Williams, Isaac (DNB00)
|←Williams, Hugh William||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 61
WILLIAMS, ISAAC (1802–1865), poet and theologian, third son, with three brothers, of Isaac Lloyd Williams (1771–1846), chancery barrister of Lincoln's Inn, who married Anne, elder daughter and coheiress of Matthew Davies of Cwmcynfelyn, near Aberystwith, Cardiganshire, was born there on 12 Dec. 1802. The family lived in Southampton Street, Bloomsbury Square, London, and Williams's early years were spent under the instruction of the Rev. Mr. Polehampton of Eton and King's College. When Polehampton moved to Worplesdon in Surrey his pupils followed him. From 1817 Williams was at Harrow, where he became conspicuous for his skill in Latin verse, and on 7 June 1821 he matriculated from Trinity College, Oxford. From 3 June 1822 to 1831 he held a scholarship on that foundation, but from the first he lived much among the men at Oriel College. In the summer of 1822 he was introduced to John Keble at Aberystwith, but this acquaintanceship did not ripen into a close intimacy until after Williams had gained in 1823, with a poem of ‘much originality and power,’ the chancellor's prize for Latin verse, the subject being ‘Ars Geologica.’ In that year and in 1824 he went to read with Keble at Southrop, near Fairford, and among his companions were Richard Hurrell Froude and Robert Isaac Wilberforce. He accompanied Froude to his father's rectory at Dartington, near Totnes, Devonshire, in 1825, and made the acquaintance of the family of Champernowne of Dartington House. The brothers John and Thomas Keble exercised great influence over him, and their intercourse shaped his after-life.
Williams, in the hope of getting a ‘double first,’ read very hard in classics and mathematics, labouring severely over the latter. A serious illness threatened his life, and, as his studies were peremptorily stopped by Dr. Abernethy, he was obliged to content himself with a pass-degree. He graduated B.A. on 25 May 1826, and proceeded M.A. in 1831 and B.D. in 1839. In December 1829 he was ordained deacon by Christopher Bethell [q. v.], then bishop of Gloucester, his curacy being that of Windrush-cum-Sherborne, within driving distance of Bisley and Fairford in Gloucestershire. There he abode for two years intent on the study of Hebrew and the writing of English poetry.
On 30 May 1831 Williams obtained a fellowship at Trinity College, took priest's orders, and went into residence as tutor in 1832. He was made dean of the college in 1833, and philosophy lecturer in 1832. From 1834 to 1840 he was rhetoric lecturer, and vice-president in 1841 and 1842, when he ceased to be tutor and left Oxford. William John Copeland [q. v.] came to dwell there in 1832, and the two tutors became the closest of allies. They were soon reckoned among the leading tractarians at Oxford, and through their influence the churchmanship of the college became of a ‘much more Anglican type.’ Roundell Palmer won an open scholarship at the college in 1830, and descriptions of the scholars and tutors from that year to 1843 are given by him (Memorials, i. 114) and by Prebendary Frederick Meyrick (‘Narrative’ in Hort's Memorials of W. B. Marriott). In Williams, says Palmer, there was a deficiency of the strong and manly qualities requisite for a tutor, but he possessed many acquirements and an intense vein of morality. His ‘shy but warm temperament’ was allied with ‘great modesty and humility.’ The collge historian styles him as a tutor ‘too good for this world. His rule was too strict and his standard too high to work with’ (Blakiston, Trinity College, Oxford, p. 221). This was true of the mass of the undergraduates at Trinity during these years; but the college undoubtedly numbered a distinguished roll of scholars who were much benefited by his training and example.
Soon after his settlement at Trinity College Williams became curate to John Henry Newman at St. Mary's, Oxford, and at a later date he was in charge of the church at Littlemore. About 1833 he began together with Froude and Keble, who were afterwards joined by Newman, to send verses to the ‘British Magazine.’ These were published in a collected form under the title of ‘Lyra Apostolica’ at Derby in 1836, and passed through numerous editions, the poems of Williams being distinguished by the Greek letter z. His contributions to the magazine included, from 1833 to 1837, translations from the Parisian breviary, which had great influence over many writers of hymns, especially Chandler and Neale. About this time he wrote some reviews for the ‘British Critic.’
