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Charles Kingsley Biography | Poet

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Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), English clergyman, poet and novelist, was born on the 12th of June 1819, at Holne vicarage, Dartmoor, Devon. His early years were spent at Barnack in the Fen country and at Clovelly in North Devon. The scenery of both made a great impression on his mind, and was afterwards described with singular vividness in his writings. He was educated at private schools and at King’s College, London, after his father’s promotion to the rectory of St Luke’s, Chelsea. In 1838 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in 1842 he was ordained to the curacy of Eversley in Hampshire, to the rectory of which he was not long afterwards presented, and this, with short intervals, was his home for the remaining thirty-three years of his life. In 1844 he married Fanny, daughter of Pascoe Grenfell, and in 1848 he published his first volume, The Saint’s Tragedy. In 1859 he became chaplain to Queen Victoria; in 1860 he was appointed to the professorship of modern history at Cambridge, which he resigned in 1869; and soon after he was appointed to a canonry at Chester. In 1873 this was exchanged for a canonry at Westminster. He died at Eversley on the 23rd of January 1875.

With the exception of occasional changes of residence in England, generally for the sake of his wife’s health, one or two short holiday trips abroad, a tour in the West Indies, and another in America to visit his eldest son settled there as an engineer, his life was spent in the peaceful, if active, occupations of a clergyman who did his duty earnestly, and of a vigorous and prolific writer. But in spite of this apparently uneventful life, he was for many years one of the most prominent men of his time, and by his personality and his books he exercised considerable influence on the thought of his generation. Though not profoundly learned, he was a man of wide and various information, whose interests and sympathies embraced many branches of human knowledge. He was an enthusiastic student in particular of natural history and geology. Sprung on the father’s side from an old English race of country squires, and on his mother’s side from a good West Indian family who had been slaveholders for generations, he had a keen love of sport and a genuine sympathy with country-folk, but he had at the same time something of the scorn for lower races to be found in the members of a dominant race.

With the sympathetic organization which made him keenly sensible of the wants of the poor, he threw himself heartily into the movement known as Christian Socialism, of which Frederick Denison Maurice was the recognized leader, and for many years he was considered as an extreme radical in a profession the traditions of which were conservative. While in this phase he wrote his novels Yeast and Alton Locke, in which, though he pointed out unsparingly the folly of extremes, he certainly sympathized not only with the poor, but with much that was done and said by the leaders in the Chartist movement. Yet even then he considered that the true leaders of the people were a peer and a dean, and there was no real inconsistency in the fact that at a later period he was among the most strenuous defenders of Governor Eyre in the measures adopted by him to put down the Jamaican disturbances. He looked rather to the extension of the co-operative principle and to sanitary reform for the amelioration of the condition of the people than to any radical political change. His politics might therefore have been described as Toryism tempered by sympathy, or as Radicalism tempered by hereditary scorn of subject races. He was bitterly opposed to what he considered to be the medievalism and narrowness of the Oxford Tractarian Movement. In Macmillan’s Magazine for January 1864 he asserted that truth for its own sake was not obligatory with the Roman Catholic clergy, quoting as his authority John Henry Newman (q.v.). In the ensuing controversy Kingsley was completely discomfited. He was a broad churchman, who held what would be called a liberal theology, but the Church, its organization, its creed, its dogma, had ever an increasing hold upon him. Although at one 818period he certainly shrank from reciting the Athanasian Creed in church, he was towards the close of his life found ready to join an association for the defence of this formulary. The more orthodox and conservative elements in his character gained the upper hand as time went on, but careful students of him and his writings will find a deep conservatism underlying the most radical utterances of his earlier years, while a passionate sympathy for the poor, the afflicted and the weak held possession of him till the last hour of his life.

Both as a writer and in his personal intercourse with men, Kingsley was a thoroughly stimulating teacher. As with his own teacher, Maurice, his influence on other men rather consisted in inducing them to think for themselves than in leading them to adopt his own views, never, perhaps, very definite. But his healthy and stimulating influence was largely due to the fact that he interpreted the thoughts which were stirring in the minds of many of his contemporaries.

As a preacher he was vivid, eager and earnest, equally plain-spoken and uncompromising when preaching to a fashionable congregation or to his own village poor. One of the very best of his writings is a sermon called The Message of the Church to Working Men; and the best of his published discourses are the Twenty-five Village Sermons which he preached in the early years of his Eversley life.

As a novelist his chief power lay in his descriptive faculties. The descriptions of South American scenery in Westward Ho!, of the Egyptian desert in Hypatia, of the North Devon scenery in Two Years Ago, are among the most brilliant pieces of word-painting in English prose-writing; and the American scenery is even more vividly and more truthfully described when he had seen it only by the eye of his imagination than in his work At Last, which was written after he had visited the tropics. His sympathy for children taught him how to secure their interests. His version of the old Greek stories entitled The Heroes, and Water-babies and Madam How and Lady Why, in which he deals with popular natural history, take high rank among books for children.

As a poet he wrote but little, but there are passages in The Saint’s Tragedy and many isolated lyrics, which are worthy of a place in all standard collections of English literature. Andromeda is a very successful attempt at naturalizing the hexameter as a form of English verse, and reproduces with great skill the sonorous roll of the Greek original.

In person Charles Kingsley was tall and spare, sinewy rather than powerful, and of a restless excitable temperament. His complexion was swarthy, his hair dark, and his eye bright and piercing. His temper was hot, kept under rigid control; his disposition tender, gentle and loving, with flashing scorn and indignation against all that was ignoble and impure; he was a good husband, father and friend. One of his daughters, Mary St Leger Kingsley (Mrs Harrison), has become well known as a novelist under the pseudonym of “Lucas Malet.”

Kingsley’s life was written by his widow in 1877, entitled Charles Kingsley, his Letters and Memories of his Life, and presents a very touching and beautiful picture of her husband, but perhaps hardly does justice to his humour, his wit, his overflowing vitality and boyish fun.

The following is a list of Kingsley’s writings:—Saint’s Tragedy, a drama (1848); Alton Locke, a novel (1849); Yeast, a novel (1849); Twenty-five Village Sermons (1849); Phaeton, or Loose Thoughts for Loose Thinkers (1852); Sermons on National Subjects (1st series, 1852); Hypatia, a novel (1853); Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore (1855); Sermons on National Subjects (2nd series, 1854); Alexandria and her Schools (1854);Westward Ho! a novel (1855); Sermons for the Times (1855); The Heroes, Greek fairy tales (1856); Two Years Ago, a novel (1857); Andromeda and other Poems (1858); The Good News of God, sermons (1859); Miscellanies (1859); Limits of Exact Science applied to History (Inaugural Lectures, 1860); Town and Country Sermons (1861); Sermons on the Pentateuch (1863); Water-babies (1863); The Roman and the Teuton (1864);David and other Sermons (1866); Hereward the Wake, a novel (1866); The Ancient Regime (Lectures at the Royal Institution, 1867); Water of Life and other Sermons (1867); The Hermits (1869); Madam How and Lady Why (1869); At last (1871); Town Geology (1872); Discipline and other Sermons (1872); Prose Idylls (1873); Plays and Puritans (1873); Health and Education (1874); Westminster Sermons (1874); Lectures delivered in America (1875). He was a large contributor to periodical literature; many of his essays are included in Prose Idylls and other works in the above list. But no collection has been made of some of his more characteristic writings in the Christian Socialist and Politics for the People, many of them signed by the pseudonym he then assumed, “Parson Lot.”

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