Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore’s life falls roughly into four periods, the latter three of which correspond to his three marriages. The first period, up to his first marriage, was dominated by his father, Peter George Patmore. Peter Patmore was a man devoted to the arts, intent on social climbing, and steadfast in his devotion to friends. His life, unfortunately, was beset with problems and scandals. Peter was the man to whom William Hazlitt wrote some of the letters later published in Liber Amoris (1823), letters in which the married Hazlitt confessed to a degrading love affair with a young girl. When the book was published, both author and recipients were critically condemned for, at least, a serious breach of taste. Two years earlier, in 1821, Peter had been a second in a duel during which his principal was killed, there being reason to believe that Peter’s ignorance of the rules of dueling led to the death. In any event, he was condemned for his role in the affair and actually left the country to avoid prosecution. On his return, Peter married Eliza Robertson, a young Scotswoman of strict religious beliefs and practices.
Peter later speculated in railway shares, lost a great deal of money, and fled to the Continent, leaving the twenty-two-year-old Coventry and his siblings without support. Finally, in 1854, Peter published My Friends and Acquaintances, a book of memoirs that was poorly received and that managed to rekindle the flame of controversy surrounding the duel of years earlier. Peter died the following year.
Despite his tumultuous life, Peter was a father who encouraged Coventry’s poetic gifts early in life, insisting that his son publish his first volume of poems when he was only twenty-one. Peter had always encouraged Coventry’s love of literature, and the two often read and discussed various authors. Perhaps in response to his wife’s stern religious beliefs, Peter offered his children no religious training, preferring to treat the Bible as merely a work in the body of literature for which he had much respect. Peter was concerned enough with Coventry’s education, however, to send him to Paris in 1839 to improve his French. There Coventry fell in love with the daughter of Mrs. Gore, an English novelist who had a salon in the Place Vendôme. His love, however, was not reciprocated, and the bitterness of the affair became entangled with his bitterly anti-French sentiments, feelings that lasted most of his lifetime. While in Paris, Coventry began to explore the question of religious belief, seeking principles by which he could live and to which he could devote his work.
In 1842, Coventry visited Edinburgh and the home of his mother’s family. There the religious questioning that had begun in Paris was intensified by a personal experience that brought him in contact with the Free Kirk piety and severity that surrounded him. This discomfiting episode became entangled with his anti-Scottish sentiment, also a feeling that lasted all his life.
For some time afterward, Patmore dabbled in reading, painting, and chemistry, conducting experiments in his own laboratory. He earned a meager living by translating and writing for the periodical reviews. In 1844, at the insistence of his father, he published his first volume, Poems. In 1846, he was given a post at the Library of the British Museum. Two years later, he became engaged to Emily Augusta Andrews, the daughter of a...
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