The Christian Year

I describe myself on the cover of my book thus: He collects first editions and researches in literary and historical subjects that interest him. One book in my collection illustrates what I mean perfectly. It is a first edition in two volumes of The Christian Year, a collection of devotional poems by John Keble, from the personal library of Edward Pusey. Keble and Pusey were leading lights in the Oxford Movement in the first half of the 19th Century – a ‘high church’ movement in the Anglican Communion, that led many of its members eventually into Roman Catholicism. The Christian Year is now forgotten but was a huge bestseller throughout the 19th Century. It was a strong influence on the early poetry of Arthur Hugh Clough – also now neglected – who later moved painfully away from Christian belief. My doctorate research on Clough’s poetry introduced me to this book and the events of that time and owning a first edition with pencil marks by Pusey himself gives me a thrill every time I touch it.

Which may, I suppose, surprise readers of my book. The Christian Fallacy sets about the demolition of everything that The Christian Year represents. But as I stress in my book, the western civilisation that I prize and enjoy, has its roots in Christianity. Our laws and customs are founded on Christian values and morality. The study of the history of our civilisation cannot evade the centrality of Christian ideas and religious-inspired actions. And our literature too is inextricably bound up with religious thought and feeling. Am I to eschew the pleasures of Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, say, or in more modern times, T.S. Eliot, W.H Auden or R.S Thomas, just because I do not share their faith? Clough and Keble in their respective responses to modern science and textual analysis – one to lose his faith entirely and the other to retreat into the dogmatic certainties of Catholicism – demonstrate the only viable choices we all face today. Protestant Fundamentalists and Roman Catholics believe very different versions of Christianity; but they share a common evasion of rationality and independent intellectual enquiry, and a common surrender to external authority, whether biblical or papal. I cannot understand this abnegation of responsibility toward the truth. But I can still enjoy the ownership of an historical artefact that is testimony to the long, hard struggle towards that truth.