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Coventry Patmore by Arthur Symons


There are two portraits of Coventry Patmore by Mr. Sargent. One, in the National Portrait Gallery, gives us the man as he ordinarily was: the straggling hair, the drooping eyelid, the large, loose-lipped mouth, the long, thin, furrowed throat, the whole air of gentlemanly ferocity. But the other, a sketch of the head in profile, gives us more than that; gives us, in the lean, strong, aquiline head, startlingly, all that was abrupt, fiery, and essential in the genius of a rare and misunderstood poet. There never was a man less like the popular idea of him than the writer of The Angel in the House. Certainly an autocrat in the home, impatient, intolerant, full of bracing intellectual scorn, not always just, but always just in intention, a disdainful recluse, judging all human and divine affairs from a standpoint of imperturbable omniscience, Coventry Patmore charmed one by his whimsical energy, his intense sincerity, and, indeed, by the childlike egoism of an absolutely self-centred intelligence. Speaking of Patmore as he was in 1879, Mr. Gosse says, in his admirable memoir:

     Three things were in those days particularly noticeable in the head
     of Coventry Patmore: the vast convex brows, arched with vision; the
     bright, shrewd, bluish-grey eyes, the outer fold of one eyelid
     permanently and humorously drooping; and the wilful, sensuous
     mouth. These three seemed ever at war among themselves; they spoke
     three different tongues; they proclaimed a man of dreams, a canny
     man of business, a man of vehement determination. It was the
     harmony of these in apparently discordant contrast which made the
     face so fascinating; the dwellers under this strange mask were
     three, and the problem was how they contrived the common life.

That is a portrait which is also an interpretation, and many of the pages on this 'angular, vivid, discordant, and yet exquisitely fascinating person,' are full of a similar insight. They contain many of those anecdotes which indicate crises, a thing very different from the merely decorative anecdotes of the ordinary biographer. The book, written by one who has been a good friend to many poets, and to none a more valuable friend than to Patmore, gives us a more vivid sense of what Patmore was as a man than anything except Mr. Sargent's two portraits, and a remarkable article by Mr. Frederick Greenwood, published after the book, as a sort of appendix, which it completes on the spiritual side.

To these portraits of Patmore I have nothing of importance to add; and I have given my own estimate of Patmore as a poet in an essay published in 1897, in Studies in Two Literatures. But I should like to supplement these various studies by a few supplementary notes, and the discussion of a few points, chiefly technical, connected with his art as a poet. I knew Patmore only during the last ten years of his life, and never with any real intimacy; but as I have been turning over a little bundle of his letters, written with a quill on greyish-blue paper, in the fine, careless handwriting which had something of the distinction of the writer, it seems to me that there are things in them characteristic enough to be worth preserving.

The first letter in my bundle is not addressed to me, but to the friend through whom I was afterwards to meet him, the kindest and most helpful friend whom I or any man ever had, James Dykes Campbell. Two years before, when I was twenty-one, I had written an Introduction to the Study of Browning. Campbell had been at my elbow all the time, encouraging and checking me; he would send back my proof-sheets in a network of criticisms and suggestions, with my most eloquent passages rigorously shorn, my pet eccentricities of phrase severely straightened. At the beginning of 1888 Campbell sent the book to Patmore. His opinion, when it came, seemed to me, at that time, crushing; it enraged me, I know, not on my account, but on Browning's. I read it now with a clearer understanding of what he meant, and it is interesting, certainly, as a more outspoken and detailed opinion on Browning than Patmore ever printed.

