Coventry Patmore 1823-1896
(Full name: Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore) English poet, essayist, and aphorist.
Patmore occupies a minor but conspicuous place in Victorian literature as the poet of both married and mystical love. The chief source of his reputation as the laureate of wedded devotion is The Angel in the House (1858), his two-volume tribute to middle-class courtship and marriage. This work, which was immensely popular among Patmore's contemporaries, has come to be valued by modern critics primarily as the domestic precursor to The Unknown Eros (1877), a series of odes in which Patmore employs conjugal love to symbolize the mystical attraction between the soul and God. As the subject of The Unknown Eros suggests, Patmore was a highly individualistic thinker whose ideas on love, religion, and social themes frequently set him apart from the mainstream of nineteenth-century thought. Nevertheless, as a convert to Catholicism he partook in its great nineteenth-century revival in England and is therefore frequently mentioned in connection with Gerard Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and other prominent Catholic poets.
Patmore was born July 23, 1823, to Eliza and Peter Patmore, an English writer who was a familiar figure in early-nineteenth-century literary affairs. Patmore's formal education was minimal, consisting of a private tutorial in the French language at the Collége de France at St. Germains in 1839, but the experience allowed him to meet the leaders of Parisian literary society, and he soon began writing poetry. Selections from his youthful verse were published in a volume entitled Poems in 1844, which garnered the admiration of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who subsequently solicited his writing for publication in their journal, The Germ. In 1846 the poet Richard Monckton Milnes arranged for Patmore's appointment as an assistant librarian at the British Museum. He held this position for some twenty years, concurrently making frequent contributions to the North British Review and other leading British periodicals. Patmore married Emily Augusta Andrews, the first of his three wives, in 1847. Their married life was evidently a source of great personal satisfaction to him and coincided with the production of his second collection of verse, Tamerton Church-Tower and Other Poems (1853), and the domestic love poetry of The Angel in the House. Although she died of consumption in 1862, Emily Patmore's influence on her husband was profound and may have extended to his later writings on mystical love.
Most of his later poetry belongs to the period of his marriage to Marianne Caroline Byles, a pious Catholic whom he met in Rome shortly before his conversion in 1864. The comfortable circumstances of their marriage—her wealth enabled him to resign from his post at the British Museum and to purchase a magnificent country estate—seem to have had a tonic effect on the poet's spiritual and aesthetic life. After his second wife's death in 1880, Patmore completed and published St. Bernard on the Love of God (1881), her unfinished translation of the mystical writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and married for a third time. Thereafter, he worked primarily as an essayist. He contributed nearly one hundred articles to the St. James Gazette. Patmore's last work was The Rod, the Root, and the Flower (1895), a collection of aphorisms reminiscent of those of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. This work, chiefly concerned with religious subjects, was his last publication before he died of heart disease in November 1896.
Major Poetic Works
Patmore's best-known poetic work, The Angel in the House, was originally published in two separate volumes: The Betrothal (1854) and The Espousals (1856), highly detailed narrative accounts of the courtship and marriage of the fictional lovers Felix Vaughan and Honoria Churchill. According to Patmore's original plan, the two volumes of The Angel in the House were to be the first two parts of a six-volume work. The second two volumes in the proposed series, Faithful for Ever (1860) and The Victories of Love (1862), consist of a series of letters in verse recounting the emotional and marital fortunes of Honoria's rejected suitor, Frederick Graham. In these volumes, Patmore uses everyday language, incidents, and emotions to realistically portray the ideal love relationship between ordinary people. The meter and form of the poem are similarly prosaic—iambic lines grouped in quatrains with regularly occurring rhymes. Patmore never completed the last two volumes of the series and later abandoned the plan. In contrast to the resolute commonness of Patmore's earlier work, The Unknown Eros aspires to the metaphysical and the mystical. Death, mourning, and political concerns are represented in the ode cycle, but critical interest has centered on the “Psyche Odes,” a group of three poems in which the love shared between God and the soul is symbolized by the sexual relationship between Psyche and Eros. The meter and form of this work are regarded as inspired and adventurous—iambic lines of widely ranging lengths arranged in an unpredictable rhyme pattern. The idyll Amelia (1878) is regarded as Patmore's last significant original verse work.
