Hercules among the Tractarians: typological reading in Isaac Williams’ The Christian Scholar
Typology is the explication of persons in the Old Testament as pre-figuring those of the New: the former are Types to be fulfilled in the Antitype of Christ; both precursor and fulfilment were perceived as divinely ordained. Typological reading of the Bible, an ancient and widespread practice, was also applied to other literature and to the natural world. In the Victorian period poets and novelists could expect their readers readily to adopt this approach for secular works, and it was a mode particularly favoured by Tractarian poets such as John Keble. Inducted by his mentor Keble into this way of reading the classics, Isaac Williams included in his collection The Christian Scholar (1849) three poems about Hercules, based on classical models (Homer, Pindar, Aristotle). These illustrate how, by extension or by comparison, Christian truths can be derived from reading Greek and Roman authors typologically.
In his preface to The Christian Scholar, Williams draws on the example of early Church Fathers to defend the educational use of classical literature (dangerous and testing though it may be) and outlines Tractarian theories about the nature of the teacher-pupil relationship. His practice is one manifestation of a debate during the political and cultural upheavals of the 1830s and 1840s regarding the role of the classics in university education. The work as a whole exemplifies the characteristically Tractarian stress upon ethos (disposition or moral temper) as a key concept in an individual’s approach to both intellectual and religious concerns, and upon typology as the most spiritually acceptable mode of reading.