The reasons for the oddly varying extremes of Coventry Patmore’s reputation are not hard to find. True to his contradictory nature, Patmore was a poet who could and did speak to the “common reader” in an intelligible manner, but he often spoke of mystical and esoteric subjects far beyond the grasp—or even concern—of that same reader. He gave his audience vignettes of domestic bliss—usually of the upper-middle-class variety—offering comfort in times that seemed to threaten the nuclear family and even the British Empire’s economic underpinnings, yet he included in these vignettes stark confrontations with emotional and spiritual absurdities intimately connected with the vicissitudes of love. Most significant, perhaps, he was able to couch profound psychological and emotional insights in apparently simple—and simplistic—aphorisms.
Patmore’s poetry gained for him his great popularity, but his thoughts were often more adaptable to prose. It was in his poetry, however, that he was best able to reveal his artistry and his philosophy in a harmonious blend of lyrical beauty and rich perception. His poetry had for its subject one idea: love. In fact, at least 95 percent of his poems deal with love in one form or another. From his earliest musings to his last philosophical treatises in verse, he was preoccupied with the manifestations of divine and human love.
Patmore’s early work betrayed his affinity with the Pre-Raphaelites in its overindulgence in description for description’s sake, especially in the overabundant use of adjectives before nouns and in the awkward use of Nature as a substantive character. By the time Patmore wrote The Angel in the House, however, he had much better control of his language. His style underwent further change and refinement so that by the time of The Unknown Eros, and Other Odes he had eliminated virtually all the verbal “deadwood” from his work; even when the language fails in concision, it is usually because the thought attempted is, in itself, incommunicable. Along with control of style, Patmore gained control of emotion. His late poetry best reveals this control when he treats subjects that would easily lend themselves to the worst excesses of Victorian sentimentalism.
Although Patmore was not a systematic philosopher, he was a profound and comprehensive thinker. He undertook to explain—as well as such a phenomenon could be explained—the very idea of love, easily the most irrational, mysterious, and misunderstood of human emotions. He went even further and attempted to explain the love between God and human beings in terms of human love. What Patmore attempted was explanation and not merely the ecstatic recounting of mystical experience. In order to explain, he believed that he first had to experience and then to know his subject (ironically, a very scientific attitude for someone who despised science). He used his life as such an experiment, and his poetry is his record of the results.
Patmore began his poetic career, as did many of his contemporaries, under the influence of the burgeoning interest in the Middle Ages that had forced its way into many poems of the period. The poems in his first two volumes, published in 1844 and 1853, are filled with knights (both ancient and modern), long journeys on horseback through lush and wild countryside, and, of course, maidens and damsels in need of love or rescue. These early works are quite conventional and, frankly, dull. They attempt to deal with his favorite topic, love, but they stand too much in awe of the subject, afraid to assert with conviction any insight the young poet might have had. Rather, they present lovers meeting, wooing, wedding, and dying—and little else.
These poems are of interest, however, for what they reveal about Patmore’s increasing poetic abilities. The earliest of them, especially, are filled with excesses of description that reflect the poet’s immaturity and uncertainty. One example, from “The River,” will suffice;
The leafy summer-time is young;The yearling lambs are strong;The sunlight glances merrily;The trees are full of song;The valley-loving river flowsContentedly along.
It is significant to note that within six lines there are eight modifiers, words attempting to convey complete pictures in themselves but that, through their conventionality, become clichés. The diction fails to “paint” the kind of vivid word-picture the poet was aiming for. Between this early style and that of The Angel in the House, there is a tremendous gap—and one that shows how far Patmore had progressed by the time he published his most popular poem.
“A London Fête”
Of the early poems, however, one demands special attention. Titled “A London Fête,” this work of forty-seven lines of four-stress iamb rhymed variously in open quatrains and couplets is unusual for Patmore. The subject is a hanging at Newgate, attended by a mob of curious and excited people. The poem is stark and realistic in its presentation of the bloodthirsty nature of the people “enjoying” this spectacle. Mothers jostle with other mothers to give their babes a good view; young girls tear their garments to provide themselves with rags to wave; sots yell out the doomed man’s fate in Hell. The execution takes place, and the crowd releases a cry of joy. As they leave, one baby strings its doll to a stick, and the mother praises this “pretty trick.” Two children catch and hang a cat. A pickpocket slinks off to ply his trade elsewhere. Two friends chat amicably. Two people, who fought over the best vantage point, leave to settle their score “with murderous faces.”
The poem is an early revelation of Patmore’s elitist politics. Throughout his life, he feared (even hated) the idea of democracy and its resultant “mob.” The people depicted in this poem are that very mob: drunks, thieves, murderers, and, worst of all, mothers who do not know what is best for their children, or do not care. Although the poem gives voice to Patmore’s political prejudices, it is extremely effective nevertheless. Its style is compact and journalistic; its impact is heightened by its one figure of speech: a simile comparing the howling mob to the mob of damned souls in Hell as they rejoice over the addition of another to their fold. The condemnation conveyed is so complete as to disallow any attempt at rebuttal, poetic or otherwise. What is unusual about the poem, in addition to its not being about love, is that it is concerned with one specific event treated as such and left to stand on its own. Later in his career, Patmore seemed unable to isolate and then reincorporate specific events in his poetry. In seeking the significance of the event, he sometimes felt obliged to introduce a prologue (or several) or to elaborate on the event immediately on his telling it. One of the faults of The Angel in the House is this insistence on commentary of occasionally excessive length. That fault, however, is nowhere to be found in this early, and quite moving, poem of political and social contempt.
The Angel in the House
Patmore’s popularity as a poet was achieved with the publication of The Angel in the House. This was to be his epic poem celebrating love, woman, home, and God in six books. He finished only four of them, published separately between 1854 and 1862: The Betrothal, The Espousals, Faithful for Ever, and The Victories of Love, collectively published together as The Angel of the House in 1863. The first two books concern a happy marriage between two true lovers; the second two books concern a marriage that begins without mutual love but ends in a state of shared happiness; the final two books, one can conjecture, would have dealt with a good marriage gone bad or a bad marriage that remained bad.
The Angel in the House (the title applies to the first two books, The Betrothal and The Espousals, as well as to all four) is the story of the courtship and marriage of Felix and Honoria. The poem begins with a prologue set on their eighth anniversary and ends on their tenth. The two books, with their twelve cantos each, cover, respectively, the betrothal and the marriage. The poem is Felix’s gift to his wife, as a celebration of the bliss they have enjoyed and as a record of the emotions both felt throughout the course of their love and courtship. Each canto consists of a number of preludes (usually two, but no more than five) followed by an ode that contains the main “episode” or occurrence of that canto. These odes are divided into smaller numbered units. The rhyme is open quatrain and the meter is four-stress lines, usually iambic.
(The entire section is 3697 words.)