The Poets' Chantry/Coventry Patmore
The poet, Patmore himself once declared in a moment of luminous paradox, "occupies a quite peculiar position—somewhere between that of a Saint and that of Balaam's Ass": and save for the fact that both saint and ass are notoriously humble in demeanour, it seems impossible that any phrase should more suggestively crystallise his own lifelong attitude. With meet dramatic insight, Mr. John Sargent chose this poet as model for his Prophet Ezekiel, for to the sense of friend and foe alike there played about him flashes of the untranslatable Vision, echoes of the Voice Crying in the Wilderness. From the days of his vivid and self-conscious childhood, through that maturity of passionate antagonisms and inviolate fealties, into the prophetic old age, ominous, aloof, yet strangely tender, Coventry Patmore was at each moment a unique and compelling personality. Aristocrat, pessimist, scholar, poet of human love and of transcendent mysticism, he stood as a stumbling-block and a foolishness to the Philistines of his age. He himself loved and hated strongly: and in the eternal justice it has been decreed that strongly, too, should he be loved and hated—a scandal to the timid or unbelieving multitude, a seer to the few who cared to understand.
From the first, there was a singular interdependence between Patmore's life and his literary work: a consistent absorption in certain ideals which must always be rare in human nature. Not that he was free from vagaries; but his prejudices and perversities even now are "excellently intelligible," and a certain proud integrity of soul forbids us to separate the poet from the man. Together then, as one single entity, should the life record and the art record be studied.
Coventry Kersey Dighton Pattnore was born at Woodford, in Essex, 23 July, 1823. From his mother, an austere woman of Scottish descent, he seems to have received little save the gift of life; in his father he found not only the inseparable companion but almost the sole instructor of his youth. Peter George Patmore was himself a literary man of versatile parts, exemplifying that not unusual combination of strong individuality and feeble character. From very childhood, Coventry spent hours in his father's library; together the two read Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and selections from all the great English classics; while at night this not unliberal education was supplemented by visits to the best playhouses, or to the homes of "Barry Cornwall" and others of the so-called Cockney School. It was doubtless a desultory method, yet it proved more effective than might many a wiser one. And when, between his twelfth and fifteenth years, the boy manifested keen interest in mathematics and experimental science, his father—with customary indulgence and apparently at some pecuniary inconvenience—fitted for his use a little laboratory. To the end of his life, our poet was wont to refer with zest to his investigations there, even asserting that he had in those early years discovered a new chloride of bromine.
But in the life of so transcendent a thinker, it is the spiritual experiences, however youthful and fugitive, which retain permanent interest. The elder Patmore seems to have been what is now known as a "reverent agnostic," and Coventry naïvely tells us that until his twelfth year he was an agnostic, too. He had, indeed, received no definite religious instruction; but coming at that time upon some little book of devotion, he was impressed with a gasp "what an exceedingly fine thing it would be if there really were a God" with whom he might live on terms of love and obedience. It was the first of those illuminations or angel-visits of which our poet was vaguely conscious all through his youth: visits which as yet left slight impression upon the outer life, but which cast upon the things of earth sudden gleams of interpretation, and in one memorable instance forced upon him a most intense and lasting apprehension of the supreme worth of personal purity.
But poetry, that elect lady and predestined passion of his life, early claimed some initiative allegiance. From Patmore's own account, it was at about the age of sixteen (in "The River," and "The Woodman's Daughter") that he first turned seriously to verse-making; writing then also a remarkable little essay on Macbeth, published later in the Pre-Raphaelite Germ. The fact that an original tragedy was also in contemplation would scarcely be worth noting save for the subjective experience which it induced. For by another wholly characteristic illumination, the boy student came to perceive that such tragedy as might inspire the highest poetry "ought to present the solution, rather than the mere conclusion, by death, of the evils and disasters of life." Here, assuredly, was no ordinary fruit of youthful speculation, but the basis of that philosophic and fundamental simplicity which Patmore was so uncommonly to attain. May it not, in truth, be recognised as a note of that Divine Wisdom which will neither be withstood nor denied by its chosen vessel? For in casting about for this possible solution of a difficult world, our poet first came into definite contact with the Christian idea. The conception of the God-Man, the Word made Flesh, took immediate root in an intellect and heart peculiarly open, peculiarly sensitive to beauty and to truth. Almost half a century later, Coventry Patmore declared that this thought of God incarnate in Jesus Christ had from that moment remained to him "the only reality worth seriously caring for."
Kindred experiences were more disquieting. A visit to relatives in Scotland (devout members of the Free Kirk), much "profitable discourse" and an unsuccessful attempt at extemporaneous prayer, sent Coventry back to London in a revulsion of feeling which almost threatened unbelief. But the early vision remained intact, and excesses born of much zeal and little knowledge gradually made way for a new advance.
Meanwhile Peter George Patmore's parental pride urged his son on to publication, and in 1844 the first little volume, Poems, was issued from Moxon's press. The home circle was, of course, enthusiastic, and even the literary world took some slight notice. "A very interesting young poet has blushed into bloom this season," wrote Robert Browning; Leigh Hunt and the "Cockney" contingent were vastly appreciative; and Bulwer Lytton sent a most discerning letter of sincere praise and admonition. Several of the reviews were, on the other hand, actually abusive, and in his later years Patmore himself came to regard these early poems with undisguised contempt. To the critic of to-day, untempered praise and blame seem alike superfluous. They were simply experimental verses of pathetic and character, the vigour of their word-painting being as undeniable as, upon one side, a certain hectic quality, or upon the other, an imperfect sense of rhythm. At their best, as, for instance, in "The River," one seems to detect a weak solution of Christabel:
Beneath the mossy ivied bridge
The River slippeth past:
The current deep is still as sleep
And yet so very fast!
