Book Chapter

'We may not know, we cannot tell': Religion and Reserve in Victorian Children’s Poetics



Blair K (2017) 'We may not know, we cannot tell': Religion and Reserve in Victorian Children’s Poetics. In: Wakely-Mulroney K & Joy L (eds.) The Aesthetics of Children's Poetry: A Study of Children's Verse in English. Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present. London: Routledge, pp. 127-144.

First paragraph: Religion has, of course, always played a very substantial role in poetry written for children, and the complex interplay between children’s poetics and the English hymn tradition – from Isaac Watts’ 1715 Divine and Moral Songs for Children, to Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Morning Has Broken’, first published in 1931 – has lent a vitality and persistence to eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century Christian poems for child readers, in many cases ensuring their continued survival for twenty-first century audiences. This essay explores a small part of this rich body of work by considering the importance of religious poems for children in the High Church, Anglo-Catholic or Tractarian tradition of the nineteenth century. While Tractarian poetics has attracted considerable recent criticism, and has been reassessed from a variety of critical perspectives, there has been little discussion of the role of children’s literature in the Oxford Movement. The most relevant exceptions, Alisa Clapp-Itnyre’s two significant articles on children’s hymnody in the nineteenth century, take a general overview of this field while noting the popularity of Tractarian hymnbooks for children as the movement gathered strength.2 Clapp-Itnyre’s 2010 article argues convincingly that Tractarian hymn-writers develop a tradition of ‘writing to children as adults’ (156). Without disagreeing with her fine readings, I suggest here, in concentrating on two of the nineteenth-century’s most famous children’s poets, Cecil Frances Alexander and Christina Rossetti, that Tractarian poets also wrote to adults as children, and that their successful volumes of verse aimed at pre-adolescent, or even pre-literate children, speak to adult readers (and singers) about children, as well as speaking to children. Rossetti and Alexander were both passionate advocates of High Church principles and directly influenced by the key theological and literary works of the Oxford Movement, but they have not been considered together. Rossetti’s SingSong: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), as I argue below, makes an indirect contribution to a larger body of Anglo-Catholic poetry for children, whereas Alexander’s enormously popular Hymns for Little Children (1848) is a direct and explicitly polemical addition to the sub-genre of children’s poetry designed to build on the popular success of John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) and adapt its principles for younger readers. Indeed, Keble himself participated actively in this endeavour, both by lending his patronage to authors and by publishing, as a longawaited follow-up to the bestselling Christian Year, Lyra Innocentium: Thoughts in Verse on Christian Children, Their Ways and Privileges (1846), a volume which followed works for children by other leading Tractarians, such as Isaac Williams’ Ancient Hymns for Children (1846) and John Mason Neale’s three series of Hymns for Children (1842-67). As I will argue here, this body of verse provides significant insights not only into the aesthetics of children’s verse, but also into the aesthetics of Tractarianism, and beyond that, into Victorian (poetic) attitudes towards faith in a period often stereotyped as an age of uncertainty.

FundersUniversity of Strathclyde
Title of seriesStudies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present
Publication date31/12/2017
Publication date online02/11/2017
Publisher URL…ok/9781472438317
Place of publicationLondon

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Professor Kirstie Blair
Professor Kirstie Blair

Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, AH Management and Support Team