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THEOLOGY IN

THE ENGLISH POETS.

LECTURE I.

FROM POPE TO COWPER.

The Lectures which I begin to-day, and which I hope to be able to carry on Sunday after Sunday in the afternoons, are on the Theology which may be found in the English Poets. Spoken from this place, they will not enter into poetical criticism, or attempt to estimate the poet; for that would carry me too far from the main subject, within the limits of which I shall endeavour always to remain. The subject is delightful, and it is not difficult to define its special interest.

The Poets of England ever since Cowper have been more and more theological, till we reach such men as Tennyson or Browning, whose poetry is overcrowded with theology. But the theology of the poets is different from that of Churches and Sects, in this especially, that it is not formulated into propositions, but is the natural growth of their own hearts. They are, by their very nature, strongly individual; they grow more by their own special genius than by the influence of the life of the

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world around them, and they are, therefore, sure to have a theology—that is, a Doctrine of God in his relation to Man, Nature, and their own soul—which will be independent of conventional religious thought. They will be, as poets, free from those claims of dogma which influence ordinary men from their youth up, and from the religious tendencies of surrounding opinion. Their theology will therefore want the logical order which prevails in confessions and articles : and as each will give expression to it in vivid accordance with his natural character, it will be a different thing in each.

The great interest, then, of looking into this subject lies in the freedom and individuality of the thoughts on a subject in which men are so seldom free or individual. We see theology, as it were, in the rough; as, at its beginnings, it must have grown up in the minds of earnest and imaginative men around certain revealed or intuitive truths, such as the Being of God or the need of redemption.

At the same time I shall confine the inquiry to their poetry. I shall not seek in their letters or in their everyday talk for their theology. For in their ordinary intercourse with men they were subject to the same influences as other men, and if religious, held a distinct creed or conformed to a special sect; and if irreligious, expressed the strongest denial of theological opinions. It is plain that in ordinary life their intellect would work consciously on the subject, and their prejudices come into play. But in their poetry, their imagination worked unconsciously on the subject. Their theology was not produced as a matter of intellectual co-ordination of truths,

but as a matter of truths which were true because they were felt; and the fact is, that in this realm of emotion where prejudice dies, the thoughts and feelings of their poetry on the subject of God and Man are often wholly different from those expressed in their everyday life. Cowper's theology in his poetry soars beyond the narrow sect to which he belonged into an infinitely wider universe. Shelley, when the fire of emotion or imagination was burning in him, is very different from the violent denier of God and of Christianity whom we meet in his daily intercourse with men. He does carry his atheism and hatred of religion into his verse, but these are the least unconscious portions of his poetry. When he is floating on his wings, he knows not whither, his atheism becomes pantheism, and his hatred of Christianity is lost in enthusiastic but unconscious statement of Christian conceptions.

Therefore I put aside the letters and conversations of the Poets as sources for these Lectures, except so far as they illustrate the treatment of theological subjects in their poetry.

The theological element in English poetry becomes strong in Cowper; but before lecturing on its development in him, it will be necessary to trace its growth up to his time, along the lines on which English poetry mainly ran. This will be the work of the first two lectures, and in carrying it out I shall lay down the mode in which the main subject will be treated.

The devotional element in our English Poetry which belonged to Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and some of the Puritan Poets, died away in the critical school which

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