There's something in its quietness
That makes the soul aghast. . . .
In 1845, just a year after his son's little triumph, Peter George Patmore was overtaken by financial troubles and left England. It meant a radically new era for Coventry. Practically penniless, he was now left dependent upon his own resources; while the hot-house atmosphere of sympathetic and uncritical praise was simultaneously withdrawn. So the young swimmer made his plunge, and contrived to prove that he was not of the sinking sort. None the less, it was a year of arduous struggle, Patmore's work for the current Reviews scarcely sufficing to pay for the humble lodgings which he and a younger brother occupied together. "Who is your lean young friend with the frayed shirt-cuffs?" inquired Monckton Manes one evening of Mrs. Procter, when the impecunious poet had been dining at her house. But after reading the early verses and learning more of their author, the future Lord Houghton made brave reparation for this "heartless flippancy." Through his assistance, Coventry obtained, in 1846, the post of assistant librarian at the British Museum, and the friendship thus opened up proved thenceforth of mutual profit.
It was during those grey days that Patmore made the acquaintance of Tennyson—then also the occupant of a modest apartment "up two or three flights of stairs." Together they discussed letters, together they dined, together they walked half the nights away; and although the elder poet had not yet attained universal recognition, he was to the devoted Coventry a font of perfectness. Years later, when a breach had severed the intimacy, Patmore's proud and essentially original spirit used to refer bitterly to the days when he had followed Tennyson about "like a dog."
But infinitely more potent than any other influence upon our poet's youth was that of a woman, Emily Augusta Andrews, destined to create for him one of the ideal unions of literary history. She became the wife of Coventry Patmore, after a brief courtship, in 1847 (her twenty-fourth and his twenty-fifth year), and, to the end, the exquisite intimacy and dignity of their love served as a veritable initiation into the mysteries of life. The mingled simplicity and stateliness of Emily Patmore, her strange beauty—perpetuated by Woolner, Millais, and Browning—her selfless devotion, her wit and, withal, her practical wisdom, come down to us upon the testimony of nearly all who were privileged to know her. And the gentle sway which she exercised over the heart and mind of her husband was absolute until her death. "I have been thinking to-day," Coventry wrote in 1860, when the great shadow was already falling across his hearthstone, "of all your patient, persistent goodness, your absolutely flawless life, and all your amiable, innocent graces." In another place he declares that her love revealed to him what was to prove the basic philosophy of his life and work: "The relation of the soul to Christ as his betrothed wife is the key to the feeling with which prayer and love and honour should be offered to Him. She showed me what that relationship involves of heavenly submission and spotless, passionate loyalty."
A second volume of poems, containing, among others, "Tamerton Church Tower," "The Yew-berry," "The Falcon," was published by Patmore in 1853. Its simplicity—bare, and at moments almost crude—was an intentional protest against the more wilful metres just then affected by Browning and even Tennyson. Its realism may perhaps be one fruit of our poet's sympathy with the pre-Raphaelites; although that "last rub which polishes the mirror" (a watchword Patmore himself is said to have furnished the Brotherhood) was the quality it most conspicuously lacked. Yet in spite of much imperfectness and some monotony, there are strange, searching gleams of metaphysical insight in these romantic pieces; and with curious premonition, the bright particular star was that charming lyric "Eros."
But the magnum opus of Patmore's early life was at hand. That New Song, "the first of themes, sung last of all," had long been trembling upon his lips: in The Angel in the House it found its full and perfect utterance. The theme—daring, precisely because it was so simple, so universal, and to the vulgar mind so common-place—was a glorification of happy nuptial love. In itself, the graceful and very simple romance scarcely justifies repetition. "Par la grace infinie, Dieu les mit au monde ensemble"; and so in the surpassing pain and joy of love, they woo and wed. There are no memorable obstacles, no heroic sacrifices; it all passes in the conventional shadow of an English deanery; and like the delicious fairy tales of old, they live happily ever afterward—and have many children! But in this quiet domestic idyll one is conscious of the first man and the first woman, of the last man and the last woman, and of God, in whom Love finds its source. Patmore's rare insight into the elemental human consciousness, his reality and delicacy of emotion, form the warp of the poem; albeit its woof includes the homeliest details of "sun and candle-light." Here is one beautiful fragment, the first recognition of love between Felix and Honoria. With the latter's sisters, they are seated one summer morning in the shadow of the grim Druid rocks
That scowled their chill gloom from above,
Like churls whose stolid wisdom mocks
The lightness of immortal love.
And, as we talked, my spirit quaff'd
The sparkling winds; the candid skies
At our untruthful strangeness laugh'd;
I kissed with mine her smiling eyes;
And sweet familiarness and awe
Prevail'd that hour on either part.
And in the eternal light I saw
That she was mine; although my heart
Could not conceive, nor would confess
Such contentation; and there grew
More form and more fair stateliness
Than heretofore between us two.
