Book Chapter

The Poet-Preachers



Blair K (2012) The Poet-Preachers. In: Francis K, Gibson W, Ellison R, Morgan-Guy J & Tennant B (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901. Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 565-578.

First paragraph: In 1851, reviewing Charles Kingsley's poem A Saint's Tragedy alongside a volume of his sermons for the North British Review, the reviewer (Francis Russell) took the opportunity to reflect upon the connection between the two genres: What sort of sermons are we to look for from a poet? or, in other words, What relation does the gift of poetry bear to the gift of preaching? (Russell 1851: 229) Espousing a standard Romantic view of the ‘poet' as fundamentally different to other men, possessing ‘peculiar mental structure and powers', Russell suggests that the term ‘poet' implies an innate gift, whereas preaching is part and parcel of the recognized office of a clergyman and in itself requires no special powers (229, 233). Sermons, he argues, are not works of art, nor should they be. Yet Russell's review nonetheless notes the powerful forces that come into play when poetry and preaching interact, highlighting several areas that were crucially important in nineteenth-century perceptions of this interaction, and are hence the primary focus of this essay. Firstly, he observes that preaching may have particular force in that it can exert ‘rather a physical than a rational influence' (233). To Russell this signifies a lower form of preaching, which he defines as ‘oratory' and associates, for instance, with the rhetoric of the temperance preachers and their effect on lower-class listeners. But his comment is also significant in that it emphasizes a key difference between poetry and the sermon - the latter is predominantly an oral form addressed to specific audiences, the former most often, though not exclusively, written - while introducing the concept of  somatic affect, a notion which was to prove vital in connecting rather than separating the two genres. Indeed, Kingsley himself was deeply concerned in his own reviews of the 1850s with the dangerously affective power of poetry, decrying the works of Byron and Shelley in terms which speak to the physiological as well as mental influence of poetry on the reader (Kingsley 1890, passim).

Title of seriesOxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology
Publication date31/12/2012
PublisherOxford University Press
Publisher URL
Place of publicationOxford

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Professor Kirstie Blair

Professor Kirstie Blair

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