     MY DEAR MR. CAMPBELL,—I have read enough of Mr. Arthur Symons'
     clever book on Browning to entitle me to judge of it as well as if
     I had read the whole. He does not seem to me to be quite qualified,
     as yet, for this kind of criticism. He does not seem to have
     attained to the point of view from which all great critics have
     judged poetry and art in general. He does not see that, in art, the
     style in which a thing is said or done is of more importance than
     the thing said or done. Indeed, he does not appear to know what
     style means. Browning has an immense deal of mannerism—which in
     art is always bad;—he has, in his few best passages, manner, which
     as far as it goes is good; but of style—that indescribable
     reposeful 'breath of a pure and unique individuality'—I recognise
     no trace, though I find it distinctly enough in almost every other
     English poet who has obtained so distinguished a place as Browning
     has done in the estimation of the better class of readers. I do not
     pretend to say absolutely that style does not exist in Browning's
     work; but, if so, its 'still small voice' is utterly overwhelmed,
     for me, by the din of the other elements. I think I can see, in
     Browning's poetry, all that Mr. Symons sees, though not perhaps all
     that he fancies he sees. But I also discern a want of which he
     appears to feel nothing; and those defects of manner which he
     acknowledges, but thinks little of, are to me most distressing, and
     fatal to all enjoyment of the many brilliant qualities they are
     mixed up with.—Yours very truly,
                     COVENTRY PATMORE.

Campbell, I suppose, protested in his vigorous fashion against the criticism of Browning, and the answer to that letter, dated May 7, is printed on p. 264 of the second volume of Mr. Basil Champneys' Life of Patmore. It is a reiteration, with further explanations, such as that

     When I said that manner was more important than matter in poetry, I
     really meant that the true matter of poetry could only be expressed
     by the manner. I find the brilliant thinking and the deep feeling
     in Browning, but no true individuality—though of course his manner
     is marked enough.

Another letter in the same year, to Campbell, after reading the proofs of my first book of verse, Days and Nights, contained a criticism which I thought, at the time, not less discouraging than the criticism of my Browning. It seems to me now to contain the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about that particular book, and to allow for whatever I may have done in verse since then. The first letter addressed to me is a polite note, dated March 16, 1889, thanking me for a copy of my book, and saying 'I send herewith a little volume of my own, which I hope may please you in some of your idle moments.' The book was a copy of Florilegium Amantis, a selection of his own poems, edited by Dr. Garnett. Up to that time I had read nothing of Patmore except fragments of The Angel in the House, which I had not had the patience to read through. I dipped into these pages, and as I read for the first time some of the odes of The Unknown Eros, I seemed to have made a great discovery: here was a whole glittering and peaceful tract of poetry which was like a new world to me. I wrote to him full of my enthusiasm; and, though I heard nothing then in reply, I find among my books a copy of The Unknown Eros with this inscription: 'Arthur Symons, from Coventry Patmore, July 23, 1890.'

The date is the date of his sixty-seventh birthday, and the book was given to me after a birthday-dinner at his house at Hastings, when, I remember, a wreath of laurel had been woven in honour of the occasion, and he had laughingly, but with a quite naïve gratification, worn it for a while at the end of dinner. He was one of the very few poets I have seen who could wear a laurel wreath and not look ridiculous.

In the summer of that year I undertook to look after the Academy for a few weeks (a wholly new task to me) while Mr. Cotton, the editor, went for a holiday. The death of Cardinal Newman occurred just then, and I wrote to Patmore, asking him if he would do an obituary notice for me. He replied, in a letter dated August 13, 1890:

     I should have been very glad to have complied with your request,
     had I felt myself at all able to do the work effectively; but my
     acquaintance with Dr. Newman was very slight, and I have no sources
     of knowledge about his life, but such as are open to all. I have
     never taken much interest in contemporary Catholic history and
     politics. There are a hundred people who could do what you want
     better than I could, and I can never stir my lazy soul to take up
     the pen, unless I fancy that I have something to say which makes it
     a matter of conscience that I should say it.

Failing Patmore, I asked Dr. Greenhill, who was then living at Hastings, and Patmore wrote on August 16:

     Dr. Greenhill will do your work far better than I could have done
     it. What an intellect we have lost in Newman—so delicately capable
     of adjustment that it could crush a Hume or crack a Kingsley! And
     what an example both in literature and in life. But that we have
     not lost.