Our poet's Primal Love was essentially of the Sacraments; and early in his song—even while seeking expression for things "too simple and too sweet for words"—he struck the note of his characteristic message:—
This little germ of nuptial love
Which springs so simply from the sod,
The root is, as my song shall prove,
Of all our love to man and God.
With this root, indeed, rather than with any potential flowering, the poem is mainly concerned. Yet there is an increasing tendency, notably throughout the Preludes, toward a mystical interpretation of sexual love. The "pathos of eternity" has blown across the face of passion: and in the Victories of Love (as the latter part of the work was called) there is even more of this divine pathos than there is of nuptial joy.
Although the Angel was never completed according to Patmore's original design, few of us will feel that it could desirably be longer. The last word is spoken in that extraordinary "Wedding Sermon," which brings the poem to a close. Here, where the claims of body and spirit are reconciled with so sweet and austere an eloquence, we realise that the home of love is no longer upon our humble earth. Out from the house of human felicity must the angel now adventure—out into realms higher and more loving: although to men of goodwill the body's bond may still reveal itself as
All else utterly beyond
In power of love to actualise
The soul's bond which it signifies.
Here, for those who could receive it, was anticipated the whole tremendous doctrine of Patmore's future odes!
The metrical scheme of the Angel—an iambic octosyllabic line, rhyming throughout the First Part in quatrains, throughout the Second in couplets—has often been subjected to ridicule. It is, in fact, a metre trembling perilously upon the border of the commonplace, and lending itself with staggering ease to parody and perversion. But the poet had chosen it deliberately as the vehicle best suited to a simple and for the most part joyous story; and in the main, he avoided the pitfalls both of his form and his theme to a marvel. There is no denying a certain obvious quality to the Angel in the House. But those who find it merely "sweet" or "innocuous" must have missed the more transcendent message of the Wedding Sermon, and of those interesting Preludes which, chorus-like, precede and interpret the various cantos. "The Spirit's Epochs," the "Daughter of Eve," and many another of these lyrics are of singular beauty and power—as, for instance, this pregnant stanza of "Unthrift":
Ah, wasteful woman, she who may
On her sweet self set her own price,
Knowing man cannot choose but pay,
How has she cheapened paradise;
How given for naught her priceless gift,
How spoil'd the bread and spill'd the wine,
Which, spent with due respective thrift,
Had made brutes men, and men divine.
Doubtless it was this rarer quality, coupled with Patmore's eternally real tenderness, which attracted the immediate appreciation of the poets themselves. Tennyson believed it "one of the very small number of great poems which the world has had"; Father Gerard Hopkins (who knew the work in a later edition which his own criticism had helped to perfect) declared that "to dip into it was like opening a basket of violets." And Ruskin, both in season and out of season, proclaimed that the Angel ought to become "one of the most blessedly popular" poems in our language. At last, and after much early neglect, his words were fulfilled. Patmore's work became the poetic idol of England: its colouring of popular taste was reflected in Owen Meredith's Lucile, as in Woolner's My Beautiful Lady; and before the author's death almost a quarter of a million copies had been sold.
In a most real sense this idyll of domestic love was the fruit of the poet's union with Emily Patmore. He himself declared that to the "subtlety and severity" of his wife's poetic taste the work owed "whatever completeness it has, not to mention many of the best thoughts, which stand verbatim as she gave them to me." Just here it may be wise to remark that Coventry Patmore was an impressionist in all statements of fact, that (in the words of his friend Edmund Gosse) "he talked habitually in a sort of guarded hyperbole"; hence his writings and recorded conversations abound in the most excessive appreciation or—its opposite! There seems, however, no doubt that Emily Patmore was responsible not merely for the inspiration of the Angel, but for much of its actual form. The seal of her firm, frail little hand is upon its beauties and its limitations; and without her revelation of human tenderness, her prodigal self-sacrifice as wife and mother, the poem had scarcely been possible. So about the brief dedication of the finished work there hung a double tragedy. It was "To the memory of her by whom and for whom I became a Poet,"—for she had died one year before its completion.
In the summer of 1862, after suffering for five years from consumption, Patmore's wife passed bravely and peacefully out of the little circle which she had made in very truth "a world of love shut in, a world of strife shut out." Slight as were the poet's means, he had spared no effort that Emily should be "as much cared for as any duchess"; and when the break at last came, his anguish was acute. The "Azalea" ode, which records an experience of this time, vibrates with a poignancy almost insufferable. Wakened by the perfume of his wife's azalea flower, and momentarily oblivious of his loss, the poet suffers a strange repetitional agony:
At dawn I dream'd, O God, that she was dead,
And groaned aloud upon my wretched bed,
And waked, ah God, and did not waken her,
But lay, with eyes still closed,
Perfectly bless'd in the delicious sphere
By which I knew so well that she was near,
My heart to speechless thankfulness composed.
Till 'gan to stir
A dizzy somewhat in my troubled head—
It was the azalea's breath, and she was dead!
The warm night had the lingering buds disclosed,
And I had fall'n asleep with to my breast
A chance-found letter press'd
In which she said,
"So, till to-morrow eve, my Own, adieu!
Parting's well paid with soon again to meet,
Soon in your arms to feel so small and sweet,
Sweet to myself that am so sweet to you!"
