Monday, February 16, 2015

Alas, and is not mine a language dead? - Coventry Patmore, prophet who can sing

I have to write up Coventry Patmore now or I will forget what I meant to say.  He will be hard to remember.

Patmore is a dying poet.  Checking the MLA International Bibliography I find an article a year for the past fifteen years, the last gasps before death.  About half of the references are to The Angel in the House (1854-63), the once-popular domestic epic that through Virginia Woolf has given its name to a certain conception of the Victorian ideal of femininity.  Patmore can stay alive a while longer as a punching bag for feminists, but when they tire of him, that’ll be it.

I have never read more than a few lines from The Angel in the House.  It gives off a strong whiff of kitsch.  This excerpt is not bad.  The next generation of poets preferred a later work, the forty-three odes collected as The Unknown Eros (1877), so I read that.  At first, I was a little worried, although I enjoyed Patmore’s ragged music:

from Wind and Wave

The wedded light and heat,
Winnowing the witless space,
Without a let,
What are they till they beat
Against the sleepy sod, and there beget
Perchance the violet!

Nature, gooey love poems, religious poems, an adorable poem in which the poet strikes his child and feels bad about it (“The Toys”), and, incongruently, some angry political poems, or religious poems that are actually political. I finally began to catch on to what Patmore was doing at the 18th ode, “The Two Deserts”:

View’d close, the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.

The poem is anti-astronomy.  Patmore, the representative Victorian, is actually a raving lunatic, criticizing the moon.  In reality, aside from his Catholicism, he probably was pretty conventional, but merely sounds like a lost prophet due to the intensifying nature of the ode.

from ‘Sing Us One of the Songs of Sion’

How sing the Lord’s Song in so strange a Land?
A torrid waste of water-mocking sand;
Oases of wild grapes;
A dull, malodorous fog
O’er a once Sacred River’s wandering strand,
Its ancient tillage all gone back to bog;
A busy synod of blest cats and apes
Exposing the poor trick of earth and star
With worshipp’d snouts oracular…

There he goes after astronomy again.  This is, I remind myself, an attack by a Catholic on England and Anglicans who will respond to Patmore with “jeers / Or howls, such as sweet music draws from dog.”  Better to be, Patmore says sarcastically, one of the “Prophets Who Cannot Sing”:

Therefore no longer let us stretch our throats
Till hoarse as frogs
With straining after notes
Which but to touch would burst an organ-pipe.
Far better be dumb dogs.

And then this is followed by a sweet if odd poem, “The Child’s Purchase,” that begins with a child returning his allowance to his mother in exchange for a kiss and ends with what I take to be another song to his deceased ex-wife, the subject of The Angel of the House, who has become in death a kind of Beatrice figure, merged with the Virgin Mary but somehow distinct enough to make it unclear from whom the poet is asking for intercession.

I hope to read this book again someday.  I can see why Patmore had some champions.  I can see why there are not many left.

The title is the last line of The Unknown Eros, not so very far out of context.


  1. Time's judgment is ruthless and brutal. After the shared topicality of an age is forgotten, so are the poets who wrote about those topics and had little universal or new to provide to the readers of the future, those darlings of Whitman.

    A Dream of Judgement

    Posterity, thy name is Samuel Johnson.
    You sit on a velvet cushion on a varnished throne
    Shaking your head sideways, saying No,
    Definitely no, to all the books held up to you.
    Licking your boots is a small Scotsman
    Who looks like Boswell, but is really me.
    You go on saying No, quite definitely no,
    Adjusting the small volume of Horace
    Under your wig and spitting in anger
    At the portrait of Blake Swift is holding up.
    Quite gently, Pope ushers me out into the hell
    Of forgotten books. nearby, teasingly,
    In the dustless heaven of the Classics,
    There is singing of morals in Latin and Greek.

  2. People still gotta try, though; because we never know, you may be Emily Dickinson or... Carlos Argentino Daneri.

    Annamaya, a Telugu poet so great that 12,000 of his poems were engraved on copper plates inside temples to preserve them for posterity, wrote mockingly about lesser poets and imitators, ‘So you want to be poets, you idiots? Try basket weaving.’

    Little did Annamacharya know (or maybe he did), that, at the same time he was writing those lines, there was a basket weaver writing poems even greater than Annamayya's poems. Even more amazingly, it's possible that all of Kabir's thousands of surviving poems were written by imitators and lesser poets, not by Kabir himself.

  3. All things considered, Patmore has done pretty well, although the 1949 introduction to my edition had already gotten awfully defensive.

    Patmore's odes seem like they would be fun to decide more than I did. Not that I wouldn't trade him and George Darley, too, for a Thomas Lovell-Beddoes revival.

    Maybe I should do a Lovell-Beddoes week.

    Nobody I mentioned is going to last as long as Kabir!