Patmore's memory was retentive of good phrases which had once come up under his pen, as that witty phrase about crushing and cracking had come up in the course of a brief note scribbled on a half-sheet of paper. The phrase reappears five years afterwards, elaborated into an impressive sentence, in the preface to The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, dated Lymington, May 1895:

     The steam-hammer of that intellect which could be so delicately
     adjusted to its task as to be capable of either crushing a Hume or
     cracking a Kingsley is no longer at work, that tongue which had the
     weight of a hatchet and the edge of a razor is silent; but its
     mighty task of so representing truth as to make it credible to the
     modern mind, when not interested in unbelief, has been done.

In the same preface will be found a phrase which Mr. Gosse quotes from a letter of June 17, 1888, in which Patmore says that the reviewers of his forthcoming book, Principle in Art, 'will say, or at least feel, “Ugh, Ugh! the horrid thing! It's alive!” and think it their duty to set their heels on it accordingly.' By 1895 the reviewers were replaced by 'readers, zealously Christian,' and the readers, instead of setting their heels on it, merely 'put aside this little volume with a cry.'

I find no more letters, beyond mere notes and invitations, until the end of 1893, but it was during these years that I saw Patmore most often, generally when I was staying with Dykes Campbell at St. Leonards. When one is five-and-twenty, and writing verse, among young men of one's own age, also writing verse, the occasional companionship of an older poet, who stands aside, in a dignified seclusion, acknowledged, respected, not greatly loved or, in his best work at least, widely popular, can hardly fail to be an incentive and an invigoration. It was with a full sense of my privilege that I walked to and fro with Coventry Patmore on that high terrace in his garden at Hastings, or sat in the house watching him smoke cigarette after cigarette, or drove with him into the country, or rowed with him round the moat of Bodiam Castle, with Dykes Campbell in the stern of the boat; always attentive to his words, learning from him all I could, as he talked of the things I most cared for, and of some things for which I cared nothing. Yes, even when he talked of politics, I listened with full enjoyment of his bitter humour, his ferocious gaiety of onslaught; though I was glad when he changed from Gladstone to St. Thomas Aquinas, and gladder still when he spoke of that other religion, poetry. I think I never heard him speak long without some reference to St. Thomas Aquinas, of whom he has written so often and with so great an enthusiasm. It was he who first talked to me of St. John of the Cross, and when, eight years later, at Seville, I came upon a copy of the first edition of the Obras Espirituales on a stall of old books in the Sierpes, and began to read, and to try to render in English, that extraordinary verse which remains, with that of S. Teresa, the finest lyrical verse which Spain has produced, I understood how much the mystic of the prose and the poet of The Unknown Eros owed to the Noche Escura and the Llama de Amor Viva. He spoke of the Catholic mystics like an explorer who has returned from the perils of far countries, with a remembering delight which he can share with few.

If Mr. Gosse is anywhere in his book unjust to Patmore it is in speaking of the later books of prose, the Religio Poetae and The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, some parts of which seem to him 'not very important except as extending our knowledge of' Patmore's 'mind, and as giving us a curious collection of the raw material of his poetry.' To this I can only reply in some words which I used in writing of the Religio Poetae, and affirm with an emphasis which I only wish to strengthen, that, here and everywhere, and never more than in the exquisite passage which Mr. Gosse only quotes to depreciate, the prose of Patmore is the prose of a poet; not prose 'incompletely executed,' and aspiring after the 'nobler order' of poetry, but adequate and achieved prose, of a very rare kind. Thought, in him, is of the very substance of poetry, and is sustained throughout at almost the lyrical pitch. There is, in these essays, a rarefied air as of the mountain-tops of meditation; and the spirit of their sometimes remote contemplation is always in one sense, as Pater has justly said of Wordsworth, impassioned. Only in the finest of his poems has he surpassed these pages of chill and ecstatic prose.