Almost equally pathetic were Patmore's efforts to be "mother and father, too," to his six young children, his impatience at infantine perversity, and the bitter self-accusings which followed. One of the best known among his shorter odes, "The Toys," traces its source back to the rocky path of those sad days. Rocky enough in all truth it was, yet upon its way one flower blossomed into bloom—Emily Honoria, the poet's eldest daughter—rising as best she might to be care-taker of the little family, companion and confidante to the father himself.
Coventry Patrnore's own health had become so much impaired by the long strain of anxiety and sorrow, that in 1864 he obtained leave of absence from the British Museum for a few months' travel in Italy. It was arranged that he should join Aubrey de Vere in Rome; but, on the whole, the bereaved poet seems to have anticipated the trip without enthusiasm. "I expect," he wrote to that wise little Emily Honoria, "to be very dull and miserable for the first two or three weeks, until I get to Rome; but when I am there I shall be all right, for nobody can be dull or miserable where Mr. de Vere is."
A more compelling, though as yet an unacknowledged, magnet was drawing Patmore to the Eternal City. For almost ten years—during which time he stood as a "High" Anglican—a shadowy but colossal vision of the Church Catholic had been looming before his consciousness, alternately claiming and repulsing his affections. The Catholic position, he tells us, had early been revealed to him as so logically perfect as almost to imply an absence of life: while from his reading of St. Thomas he discovered two luminous facts; first, the eminent realily of Catholic devotional literature; secondly, that "true poetry and true theological science have to do with one and the same ideal, and that . . . they differ only as the Peak of Teneriffe and the table-land of Central Asia do." Yet the unalterable repugnance of his wife Emily (who was the daughter of a Dissenting minister, and all her life "invincibly" prejudiced and terrified by some imaginary spectre of Papistry !) had long seemed a tenable argument against the momentous change. In point of fact, what the poet actually needed, each day more imperiously, was simply the gift of resolute faith. And so, pilgrim-like, with unerring instinct, he travelled back that old, old road which leads to Rome.
Once in the Papal city, Aubrey de Vere introduced him into a Catholic circle of notable grace and distinction; and here, with "deliberate speed, majestic instancy," he continued his search after truth. It was not an easy struggle. We have the whole story in his little "Autobiography" of the spirit; and it proves that while the man's reason was soon convinced, his will remained faltering and unpersuaded. The further he advanced—stepping into the battle of truth and error, he calls it, instead of being merely a spectator—the more vehemently developed his own natural reluctance. After several weeks of this ordeal, flesh warring against spirit and reason against conscience in the age-old strife of centripetal and centrifugal force, it flashed upon our poet that nothing but the definite act of submission—the experimental and bridge-burning leap—could effect the reconciliation he sought. It was late at night when he reached this decision; but, like the importunate widow of the Gospels, Patmore rushed from his hotel to the Jesuit monastery, and would be denied neither by rule nor padlock. Father Cardella, the learned and patient priest who had been his instructor, refused to permit the great step in this precipitate haste. But the neophyte made then and there his general confession; and two or three days later he was received into the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The first person to be apprised of this submission was an English lady then resident in Rome, Miss Marianne Caroline Byles, a convert and close friend of Cardinal Manning. "I had never before beheld so beautiful a personality," Coventry declared with his usual ardour, "and this beauty seemed to be the pure effulgence of Catholic sanctity." The world was soon to know her as Mary Patmore, the poet's second wife. "Tired Memory," an ode of great beauty, interprets that delicate and difficult experience by which the new love was reconciled to that other—infinitely mourned, infinitely cherished, scarcely yet resigned to the "stony rock of death's insensibility." In the pathos and intimacy of its self-revelation, the poem is not unworthy of comparison with the Vita Nuova. Emily Patmore, when death seemed quite near, had begged her husband to wed again: so now in a passionate reverie he brings her his confession of the strange new joy which will not be denied.
O my most dear,
Was't treason, as I fear?
the poet muses. And with brief stroke of surpassing delicacy he traces Love's "chilly dawn," the coming of this fair stranger with her starlike, half-remembered graces, the tired heart's reluctant stirring,
And Nature's long suspended breath of flame
Persuading soft and whispering Duty's name,
Awhile to smile and speak
With this thy Sister sweet, and therefore mine;
Thy Sister sweet,
Who bade the wheels to stir
Of sensitive delight in the poor brain,
Dead of devotion and tired memory,
So that I lived again,
And, strange to aver,
With no relapse into the void inane,
But (treason was't?) for thee and also her.
There were more than subjective difficulties in the way of a marriage, however. Miss Byles would seem to have taken a more or less formal vow of celibacy, from which, later on, she was duly dispensed; while the poet, on his side, impetuously and quite unreasonably left Rome upon the discovery that his fiancée was possessed of a large personal fortune. By the good agency of friends all was eventually reconciled. Patmore returned to England to prepare his little family for the new mother, and on 18 July, 1864, the couple were married by Cardinal Manning at the church of Saint Mary of the Angels, Bayswater.
