Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Coventry Patmore (18231896)
[Eldest son of Peter George Patmore; born July 23, 1823, at Woodford in Essex; educated at home by his father, who did all he could to develope in him an ardour for poetry. He went to Paris and began to write verses in 1839. He published Poems, 1844. From 1846 to 1865 he was an assistant in the Library of the British Museum. Tamerton Church-Tower, 1853; The Betrothal, 1854; The Espousals, 1856; Faithful for Ever, 1860; The Victories of Love, 1863; were instalments of a single narrative-poem, The Angel in the House. Patmore was married in 1847, again in 1865, and a third time in 1881. He settled at Herons Ghyll, in Sussex, and printed his Odes in 1868. These, much enlarged, form The Unknown Eros, of 1877. His prose essays were published as Principle in Art, 1889; Religio Poetae, 1893; and The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, 1895. He lived in Hastings from 1875 to 1891, when he removed to Lymington, where he died on November 26, 1896.]
WHEN, in 1886, Patmore rightly judged that he had closed his task as a poet, he solemnly recorded that he had
traversed the ground and reached the end which, in my youth, I saw before me. I have written little, but it is all my best; I have never spoken when I had nothing to say, nor spared time or labour to make my words true. I have respected posterity, and should there be a posterity which cares for letters, I dare to hope that it will respect me.
When he wrote these words he had been a practising poet for forty-seven years, but with long intervals of silence and retirement. It was part of Coventry Patmores intellectual creed to regard the writing of verse as by no means the exclusive or perhaps even main occupation of a poet. Hence he was content to spend months and even years in meditation, during which he filled the cells of his nature with the material for poetry. Between the ages of thirty and forty he composed steadily, though even then not abundantly; while, during all the other years of his life, his actual writing was performed at long intervals, in feverish spurts. This mode of production is worthy of notice in Patmores case, because of the extraordinary concentration of his thought and will on the vocation of the poet. The intention to write was never out of his mind, and yet he had the power of will to refuse himself the satisfaction of writing except on those rare occasions when he felt capable of doing his best.
From childhood to the grave Coventry Patmore was supported and impelled by the conviction that he had a certain mission to perform. His sense of how this was to be carried out became modified, but of the mission itself he never had the slightest doubt. He believed himself to be called upon to celebrate Nuptial Love, the more serious importance of which had been singularly missed by most poets of all countries, as he told Aubrey de Vere in 1850. As time went on, this theme became rarified and spiritualized in his mind; it took more and more a sacramental character. What had begun with the simple amativeness of Tamerton Church-Tower closed in the Catholic transcendentalism of the Eros and Psyche odes. At nine years old I was Loves willing Page, he said in his youth, and in his final maturity he declared that Love makes life to be a fount perpetual of virginity. The point of view changed, the essential conviction was the same.
It is plain that at the opening of his career Patmore conceived that to carry out his scheme with any measure of success it would be necessary to adopt an objective treatment. The mere subjective method, the lyrical cry of the enamoured youth in person, would not be suitable, because so obvious in expression and so easily misconstrued. The crude and flat romances of 1844, Lilian and Sir Hubert, which he so carefully suppressed; the less garrulous but highly sentimental The River and The Woodmans Daughter, which he laboriously re-wrote and condensed; have the value of showing us that from his boyhood, Patmore determined to make verse-narrative the vehicle of his message to mankind. There could really be only one story of fortunate nuptial love, and when he finally adopted a form of it, it turned out, rather exasperatingly, to resemble the scenario of some novel by Anthony Trollope or Miss Charlotte Yonge. This quality, the trivial realism of the narrative in The Angel of the House, attracted a multitude of readers and at the same time obscured the splendour of the essential part of the poem, so that the very popularity of Patmores great undertaking delayed and falsified his ultimate success. That success consisted, not in the mild adventures of Honoria and her spouse, but in the magnificence of the philosophical episodes, in which the psychology of love is illustrated in language of great originality and with turns of the most felicitous fancy.