But if Patmore spoke, as he wrote, of these difficult things as a traveller speaks of the countries from which he has returned, when he spoke of poetry it was like one who speaks of his native country. At first I found it a little difficult to accustom myself to his permanent mental attitude there, with his own implied or stated pre-eminence (Tennyson and Barnes on the lower slopes, Browning vaguely in sight, the rest of his contemporaries nowhere), but, after all, there was an undisguised simplicity in it, which was better, because franker, than the more customary 'pride that apes humility,' or the still baser affectation of indifference. A man of genius, whose genius, like Patmore's, is of an intense and narrow kind, cannot possibly do justice to the work which has every merit but his own. Nor can he, when he is conscious of its equality in technical skill, be expected to discriminate between what is more or less valuable in his own work; between, that is, his own greater or less degree of inspiration. And here I may quote a letter which Patmore wrote to me, dated Lymington, December 31, 1893, about a review of mine in which I had greeted him as 'a poet, one of the most essential poets of our time,' but had ventured to say, perhaps petulantly, what I felt about a certain part of his work.

     I thank you for the copy of the Athenæum, containing your
     generous and well-written notice of 'Religio Poetae.' There is much
     in it that must needs be gratifying to me, and nothing that I feel
     disposed to complain of but your allusion to the 'dinner-table
     domesticities of the “Angel in the House.”' I think that you have
     been a little misled—as almost everybody has been—by the
     differing characters of the metres of the 'Angel' and 'Eros.' The
     meats and wines of the two are, in very great part, almost
     identical in character; but, in one case, they are served on the
     deal table of the octo-syllabic quatrain, and, in the other, they
     are spread on the fine, irregular rock of the free tetrameter.

In his own work he could see no flaw; he knew, better than any one, how nearly it answered almost everywhere to his own intention; and of his own intentions he could be no critic. It was from this standpoint of absolute satisfaction with what he had himself done that he viewed other men's work; necessarily, in the case of one so certain of himself, with a measure of dissatisfaction. He has said in print fundamentally foolish things about writers living and dead; and yet remains, if not a great critic, at least a great thinker on the first principles of art. And, in those days when I used to listen to him while he talked to me of the basis of poetry, and of metres and cadences, and of poetical methods, what meant more to me than anything he said, though not a word was without its value, was the profound religious gravity with which he treated the art of poetry, the sense he conveyed to one of his own reasoned conception of its immense importance, its divinity.

It was partly, no doubt, from this reverence for his art that Patmore wrote so rarely, and only under an impulse which could not be withstood. Even his prose was written with the same ardour and reluctance, and a letter which he wrote to me from Lymington, dated August 7, 1894, in answer to a suggestion that he should join some other writers in a contemplated memorial to Walter Pater, is literally exact in its statement of his own way of work, not only during his later life:

     I should have liked to make one of the honourable company of
     commentators upon Pater, were it not that the faculty of writing,
     or, what amounts to the same thing, interest in writing, has quite
     deserted me. Some accidental motive wind comes over me, once in a
     year or so, and I find myself able to write half a dozen pages in
     an hour or two: but all the rest of my time is hopelessly sterile.

To what was this curious difficulty or timidity in composition due? In the case of the poetry, Mr. Gosse attributes it largely to the fact of a poet of lyrical genius attempting to write only philosophical or narrative poetry; and there is much truth in the suggestion. Nothing in Patmore, except his genius, is so conspicuous as his limitations. Herrick, we may remember from his essay on Mrs. Meynell, seemed to him but 'a splendid insect'; Keats, we learn from Mr. Champneys' life, seemed to him 'to be greatly deficient in first-rate imaginative power'; Shelley 'is all unsubstantial splendour, like the transformation scene of a pantomime, or the silvered globes hung up in a gin-palace'; Blake is 'nearly all utter rubbish, with here and there not so much a gleam as a trick of genius.' All this, when he said it, had a queer kind of delightfulness, and, to those able to understand him, never seemed, as it might have seemed in any one else, mere arrogant bad taste, but a necessary part of a very narrow and very intense nature. Although Patmore was quite ready to give his opinion on any subject, whether on 'Wagner, the musical impostor,' or on 'the grinning woman, in every canvas of Leonardo,' he was singularly lacking in the critical faculty, even in regard to his own art; and this was because, in his own art, he was a poet of one idea and of one metre. He did marvellous things with that one idea and that one metre, but he saw nothing beyond them; all thought must be brought into relation with nuptial love, or it was of no interest to him, and the iambic metre must do everything that poetry need concern itself about doing.