Of course, neither the second marriage nor the religious change was welcome news to our poet's English friends. Yet, in the home-circle at least, Mary Patmore's victory was complete. The few letters of hers which have been preserved evince the most gentle, even scrupulous, tenderness toward Patmore's children, a fastidious interest in his literary work, and a certain sweet austerity which must have been distinctly piquante to her outspoken and imperious husband. There is something deliciously daring in her shy comments upon the Angel: "It is a shame for you to have been initiated into a thing or two quite solely feminine," she writes to Coventry; and yet again she refers to the "Wedding Sermon" as "not so high in some parts as Thomas à Kempis, than whom nobody ought to be lower, to my thinking." It sounds just a little bit formidable! Yet that uncompromising elevation of soul, and the vestal reserve of manner which few friends were able to pierce, were in reality the best possible foil for Patmore's passionately sensuous yet mystical nature. All of his most searching work—the Odes, perhaps the lost "Sponsa Del," and the complete finding of his own soul—were accomplished during his life with her.
Shortly after this marriage the poet's lungs were found to be so seriously affected that it became necessary to leave London and the Museum permanently. And so during the main part of Mary Patmore's life they resided first at "Heron's Ghyl" (an extensive Sussex estate which Coventry spent several healthful years in supervising and improving) and later at old Hastings by the sea. The circumstances of the family were, of course, vastly more felicitous than during the early days; and now for the first time in his life Patmore found leisure for continuous concentrated study, as well as for that quiet meditation which is the seed-time of creative thought. His preoccupation with theology proved more absorbing than ever; so that he often spent four hours a day upon the works of the more mystical saints—Bernard and John of the Cross, St. Teresa's Road to Perfection, and always the monumental Summa. In the symbolic teaching of Emanuel Swedenborg, also, he found many points of agreement, being wont to declare that the latter's "Catholic doctrine without Catholic authority" would deceive, if possible, the very elect.
A slender volume of nine Odes, printed for private distribution in 1868, inaugurated Coventry Patmore's second and greatest poetic period. Superficially, there may seem but slight continuity between these searching and paradoxical poems and the domestic Angel—yet in essence they are close akin. For the master-passion of Patmore's life and the abiding inspiration of his poetry were identical: his work was one long Praise of Love. And so it was to an artistic and mystical development rather than to any temperamental breach that these odes bore witness. Our poet spoke, indeed, a language little intelligible to his countrymen; and the white heat of his passion, his seemingly esoteric psychology, and his uneven but arresting metres inspired dismay rather than any other emotion. Few of those men (poets, for the most part) to whom the precious volumes had been sent showed the slightest realisation of this "grey secret of the east"; and only the most perfunctory acknowledgments reached the author. So, with characteristic disdain, Patmore consigned all of the edition remaining to his own log fire. "Tired Memory" was one of the collection; so also was the brief and beautiful "Beata"; "Faint Yet Pursuing," an exquisite piece with what we now know as the true Patmorean flavour; and the resurgent loveliness of "Deliciæ Sapientiæ de Amore." With these were two or three ironic Jeremiads of political and philosophic nature, and "Pain"—which no other modern English poet, except perhaps Francis Thompson, could have written. The poet's brooding and scornful reflections as he watched the flames consume these first fruits of his richest thought scarcely tended to commute the pessimistic opinion he had already formed upon latter-day tastes and institutions.
The genuine significance of these Odes, both metrically and philosophically, can scarcely be overstated. To discerning readers, even the extracts already quoted must reveal a divine intensity, a subtlety of poetic feeling, beside which all of Patmore's early work seems tentative and imperfect. Their verse form (which the poet somewhat vaguely described as based upon catalexis) has successfully defied all but the broadest critical analysis, and its effect would seem to depend almost wholly upon some intuition, alike musical and emotional, of pause and rhythm.
Yet it provides an ideally perfect vehicle for the intermittent stress and reticence, the amazing passional surge, the mystic and often scholastic reasoning of the poems themselves. Always fascinating and usually dangerous has it proved as a model to younger poets; but at its best and in the master's hand, there is an impetuous freshness about this ode form which is the next thing to a new-blown wind flower. And this spontaneity was no mere illusion. Patmore spent months, even years, in maturing the matter of his greatest odes, but their actual form was often the work of two or three hours.
"I have hit upon the finest metre that ever was invented, and on the finest mine of wholly unworked material that ever fell to the lot of an English poet," Coventry Patmore wrote exultantly when the Unknown Eros was in preparation. This mine was mystic Catholic theology, in particular the nuptial relations of the soul to its God, and in general that essential and passionate humanity which is at the core of nearly every doctrine of the Church. But here was a task to stagger Orpheus himself had Orpheus turned Christian! For how translate the secrets of the saints to a gaping multitude? How teach men what love meant, and what the Word made Flesh implied? How draw back the veil of mystery and symbol and allegory without breaking in upon the "Divine Silence"? In an agony of concentration, in prayer and fasting, the poet toiled on, still falling short of that infinite "beauty and freedom" which the work demanded, were it to be done at all. Patmore reached at length his own explanation of this failure: not until these things should become controlling realities in his own spiritual life could he sing of them worthily! No shade of religious doubt had crossed his understanding or his conscience from the moment of his reception into the Catholic Church. Yet, with his brave, resolute candour, he has confessed that the quiet and absolute regnancy of faith before which his soul longed to bow was denied for many a weary year. More particularly was he conscious of something perfunctory in his service of the Most Blessed Virgin—of an imperfect harmony with the mind of the Church in this immemorial devotion. So he resolved upon a curious and conspicuous act, half votive, half penitential, very humble and popular and un-Patmorean—namely, a pilgrimage to Lourdes! The poet set out toward the grotto of Bernadette's vision with a beautiful crushing of personal repugnance, asking much of the good God, giving what in him lay. The result is best told in his own words:
"On the fourteenth of October, 1877, I knelt at the Shrine by the River Gave, and rose without any emotion or enthusiasm or unusual sense of devotion, but with a tranquil sense that the prayers of thirty-five years had been granted. I paid two visits of thanksgiving to Lourdes in the two succeeding Octobers, for the gift which was then received and which has never since for a single hour been withdrawn."
