Poets in the pulpit : nineteenth-century clerical critics on Tennyson and the Brownings.


Access rights

Worldwide access

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



In the nineteenth century, great poets were widely understood as spiritual teachers as well as literary innovators. Religious terms like “prophet,” “priest,” and “preacher” were applied to the poet by critics, even as actual priests and preachers who interpreted biblical prophecy from the pulpit contributed significantly to literary criticism. Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert Browning were recognized as religiously authoritative by such clerics. The first chapter of this reception study considers how Anglican priests, through lectures and sermons, communicated Tennyson’s role as a national prophet. His poetry served as parallel scripture in their homilies, encouraging readers toward a better life in communion with one another, with the church, and with the nation. The second chapter continues to look at clerical lectures and sermons, considering how Nonconformists’ readings focused on Tennyson as a model for faith in the face of scientific rationalism. These clerics considered the poet’s intuitive faith an extension of his poetic vision. While clerical critics of Barrett Browning were surprisingly willing to attend to her spiritual instruction and attribute a prophetic power to her verse, they did so in conversation with her role as a female poet. The third chapter explores Anglican and Nonconformist clerical journalism that complicates poetess fictions and recognizes Barrett Browning’s spiritual authority wherever her work lies in agreement with the reading minister. The fourth chapter addresses the strange phenomenon of the uniquely religious Browning Societies. These Societies were immensely popular in their day, with almost a thousand groups stretching from the United Kingdom to the United States. They understood Browning to be a religious mediator whose poetry articulated obscure but necessary spiritual truth. The poet’s work acts all the more literally as parallel scripture, functionally ordaining lay critics—including women—who offered homiletic interpretations of his poetry in the Society’s quasi-ecclesiastic space. From the nineteenth into the twentieth century, clerical critics have looked to these poets to provide spiritual wisdom, guidance, and revelation. This study explores the correspondences and distinctions in their religiously pedagogical interpretations of the poets and their poetry.