In a memorandum for prayer made in 1861, we read this petition:

     That I may be enabled to write my poetry from immediate perception
     of the truth and delight of love at once divine and human, and that
     all events may so happen as shall best advance this my chief work
     and probable means of working out my own salvation.

In his earlier work, it is with human love only that he deals; in his later, and inconceivably finer work, it is not with human love only, but with 'the relation of the soul to Christ as his betrothed wife': 'the burning heart of the universe,' as he realises it. This conception of love, which we see developing from so tamely domestic a level to so incalculable a height of mystic rapture, possessed the whole man, throughout the whole of his life, shutting him into a 'solitude for two' which has never perhaps been apprehended with so complete a satisfaction. He was a married monk, whose monastery was the world; he came and went in the world, imagining he saw it more clearly than any one else; and, indeed, he saw things about him clearly enough, when they were remote enough from his household prejudices. But all he really ever did was to cultivate a little corner of a garden, where he brought to perfection a rare kind of flower, which some thought too pretty to be fine, and some too colourless to be beautiful, but in which he saw the seven celestial colours, faultlessly mingled, and which he took to be the image of the flower most loved by the Virgin in heaven.

Patmore was a poet profoundly learned in the technique of his art, and the Prefatory Study on English Metrical Law, which fills the first eighty-five pages of the Amelia volume of 1878, is among the subtlest and most valuable of such studies which we have in English. In this essay he praises the simplest metres for various just reasons, but yet is careful to define the 'rhyme royal,' or stanza of seven ten-syllable lines, as the most heroic of measures; and to admit that blank verse, which he never used, 'is, of all recognised English metres, the most difficult to write well in.' But, in his expressed aversion for trochaic and dactylic measures, is he not merely recording his own inability to handle them? and, in setting more and more rigorous limits to himself in his own dealing with iambic measures, is he not accepting, and making the best of, a lack of metrical flexibility? It is nothing less than extraordinary to note that, until the publication of the nine Odes in 1868, not merely was he wholly tied to the iambic measure, but even within those limits he was rarely quite so good in the four-line stanza of eights and sixes as in the four-line stanza of eights; that he was usually less good in the six-line than in the four-line stanza of eights and sixes; and that he was invariably least good in the stanza of three long lines which, to most practical intents and purposes, corresponds with this six-line stanza. The extremely slight licence which this rearrangement into longer lines affords was sufficient to disturb the balance of his cadences, and nowhere else was he capable of writing quite such lines as:

     One friend was left, a falcon, famed for beauty, skill and size,
     Kept from his fortune's ruin, for the sake of its great eyes.

All sense, not merely of the delicacy, but of the correctness of rhythm, seems to have left him suddenly, without warning.

And then, the straightening and tightening of the bonds of metre having had its due effect, an unprecedented thing occurred. In the Odes of 1868, absorbed finally into The Unknown Eros of 1877, the iambic metre is still used; but with what a new freedom, and at the summons of how liberating an inspiration! At the same time Patmore's substance is purged and his speech loosened, and, in throwing off that burden of prose stuff which had tied down the very wings of his imagination, he finds himself rising on a different movement. Never was a development in metre so spiritually significant.

In spite of Patmore's insistence to the contrary, as in the letter which I have already quoted, there is no doubt that the difference between The Angel in the House and The Unknown Eros is the difference between what is sometimes poetry in spite of itself, and what is poetry alike in accident and essence. In all his work before the Odes of 1868, Patmore had been writing down to his conception of what poetry ought to be; when, through I know not what suffering, or contemplation, or actual inner illumination, his whole soul had been possessed by this new conception of what poetry could be, he began to write as finely, and not only as neatly, as he was able. The poetry which came, came fully clothed, in a form of irregular but not lawless verse, which Mr. Gosse states was introduced into English by the Pindarique Odes of Cowley, but which may be more justly derived, as Patmore himself, in one of his prefaces, intimates, from an older and more genuine poet, Drummond of Hawthornden.