One more dogma was thus revealed to Coventry Patmore; not merely as a convenient "form of sound words" but as a fact with vital bearing upon the rest of life. Mary of Nazareth became to him thenceforth the essential womanhood—the symbol and prototype of humanity, nature, the body. In her littleness and sweetness was found the perfect complement to God's infinitude: she was Regina Mundi as well as Regina Cœli, foreshadowing the triumph of every faithful soul. A great epic upon the Marriage of the Virgin was to have celebrated this theme, but it never saw completion. However, in that extraordinary surge of creative energy which peace brought to our poet, the nucleus of it all stole into one exquisite ode, "The Child's Purchase." This poem, written late in 1877, stands in a true sense as the crown and flower of the Unknown Eros, the consummation of Patmore's poetic career. Opening with the parable of a little child who receives from his mother a golden coin—which at first he plans to spend, "or on a horse, a bride-cake, or a crown," but which, at the last, he brings back wearily as guerdon for her own sweet kiss—the poet dedicates his gift of precious speech to this most gracious Lady. Then follows the glorious invocation:
Ah, Lady Elect,
Whom the Time's scorn has saved from its respect,
Would I had art
For uttering that which sings within my heart!
Thee to admire is all the art I know.
My Mother and God's; Fountain of miracle!
Give me thereby some praise of thee to tell
In such a song
As may my Guide severe and glad not wrong,
Who never spake till thou'dst on him conferr'd
The right, convincing word!
Grant me the steady heat
Of thought wise, splendid, sweet,
Urged by the great, rejoicing wind that rings
With draught of unseen wings,
Making each phrase, for love and for delight,
Twinkle like Sirius on a frosty night!
Aid thou thine own dear fame, thou only Fair,
At whose petition meek
The Heavens themselves decree that, as it were,
They will be weak!
Thou Speaker of all wisdom in a Word,
Speaker who thus couldst well afford
Thence to be silent—ah, what silence that
Which had for prologue thy "Magnificat!"—
Ora pro me!
Sweet Girlhood without guile,
The extreme of God's creative energy;
Sunshiny Peak of human personality;
The world's sad aspirations' one Success;
Bright Blush, that sav'st our shame from shamelessness;
Chief Stone of stumbling; Sign built in the way
To set the foolish everywhere a-bray;
Hem of God's robe, which all who touch are heal'd;
Peace-beaming Star, by which shall come enticed,
Though nought thereof as yet they weet,
Unto thy Babe's small feet,
The mighty, wand'ring disemparadised,
Like Lucifer, because to thee
They will not bend the knee;
Ora pro me!
Desire of Him whom all things else desire!
Blush aye with Him as He with thee on fire!
Neither in his great Deed nor on His throne—
O, folly of Love, the intense
Last culmination of Intelligence,—
Him seem'd it good that God should be alone!
Basking in unborn laughter of thy lips,
Ere the world was, with absolute delight
His Infinite reposed in thy Finite;
Well-matched: He, universal being's Spring,
And thou, in whom are gather'd up the ends of everything!
Ora pro me!
Throughout that supreme series to the Unknown Eros, Patmore leads his reader into a realm of palpitating beauty, truth and love. The sensuous nature, by no means annihilated in this new life of the spirit, is glorified and inconceivably satisfied. The capacity of the soul for good (which our poet always contended was "in proportion to the strength of its passions") is infinite, because these passions are marshalled into the orderly service of God. Here, at last, the Body receives its meet salutation, not as "our Brother the Ass," but as the
Little sequestered pleasure-house
For God and for His Spouse;
and human love becomes a ladder leading up to mystic visions of Christ as the Love, the Bride-groom of the soul. Pre-eminently in the old exquisite myth of Eros and Psyche, but scarcely less in the experience of every loving and suffering life, Patmore found this all-but-unspeakable truth prefigured, and he played upon the motif in ode after ode of marvellous beauty and tenderness.
The exceeding intimacy with which our poet clothed (or shall one say—unclothed?) his transcendent theme has proved distasteful to many a devout but colder mind; to Aubrey de Vere, who begged the suppression of the Psyche odes, to Cardinal Newman, who never became quite reconciled to thus "mixing up amorousness with religion." The same exception, obviously, might be taken to the Canticle of Canticles and to much subsequent mystical writing. For love, as Coventry Patmore understood it, was "the highest of virtues as well as the sweetest of emotions . . . being in the brain confession of good; in the heart, love for, and desire to sacrifice everything for the good of its object; in the senses, peace, purity and ardour." In this most elemental of human passions he found the one perfect and consistent symbol of the Divine Desire and the Divine Espousals.