The critical perspective on Patmore and his works has undergone several significant changes since the publication of his first collection of poems. Regarded originally as a pale but promising Tennysonian love poet, Patmore earned a reputation for moral and artistic courage in championing married women and married love in The Angel in the House. Several reviewers, however, derided the absence of spiritual elevation and true poetic “fire” in Patmore's prosaic verse. With the publication of The Unknown Eros, critics began to regard him as a visionary poet capable of creating bold, unconventional verse, yet they also denounced him as a wrong-headed reactionary in his approach to political, religious, and social issues. His posthumous reputation has been fairly stable. Several critics have characterized The Angel in the House as a bastardized form of the novel, pointing out the inherent inadequacy of placid domestic affection as the subject for an epic-length poem, and they have elevated The Unknown Eros to the highest place in Patmore's oeuvre. In recent years, feminist critics have analyzed the portrayal of women in his verse.
Tamerton Church-Tower and Other Poems 1853
*The Betrothal 1854
*The Espousals 1856
The Angel in the House 1858
†Faithful for Ever 1860
†The Victories of Love 1862
The Unknown Eros and Other Odes, I-XXI 1877; enlarged edition published as The Unknown Eros and Other Odes, I-XLVI, 1878
Poems. 4 vols. 1879
Poems. 2 vols. [with Henry Patmore] 1886
The Poems of Coventry Patmore [edited by Frederick Page] 1949
St. Bernard on the Love of God [translator; with Marianne Patmore] (prose) 1881
Principle in Art (essays) 1889
Religio Poetae (essays) 1893
The Rod, the Root, and the Flower (aphorisms) 1895
*These works, originally issued anonymously, were published together under Patmore's name as The Angel in the House in 1858.
†These works were intended to form, along with the two volumes of The Angel in the House, part of a proposed six-volume work. Patmore never completed the last two volumes and later abandoned the plan. A rearranged assemblage of the pieces in Faithful for Ever and The Victories of Love were published under the collective title The Victories of Love in 1878. They are now often considered part of The Angel in the House, which is viewed as a four-volume series.
Aubrey De Vere (review date January 1858)
SOURCE: De Vere, Aubrey. Review of The Angel in the House, by Coventry Patmore. The Edinburgh Review 107, no. 217 (January 1858): 121-33.
[In the following essay, De Vere provides a stylistic and thematic overview of the first two volumes of The Angel in the House.]
During the first quarter of the present century the most popular of our poets sought their themes in distant regions and at remote periods. In this pursuit of novelty they broke through some of the earliest and most pleasing characteristics of English poetry. Chaucer, though in his youthful works he had affected classical and mythological subjects, in his last and greatest, the Canterbury...
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Louis Garvin (essay date 1 February 1897)
SOURCE: Garvin, Louis. “Coventry Patmore: The Praise of the Odes.” The Fortnightly Review 61 (1 February 1897): 207-17.
[In the following essay, Garvin traces Patmore's poetic maturation and deems The Unknown Eros to be “a rich and singular addition to the treasure of English poetry.”]
The few to whom The Unknown Eros came like a revelation in literature and a gift to life, must seem to speak a little extravagantly. They are acutely conscious of uttering incredible opinions when they hold The Unknown Eros to be, on the whole, the most significant volume of great verse that has appeared in England since Keats's last—the loveliest and most...
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G. C. Haddow (essay date February 1924)
SOURCE: Haddow, G. C. “A Neglected Poet.” Queen's Quarterly 31, no. 3 (February 1924): 289-97.
[In the following essay, Haddow considers the reasons for the critical and popular neglect of Patmore's verse.]
The one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Coventry Patmore (July 23, 1823) has passed with comparatively little notice, an indication that the verdict of Time has assigned to Patmore a position among the minor poets of the last century. The Angel in the House, with its sequel The Victories of Love, which had a few years of unintelligent popularity, is probably unknown to the general reader of to-day, and is regarded by a good many critics,...
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W. K. Fleming (essay date January 1930)
SOURCE: Fleming, W. K. “Coventry Patmore.” Life and Letters 4, no. 20 (January 1930): 27-40.
[In the following essay, Fleming reflects on Patmore's fleeting popularity as a poet as well as his limited appeal to readers and critics.]
He who would study Patmore, the somewhat neglected and, it may be conjectured, always to be neglected prophet-poet of the later Victorian age, must be prepared to undertake a long journey, mental and spiritual, and, emphatically, to go all lengths. It is, indeed, necessary, in order to make any sort of adequate study of a poet's work, and in this case of his beautiful ‘poet's prose’ as well as his verse, to be in some sympathy or...
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Ifor Evans (essay date 1933)
SOURCE: Evans, Ifor. “Coventry Patmore and Allied Poets: Coventry Patmore, Francis Thompson, Alice Meynell.” In English Poetry in the Later Nineteenth Century, pp. 154-73. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1966.
[In the following excerpt, which was initially published in 1933, Evans offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Patmore's verse.]