The link between the finished, or at least suspended, Angel in the House and the transcendental Odes which closed Patmores poetical career, is to be found in Amelia, in which something of the earlier narrative manner is retained, but where utterance of studied simplicity is abruptly abandoned in favour of a brocaded splendour of language. Instead of the light and fluent octosyllabics of The Angel in the House Patmore now adopted, and continued to the end to use, a sort of canzone or false Pindaric, the theory of which he defended with ardour, but of which there is little more to be said than that it justifies itself by enshrining much of the noblest of his own poetry. Amelia is a variant of the universal Patmore theme, the superficial instinct of human desire being depicted as mirroring the profound passion of heavenly love; the poem is distinguished from its predecessors by a greater audacity of expression, illustrated by an extreme vividness of colouring; and from its long series of successors by the fact that it preserves an objective attitude, which Patmore thereafter almost completely abandoned.
We are now at liberty to turn to the product of Patmores later years, to The Unknown Eros and the various fragments which are dependent on that group of poems. This body of verse consists of about fifty odes of various length, all in the Pindaric form which has been mentioned above. There is reason to suppose that these poems should be regarded as fragments of a great work which Patmore began to design after his retirement from official life and settlement at Herons Ghyll. This followed upon his admission into the Roman Catholic Church and his visit to Rome in 1864. It is believed that he intended to write a sort of spiritual autobiography, in the form of a celebration of the beauty of service to the Blessed Virgin. He did not, however, speak out very plainly about his intention, and we have to deal with the numbers of The Unknown Eros as we find them. What, then, we find is a series of lyrics, written in what he called catalectic metre, very different in subject, but similar in their earnest and uplifted emotion, in their mystical symbolism, and in their total independence of all contemporary influences. In The Angel in the House an unconscious emulation with Tennyson had been apparent; the odes faintly recall Milton and Cowley, but contain scarcely an echo of any more recent voice.
The contrast between the new rapture and the apparent levity of the old narrative manner was so great as to blind the earliest readers of the odes to their quality. Patmore privately printed an instalment of nine of these in 1868 and distributed them among his friends, not one of whom seems to have perceived their merit. It is true that his selection was from among the most abstruse and least attractive of the poems, but it included so amusing a fling at science as The Two Deserts and so splendid an example of Patmores highest lyrical achievement as (what has since been known as) Deliciae Sapientiae de Amore. No one, at all events, was pleased or even interested, and the poet, excessively chagrined, rended and burned the remainder of the 1868 edition. He went on writing, however, and by the time when, in 1877, he published The Unknown Eros, the eyes of a new generation had been opened to the majesty of his vision and the penetration of his thought.
The odes of The Unknown Eros are now introduced by a Proem which gives a somewhat inexact impression of what is to follow. It insists to excess on the political character of the work, which is only part of the revelation in it of Patmores private convictions. He took a very dark view of the social and political condition of England fifty years ago, and was inclined to look upon himself as the only inspired prophet of her melancholy future:
Mid the loud concert harsh
Of this fog-folded marsh,
To me, else dumb,
Uranian Clearness, come!
he sang with tragic fatalism. But England contrived to escape the horrors of his prognostication, and the political portions of The Unknown Eros are now not impressive. They are, fortunately, not numerous; and the reader turns from them to the odes in which the poet reveals his own experience, often, as in St. Valentines Day, with a Wordsworthian felicity, and amid a profusion of beautiful landscape touches. Even more charming are the odes devoted to sentiments of remorse, of recollection or of poignant desiderium, the hopeless longing for a vanished face. In these categories The Azalea, The Toys, and Departure rank among the finest examples remaining to us of pure Victorian poetry.
But some parts of The Unknown Eros, and especially of the Second Book, are much more abstruse. In these sacramental odes, Patmore is often metaphysical, and sometimes dark with excess of ingenuity. His mystical Catholic poetry is inspired by a study of St. Thomas Aquinas among the ancients and of St. John of the Cross among the moderns. As he pursued his lonely meditations, his odes became more and more exclusively occupied with the religious symbolism of sex, culminating in The Childs Purchase and in De Natura Deorum. Perhaps in the latest of all his poemsin The Three Witnesses (originally called Scire Teipsum), written in 1880Patmore carries his mystical ecstasy to its most transcendental height, where few can follow him. It is strange to contrast the almost puerile simplicity of his early narrative manner with the harsh and incisive arrogance of his latest lyrics, yet there is a unity running through the whole of Patmores work which is that of a highly original and passionate writer to whom scarcely anything was denied except pertinacity in the art of construction.