And without this rare ability to translate spiritual truth into the terms of a vibrating humanity—this impassioned and mystic sensuousness (which some, doubtless, will label a "divine sensuality")—Patmore could scarcely have escaped the snares which yawn before every poet conscious of a message. In point of fact, he was never more supremely the poet than when he was most radically the seer. Never, save possibly in one or two political arraignments, does the personal note derogate from the permanence of his poetry; never once, for all his vehemence of belief, does he descend into didacticism. Nor does his symbolic analysis of human emotion even for a moment lessen the intense reality of pain and of love throughout his song. Here is one little "Farewell," scarcely surpassed in its quiet heartbreak:
With all my will, but much against my heart,
We two now part.
My Very Dear,
Our solace is, the sad road lies so clear.
It needs no art,
With faint, averted feet
And many a tear,
In our opposéd paths to persevere.
Go thou to East, I West.
We will not say
There's any hope, it is so far away.
But, O, my Best,
When the one darling of our widowhead,
The nursling Grief,
And no dews blur our eyes
To see the peach-bloom come in evening skies,
Perchance we may,
Where now this night is day,
From a photograph by Barrand
And even through faith of still averted feet,
Making full circle of our banishment,
The bitter journey to the bourne so sweet
Seasoning the termless feast of our content
With tears of recognition never dry.
In "Amelia" (Patmore's favourite poem, but scarcely his readers') we find this ode-form combined with the simpler narrative theme of his earlier days. And once again we are forced to feel how dangerous and difficult a thing truth to the letter of life may become. Yet there are perfect touches in the poem; suggestions of Patmore's really great sea music, and Nature-flashes like that
young apple-tree, in flush'd array
Of white and ruddy flow'r, auroral, gay,
With chilly blue the maiden branch between.
"St. Valentine's Day" and many another lyric bear witness to this poet's searching observation of natural beauty, yet this was less an object in itself to him than a sensitive mise en scène for the human drama. To the core he was a symbolist; and of natural phenotnena he seems to have felt what he somewhere declared of natural science—that its only real use was "to supply similes and parables" to the spiritually elect.
The year 1880 brought sorrow back into Patmore's life in the sudden death of his wife Mary. Her loss proved the first of a bitter trilogy. Scarcely two years later, his well-loved daughter Emily (Sister Mary Christina, as she had become, of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus) died in her near-by convent. The passing of this rare and understanding spirit, from childhood so deeply in sympathy with his own—a poet herself, and one of the best critics of her father's work—can scarcely have been less than a sundering of the poet's very life. And then there was Henry, Patmore's third son, whose brief novitiate of pain and promise came to a close in 1883. His little bark had never been very seaworthy, yet in spite of serious illness he left poetic fragments of decided beauty and originality. "At twenty years of age, his spiritual and imaginative insight were far beyond those of any man I ever met," Coventry declared; and it was his belief that had the boy lived to maturity his poetic achievement might have surpassed his own.
The decade commencing in 1884 Patmore devoted to a series of varied and stimulating prose essays, contributed mainly to the St.James's Gazette. Politics, religion, economics, art, literature, architecture, were in turn touched upon with powerful and trenchant originality. The most significant of these critiques were subsequently collected, partially in Principle in Art, 1889, partially in that precious volume, Religio Poetæ, 1893. A little book of pregnant aphorisms and brief, unequal essays, The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, closed this prose sequence in 1895.
Meanwhile the Twilight of the Gods was drawing apace upon this inspired and imperious spirit. Flashes of comfort there were, indeed—the devoted companionship of Harriet Robson, who became our poet's third wife, and that little late-born son, Epiphanius. In the friendship of Mrs. Meynell, too, Patmore found throughout these latter years one of God's best gifts, an exquisite community of ideals. One of his latest essays was an appreciation of her own work both in prose and verse; and through her he came into close touch with her friend Francis Thompson, helping on the critical world to a recognition of his genius.
During all this time the poet's heart was growing intermittently weaker, and his lungs, long undermined, caused increasing anxiety. At Lymington, whither he had removed, there were repeated attacks and convalescences; and at last, in the November of 1906, a congestion set in. "What about going to Heaven this time?" Patmore asked his physician, with weary but irrepressible humour. The next day, after receiving the last Sacraments, his agony began. His words were broken prayers and thoughts for those about him. "I love you, dear," he whispered to his wife when the end was very near, "but the Lord is my Life and my Light." Into this larger life he passed painlessly on 26 November, 1906; and in the humble habit of St. Francis' tertiary, his body was borne to its long rest in the little sea-coast cemetery.
Coventry Patmore's career as poet had closed full twenty years earlier, with the "collected" edition of 1886: consequently his place in our literature has long passed the first tentative stage. The waxings and wanings of contemporary taste—the flood-tide of the Angel, the ebb-tide of the earlier odes, the ominous calm of the final years—no longer any whit affect his reputation. It has attained a solid and certain degree of permanence. He has, quite indisputably, survived: as a name indeed to the "general reader," but as a fact in the great confraternity of song. Francis Thompson was eager in acknowledging his debt to "this strong, sad soul of sovereign song"; while others not so eager have gathered the riches of his vineyard. It is even possible to say that the chances of any just appreciation of his work are greater to-day than they were yesterday, and that probably they will be greater to-morrow than they are to-day. For in the literary world, as in the philosophic, mysticism—the symbolic interpretation of life—is once again becoming a potent factor. At the same time, a certain analytical brutality has accustomed latter-day readers to face reality, even to crave reality. Each of these tendencies is favourable to Patmore, creating an audience (larger, though never large!) which his poetry may in time both delight and dominate.