Williams was the author, in the ‘Tracts for the Times,’ of the celebrated tract No. 80, on ‘Reserve in communicating Religious Knowledge,’ which excited, through the title rather than through the substance of the tract, so much irritation and alarm. He was the simplest of men, ‘retiring and modest even to a fault,’ and never anticipated the widespread terror caused by the word ‘reserve’ (Mozley, Reminiscences, i. 430–8). Tracts numbered 86, on the ‘Prayer Book,’ and 87, in explanation of that on reserve, were also by him. These papers on ‘Reserve’ drew forth much censure from the pulpit and the press, but his sole reply to hostile criticism was in ‘A Few Remarks on the Charge’ of Bishop Monk, whose conduct in condemning the tract without adequate examination of its arguments had raised in the minds of Williams and his friends considerable indignation.
This intimate association with the tractarians brought forth fruit in the election for the professorship of poetry at Oxford in 1841–2. Keble was retiring from the post, and Williams, already recognised as a genuine poet, was generally considered his successor. James Garbett [q. v.], a man of distinction at the university but a student guiltless of poetry, was nominated in opposition. Preparations for a fight were made, Roundell Palmer becoming secretary to the London committee for Williams, and having a controversy in the ‘Times’ with Lord Ashley (afterwards Lord Shaftesbury) over the contest (Selborne, Memorials, i. 339–45). The prospects of Williams seemed bright when Pusey provoked greater opposition from the evangelical party by an injudicious circular complaining of his friend being opposed for his church principles. Bagot, the bishop of Oxford, and Gladstone were for the retirement of both candidates; Newman, though ‘always against the standing’ of Williams, thought that he ought not to give it up lightly. Williams decided to withdraw, but meantime an agreement was made for an informal comparison of votes, when it appeared that Garbett had 921 and Williams 623 supporters. This was the first defeat of the tractarians as a party (Church, Oxford Movement, pp. 271–6; Newman, Letters, ii. 354–84). Williams, much wounded in spirit by the defection of some of his friends, withdrew from Oxford and from public life. From the Michaelmas term of 1842 he was succeeded at Trinity College as classical tutor by Arthur West Haddan [q. v.] Newman in 1840 had dedicated to Williams the ‘Church of the Fathers.’
Williams married at Bisley, on 22 June 1842, Caroline, third daughter of the late Arthur Champernowne of Dartington House, and settled in Dartington as curate to Thomas Keble. There he remained until 1848, when he removed to Stinchcombe, near Dursley, the parish of his brother-in-law, Sir George Prevost [q. v.] A house was built for him near the vicarage, and he rendered the clerical assistance in the parish that his health permitted. His college friend, E. A. Freeman, went that same year (1848) to live near Stinchcombe. In January 1846 Williams hovered between life and death, when Pusey and Manning went, as they thought, to see him for the last time. After this illness he spent his life in strict retirement, educating his sons and writing poetry, sermons, and other works. Newman paid him a farewell visit at Easter 1865. He died at Stinchcombe on 1 May 1865, and was buried in its churchyard, where a monument was erected to his memory. A stained-glass window was placed by subscription, as a memorial of him, in Trinity College chapel. A portrait, painted c 1850 by W. H. Cubley of Newark, hangs in the hall. His widow died at Ashleworth rectory on 1 Feb. 1886. He left six sons and one daughter (d. 1871).
The poems of Williams include: 1. ‘The Cathedral’ (anon.), 1838; 8th edit. 1859; republished, with the Rev. William Benham as editor, in 1889. Some part of it had appeared in the ‘British Magazine.’ It was written as a description of ‘the catholic and apostolic church in England,’ connecting the whole Gothic structure with the various points of religious doctrine. 2. ‘Thoughts in Past Years’ (anon.), 1838; 6th edit. 1852. The original edition was the work of the previous twelve years. The issue in 1852 was augmented by a section entitled ‘The Side of the Hill,’ i.e. Stinchcombe Hill, as well as by his school exercises, the ‘Ars Geologica,’ and the translations from the Greek and Latin hymns. 3. ‘Hymns translated from the Parisian Breviary’ (anon.), 1839; another edit. 1874. They led the Rev. John Chandler to produce his ‘Hymns of the Primitive Church.’ A selection from them, entitled ‘Ancient Hymns for Children,’ appeared in 1842, with preface signed ‘I. W.’ 4. ‘The Baptistery, or the Way of Eternal Life’ (anon.), 1842; pt. iv. 1844; 6th edit. 1863. This volume attacked the church of Rome, and provoked slight differences of opinion with Newman (cf. Mozley, Reminiscences, i. 250). 5. ‘Hymns on the Catechism,’ 1843. 6. ‘Sacred Verses, with Pictures,’ 2 parts, 1845. 7. ‘The Altar,’ with numerous illustrations (anon.), 1847. Said to have been suppressed on account of the imperfections of the illustrations; another edit. 1849. 8. ‘The Christian Scholar’ (anon.), 1849. 9. ‘The Seven Days, or the Old and New Creation’ (anon.), 1850. 10. ‘The Christian Seasons’ (anon.), 1854, dedicated to his sister.
