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.