"I have written little, but it is all my best," he wrote in one of his Prefaces; "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." He did, in fact, write little, and not one of the great works he planned was ever completed. Neither can all of this little be rightly termed his best. His style was nervous and unequal; capable of the most breathless perfection both of passion and of music, but capable also of perversity and a curious commonplaceness. Yet the most fastidious posterity shall respect him. He was, in his great moments, one of our supreme lyric artists. He sounded the heart-beats with poignant and unforgettable truthfulness. He may be said to have created a verse-form of powerful originality. And then, his was that fusing imagination (the crowning gift of genius!) which transmutes reason and emotion with equal facility into one "agile bead of boiling gold."
But it is not merely with Patmore's poetry—nor, for that matter, with his prose—that the critical world must one day reckon. It is pre-eminently with his poetic philosophy. Teaching in his verse only by suggestions of rare beauty, but throughout the essays with increasing definition and completeness, he formulated a very consistent rationale of life, love, and God. It was a mystical superstructure reared upon the foundation of Christian dogma, an interpretation of the "corollaries of belief." In another sense it may be called the psychology of sex, since in the mysteries of manhood and womanhood Patmore found the heavens above and the earth beneath explained. God he apprehended as the great positive, masculine magnet of the universe—the soul as the feminine or receptive force; and in this conjunction of first and last lay the source of all life and joy. These sexual characteristics he detected in literature and art, as intellectual strength or sensible beauty was found to pre-dominate; while in the workings of conscience there was a similar duality, the rational and the sensitive soul. But as the poems have shown, it was the great sacrament of nuptial love which most clearly manifested the mystery.
The whole of life is womanhood to thee,
Momently wedded with enormous bliss,
his Psyche cries out to her immortal lover: and even so did Patmore conceive of the life-giving God. Originally, he declared, there were three sexes (which in the Holy Trinity, Truth, Love and Life, found their divine prototype), and it was mainly in order to achieve this complete, but forgotten, homo that "nuptial knowledge" became the one thing needful. Woman, he writes in that daring and suggestive essay, Dieu et Ma Dame, "is 'homo' as well as the man, though one element, the male, is suppressed and quiescent in her, as the other, the female, is in him; and thus he becomes the Priest and representative to her of the original Fatherhood, while she is made to him the Priestess and representative of that original Beauty which is 'the express image and glory of the Father,' each being equally, though not alike, a manifestation of the Divine to the other." Upon this symbol, conjugal love, Patmore indeed based the body of his work: yet he cannot justly be accused (as it would seem that Swedenborg, in his much-discussed work, must needs be) of sacrificing to it the eternal reality—love divine. Chastity our poet recognised as the final and perfect flowering of this fair bud, and it was the "Bride of Christ" alone who fully attained here below to that double sex which shall distinguish the regenerate in heaven. One of his most perfect odes, "Deliciæ Sapientiæ de Amore," stands for ever as a defence and vindication. Boldly it calls to the glad Palace of Virginity those "To whom generous Love, by any name, is dear"—who, all gropingly and unwittingly, have sought and yet seek
Nothing but God
Or mediate or direct.
Father Gerard Hopkins, upon his single visit to Hastings in 1885, was shown the manuscript of a prose work, Sponsa Dei, designed by Patmore for posthumous publication, and containing the fullest expansion of these transcendental views. He returned it with one grave remark—"That's telling secrets." It was upon the "authority of his goodness," Patmore always declared, that this beautiful treatise became fuel for another historic burnt-offering: but one can scarcely doubt that he himself had come to recognise the delicate rightness of the priest's judgment, and the fact that his subject demanded the parabolic vesture of poetry. We have the less cause to mourn over this lost manuscript, since most of its matter appears to have reached us through the pages of Religio Poetæ. "The Precursor" of this latter volume is probably the most illuminating criticism upon natural and divine love which Patmore (or any other modern) has given us. It is the essence of his poetic philosophy, thrown out with virile sparks of mystical insight.
There is about Coventry Patmore's work a supreme, almost an infallible, rightness of spirit: but not infrequently an extravagance and perversity of literal expression. Two explanations are at hand—the fact that much of his writing was "special pleading," and the exalted, autocratic nature of his genius. "My call is that I have seen the truth, and can speak the living words which come of having seen it," he asserted; and his shafts were driven home with the instinct of a born fighter. Yet there can be no question of the constructive value of his teaching, of the overwhelming reality with which it reveals the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Real Presence and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. All his life he was, in his own words, trying "To dig again the wells which the Philistines had filled"—building up the supernatural upon the basis of natural good, bowing down before the divine weakness and nearness of God in Christ, rather than before His primal infinity. It is all symbolised in that cryptic Tomb at Lymington: the obelisk of Egypt (Nature) and the Lion of Judah, rising upon the three steps of the Trinity; the Cross, the Host, the Virgin's lilies; and for a text that stupendous promise, My covenant shall be in your flesh.
- "A Face": Dramatis Personæ
- "It is in the management of the pauses—in the recognition of the value of time-beats—that Coventry Patmore's supremacy in the Ode form lies. In his 'domestic verses,' he uses rhyme in places where Tennyson would not have dreamed of it—recklessly, audaciously, but in his highest moods . . . he treats rhyme as an echo." Maurice Francis Egan: "Ode Structure of Coventry Patmore," in Studies in Literature.