Mr. Gosse is cruel enough to say that Patmore had 'considerable affinities' with Cowley, and that 'when Patmore is languid and Cowley is unusually felicitous, it is difficult to see much difference in the form of their odes.' But Patmore, in his essay on metre, has said,

     If there is not sufficient motive power of passionate thought, no
     typographical aids will make anything of this sort of verse but
     metrical nonsense—which it nearly always is—even in Cowley, whose
     brilliant wit and ingenuity are strangely out of harmony with most
     of his measures;

and it seems to me that he is wholly right in saying so. The difference between the two is an essential one. In Patmore the cadence follows the contours of the thought or emotion, like a transparent garment; in Cowley the form is a misshapen burden, carried unsteadily. It need not surprise us that to the ears of Cowley (it is he who tells us) the verse of Pindar should have sounded 'little better than prose.' The fault of his own 'Pindarique' verse is that it is so much worse than prose. The pauses in Patmore, left as they are to be a kind of breathing, or pause for breath, may not seem to be everywhere faultless to all ears; but they are the pauses in breathing, while in Cowley the structure of his verse, when it is irregular, remains as external, as mechanical, as the couplets of the Davideis.

     Whether Patmore ever acknowledged it or no, or indeed whether [says
     Mr. Gosse] the fact has ever been observed, I know not, but the
     true analogy of the Odes is with the Italian lyric of the early
     Renaissance. It is in the writings of Petrarch and Dante, and
     especially in the Canzoniere of the former, that we must look for
     examples of the source of Patmore's later poetic form.

Here again, while there may be a closer 'analogy,' at least in spirit, there is another, and even clearer difference in form. The canzoni of Petrarch are composed in stanzas of varying, but in each case uniform, length, and every stanza corresponds precisely in metrical arrangement with every other stanza in the same canzone. In English the Epithalamion and the Prothalamion of Spenser (except for their refrain) do exactly what Petrarch had done in Italian; and whatever further analogy there may be between the spirit of Patmore's writing and that of Spenser in these two poems, the form is essentially different. The resemblance with Lycidas is closer, and closer still with the poems of Leopardi, though Patmore has not followed the Italian habit of mingling rhymed and non-rhymed verse, nor did he ever experiment, like Goethe, Heine, Matthew Arnold, and Henley, in wholly unrhymed irregular lyrical verse.

Patmore's endeavour, in The Unknown Eros, is certainly towards a form of vers libre, but it is directed only towards the variation of the normal pause in the normal English metre, the iambic 'common time,' and is therefore as strictly tied by law as a metre can possibly be when it ceases to be wholly regular. Verse literally 'free,' as it is being attempted in the present day in France, every measure being mingled, and the disentangling of them left wholly to the ear of the reader, has indeed been attempted by great metrists in many ages, but for the most part only very rarely and with extreme caution. The warning, so far, of all these failures, or momentary half-successes, is to be seen in the most monstrous and magnificent failure of the nineteenth century, the Leaves of Grass of Walt Whitman. Patmore realised that without law there can be no order, and thus no life; for life is the result of a harmony between opposites. For him, cramped as he had been by a voluntary respect for far more than the letter of the law, the discovery of a freer mode of speech was of incalculable advantage. It removed from him all temptation to that 'cleverness' which Mr. Gosse rightly finds in the handling of 'the accidents of civilised life,' the unfortunate part of his subject-matter in The Angel in the House; it allowed him to abandon himself to the poetic ecstasy, which in him was almost of the same nature as philosophy, without translating it downward into the terms of popular apprehension; it gave him a choice, formal, yet flexible means of expression for his uninterrupted contemplation of divine things.



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