After the death of Williams there was published in 1869–70, in eight volumes, his 11. ‘Devotional Commentary on the Gospel Narrative.’ These had previously appeared as (i.) ‘Thoughts on the Study of the Holy Gospels,’ 1842; (ii.) ‘Harmony of the Four Evangelists,’ 1850; (iii.) ‘Our Lord's Nativity,’ 1844; (iv.) ‘Our Lord's Ministry: Second Year,’ 1848; (v.) ‘Our Lord's Ministry; Third Year,’ 1849; (vi.) ‘The Holy Week’ 1843; (vii.) ‘Our Lord's Passion,’ 1841 (a selection from the last two appeared in 1865 as ‘Daily Events of the Holy Week’); (viii.) ‘Our Lord's Resurrection,’ 1845.
His other writings in prose included: 12. ‘Some Meditations and Prayers to explain the Pictures by Boetius a Bolswert in “The Way of Eternal Life,”’ 1844. 13. ‘The Apocalypse, with Notes and Reflections,’ 1852 (new ed. 1873). 14. ‘Sermons on the Epistle and Gospel for each Sunday and for some of the Chief Festivals,’ 1853, 2 vols. Uniform with it was 15. ‘Sermons on the Epistle and Gospel for the Saints' Days and other Holy Days,’ 1855; new editions for whole series, 1875 and 1880. 16. ‘Sermons on the [Male] Characters of the Old Testament,’ 1856; new editions 1869 and 1879. 17. ‘Female Characters of Holy Scripture,’ 1859; new edit. 1884. 18. ‘Beginning of the Book of Genesis,’ 1861. 19. ‘The Psalms interpreted of Christ,’ vol. i. 1864, left unfinished. 20. ‘Plain Sermons on the Catechism,’ 1851 and 1882, 2 vols.
Williams started, with the hope of ‘soothing the alarms of many’ over the designs of the tractarians, a series in ten volumes of ‘Plain Sermons by Contributors to the Tracts for the Times,’ 1839–48, Copeland being his joint editor. His own contributions are indicated by the letter ‘B’ in a table at the end of volume x., and from this series were published in 1851 and 1882 his ‘Plain Sermons on the Catechism.’ He also wrote ‘A Short Memoir of the Rev. R. A. Suckling’ (1852 and 1853), and edited Suckling's ‘Sermons, Plain and Practical’ (1853). A volume of ‘Selections’ from his writings came out in 1890, and a second edition of his ‘Autobiography,’ a simple, unaffected narrative, commenced on 10 Dec. 1851, was called for within a few weeks of its first publication in 1892.
The name of Williams will always be included ‘among the soundest, the most loving, and the most thoughtful of the devo- tional writers’ in the church of England (A. W. Haddan in the Guardian, 20 May 1865, and Haddan's Remains, pp. 527–8). He was endowed with a true poetic gift, though his lines were sometimes lacking in vigour of expression. They were composed in a ‘lower and sadder key’ than the ‘Christian Year’ of Keble, but were full of sweetness and earnestness. Several of his hymns are in the volume of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern,’ and six of them are said to be in common use.[Autobiography, ed. Sir G. Prevost, 1892; Churchman's Family Mag. July 1865, pp. 59–63; Church Quarterly Review, xxxiv. 332–48; Dean Church in Haddan's Remains, p. xvi; Church's Oxford Movement, pp. 57–69; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; J. H. Overton in Julian's Hymnology, pp. 1282–4; Gent. Mag. 1828 i. 267, 1853 i. 330, 1842 ii. 311; Guardian, 10 May 1865 p. 462, 17 May pp. 500, 503, 504; Welch's Harrow School, p. 50; Newman's Letters, i. 271, 411, 460, ii. 53, 75, 84; Miller's Singers of the Church, pp. 474–5; Stephens's E. A. Freeman, i. 43–50; Halkett and Laing's Anon. Literature, i. 71; Pycroft's Oxford Memories; information from the Rev. H. E. D. Blakiston of Trinity College, Oxford, and from the Rev. G. A. Williams of Hillcote, Dorking.]