‘In An Illuminated Missal’ by Charles Kingsley was published in 1858 by J.W. Parker and son. It first appeared in Kingsley’s collection, Andromeda, and other poems. The poem itself is made up of fifteen lines that are contained within one single block of text. Kingsley has chosen to imbue this piece with a consistent and structured rhyme scheme. The lines follow a pattern of aabbbccddeeffgg.
It is possible to consider this piece as a variation on a traditional fourteen-line sonnet. The lines come very close to following the pattern of a “line rhymed sonnet,” with only the third ‘b’ line sitting out-of-place.
A reader should also take note of the repetition utilized by Kingsley, especially within the first set of lines. He has started the first three lines with the phrase, “I would…” Kingsley’s speaker is discussing the possibilities of the past, and the build-up of lines is very impactful. It creates a list-like pronunciation of everything the speaker could’ve done and been. Another instance of repetition is in the sixth line. Here, the speaker is setting out all of the pleasures he has done away with and “set” into his “book.”
Summary of In An Illuminated Missal
The poem begins with the speaker listing out all of the things he didn’t get to experience in life. He did not know love or what it is to be great. The speaker knows he could’ve been a different person than he is now, but it is the will of God that has controlled his life. Everything he feels about his ignored passions has been set down into a “book.”
He goes on to describe what he illustrated in the “Illuminated Missal” the title refers to. There are painting angels, flowers, and herbs. Every element he has created was done in an effort to get the worldly impulses out of his body. The images are imbued with the love he will never know and successes he will never have.
‘In An Illuminated Missal’ concludes with the speaker dedicating the book to God. He informs God that he put a great deal into the “tome,” all in “His” honor.
Analysis of In An Illuminated Missal
I would have loved: there are no mates in heaven;
I would be great: there is no pride in heaven;
I would have sung, as doth the nightingale
The summer’s night beneath the moone pale,
But Saintes hymnes alone in heaven prevail.
My love, my song, my skill, my high intent,
Have I within this seely book y-pent:
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by stating a number of things he could have done or had. The first of these is “love.” He is looking at his past, present, and future and considering the love that he might have had and given. No matter what he thinks about, there is nothing he can do to change the present as there are “no mates in heaven.” This is a curious line, especially when considered alongside the title. There is immediately a deeply religious overtone to the text.
This is continued in the second line where the speaker mourns his own potential for greatness. As with love, he can tell it was a possibility for him that he does not have access to it. This is all due, once more, to “heaven.” Alongside God, there is “no pride.” The third statement begins with “I would have sung” and relates to the speaker’s ability to create beauty. He would’ve been like the “nightingale.”
The next lines describe how the songs he produced would have sounded out “beneath the moone pale.” But instead, it is the songs, or “hymnes” of the “Saintes” which “prevail.” In his landscape, it is clear that the Christian religion and its various elements are the speaker’s biggest concern. At this point, it seems as if he wishes that wasn’t the case.
In the last lines, he lists out the things he has missed out on in life. There is “love,” “song” and “skill.” Everything he could have had has been channeled into this “book,” a reference to the title of the poem. The speaker has created an “Illuminated Missal,” or manuscript, and put all his desires into the text and illustrations.
And all that beauty which from every part
I treasured still alway within mine heart,
Whether of form or face angelical,
Or herb or flower, or lofty cathedral,
Upon these sheets below doth lie y-spred,
In quaint devices deftly blazoned.
In the next section of ‘In An Illuminated Missal’, he continues on to state that all the “beauty” within his heart is in the book. His passions have flown out of his body and become a religiously acceptable form of expression. He is restricted by the church, as Kingsley himself would’ve been, from engaging in more earthly pursuits. This is the only way he can express himself.
His experiences are “treasured” and will “alway” exist within his heart. They have now become the faces and forms of “angelical,” or the angels. His passions have also been transformed into the “herb or flower.” Or even something “loft[ier]” like a “cathedral.” The speaker has painted all of these images onto the pages of the book. They are now able to help in the veneration of God.
The final lines tell of their “quaint devices.” His pictures might be simple in subject matter but they have been painted “deftly” or skillfully. This skill comes through and is “blazoned” onto the page.
Lord, in this tome to thee I sanctify
The sinful fruits of worldly fantasy.
The final two rhyming lines of this stanza are directed at God. Through the previous lines, the speaker was explaining to an unknown listener how he has channeled his life. Now it is time to present that life to God. He tells God that “this tome,” or book, is dedicated to him. The speaker has taken in the “sinful fruits” of the world and made them virtuous. They act as conduits for increasing one’s faith.
After completing a reading of this piece it no longer seems as if the speaker dislikes the position he is in. Although there might have been at one time a struggle to cope with the restrictions of religion, now he is confident with who he is. He is steadfastly adhering to the tenants of Christianity in an extremely devoted way.