The Pre-Raphaelites developed and exploited a fresh element in the later phases of English romanticism, but the boundaries of their poetical world excluded many themes. In the main, their aestheticism had no place for mystical or religious experience; Rossetti's contacts with Catholic ritual were wayward and unconvincing;...
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Mario Praz (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: Praz, Mario. “The Epic of the Everyday: The Angel in the House by Coventry Patmore.” In The Hero in Eclipse in Victorian Fiction, translated by Angus Davidson, pp. 413-43. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.
[In the following essay, originally published in Italian in 1952, Praz explores the metaphysical elements of The Angel in the House.]
He thinks of writing a poem to be the poem of the age.
—Letter from Alfred Fryer, referring to Coventry Patmore
The poetry of Coventry Patmore again occupies a place of honour in our present century, thanks to its...
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Sister Mary Anthony Weinig (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Weinig, Sister Mary Anthony. “Established Poet.” In Coventry Patmore, pp. 60-80. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.
[In the following essay, Weinig offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Patmore's early poetry.]
I TAMERTON CHURCH-TOWER
A significant step on Coventry Patmore's way from new poet to household poet (a tenuous position at best, but justified in the 1860s by the large British and overseas sales of the Angel) is “Tamerton Church-Tower,” title poem of the 1853 collection.1 This in its final form is a carefully crafted piece whose four parts of different lengths but subtle symmetry are a...
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Elaine Hartnell (essay date winter 1996)
SOURCE: Hartnell, Elaine. “‘Nothing but Sweet and Womanly’: A Hagiography of Patmore's Angel.” Victorian Poetry 34, no. 4 (winter 1996): 457-76.
[In the following essay, Hartnell considers the portrayal of women in Patmore's poetry.]
Most of the critical work currently available on Coventry Patmore was produced before 1957 and by a predominantly male establishment. It is thus inevitable that, while much of this research is still of interest, both the social attitudes and the critical approaches that underpin it have changed over time. For example, in 1921, Osbert Burdett published a frequently straightforwardly narrative commentary on Patmore's poetry, which...
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Benjamin F. Fisher (essay date winter 1996)
SOURCE: Fisher, Benjamin F. “The Supernatural in Patmore's Poetry.” Victorian Poetry 34, no. 4 (winter 1996): 544-57.
[In the following essay, Fisher examines Patmore's use of the supernatural in his poetry.]
Coventry Patmore, the Laureate of domesticity and married love, the realist poet, a purveyor of supernaturalism? The usual response would be “nonsense!” Careful reading, however, will discover ghosts, vampires, and hauntings—in many minds the stuff of Gothic or popular horror literature, “popular” in a pejorative sense—recurring in Patmore's poetry. Interestingly, in this context, in a chapter entitled “London...
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Adrian Grafe (essay date October 2000)
SOURCE: Grafe, Adrian. “‘Telling Secrets’: Remarks on Coventry Patmore.” Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens, no. 52 (October 2000): 99-119.
[In the following essay, Grafe considers Patmore's connections to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alice Meynell and evaluates Patmore's place within the context of nineteenth-century British verse.]
By the by how can you speak of Patmore as you do? I read his Unknown Eros well before leaving Oxford. He shews a mastery of phrase, of the rhetoric of verse, which belongs to the tradition of Shakespeare and Milton and in which you could not find him a living equal nor perhaps a dead one either after...
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Ernest Fontana (essay date summer 2003)
SOURCE: Fontana, Ernest. “Patmore, Pascal, and Astronomy.” Victorian Poetry 41, no. 2 (summer 2003): 277-86.
[In the following essay, Fontana underscores the influence of the Catholic author Blaise Pascal and his use of extended astronomical metaphors on Patmore's poetry.]
In Victories of Love, written three years before Patmore's 1864 conversion to Catholicism in Rome, extended astronomical metaphors begin to appear with such frequency in his poetry that one might consider the later Patmore a rival of Tennyson as the Victorian poet who demonstrates the greatest knowledge of contemporary astronomy.1 What could have prompted such an emphasis? I...
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Burdett, Osbert. “Coventry Patmore (1823-96).” The London Mercury 8, no. 45 (July 1923): 279-91.
Investigates the stylistic and thematic development of Patmore's verse.
Dunn, John J. “Love and Eroticism: Coventry Patmore's Mystical Imagery.” Victorian Poetry 7, no. 3 (autumn 1969): 203-19.
Analyzes Patmore's symbolic use of the language of love in his verse.
Edmond, Rod. “Death Sequences: Patmore, Hardy, and the New Domestic Elegy.” Victorian Poetry 19, no. 2 (summer 1981): 151-66.
Finds parallels between Patmore's Bereavement Odes and “Poems...
(The entire section is 417 words.)