyson. From the In Memoriam, where so much was to his purpose, the Editor has selected the sections that deal with the problem of Immortality. He has to thank Messsrs Macmillan for allowing him to include two copyright lyrical pieces, On a Mourner and Crossing the Bar. About half of Brownings poetry is now at the service of the anthologist. The best known of the shorter religious poems come in the later volumes; but the poems here given are excellent and characteristic. From living writers the Editor has received uniform generosity; and the reader will understand that for the presence of their poems in these pages, he has in every case to thank the author. For permission to print copyright poems by authors no longer living, thanks are due to their representatives; and in sending a revised edition of the anthology to press, the Editor may be allowed to express his regret that among the number are included three poets of great genius, who seven years ago allowed him a free hand in his selection from their writings, Miss Christina Rossetti, Mr Coventry Patmore, and Mr F. W. H. Myers.