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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Coventry Patmore (1823–1896)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)
COVENTRY KEARSEY DEIGHTON PATMORE was born at Woodford, in Essex, England, on July 23d, 1823. The best impression of the personality of this distinguished man may be found in the pages of the Contemporary Review. It was written by Edmund Gosse shortly after Patmore’s death, which occurred in December 1896. It gives real insight into the character and accidental peculiarities of a great psychological interpreter.  1
  In the last ten years, Patmore’s intention and quality have begun once more to receive deserved attention and appreciation, attracted principally by his ‘Odes’ (in ‘The Unknown Eros’) and the strong mystical characteristics of his prose essays, ‘Principles in Art’ and ‘Religio Poetæ.’  2
  Patmore’s ‘Poems’ (1844) attracted the attention of Lord Houghton. They pleased the Pre-Raphaelites, to whom he was introduced by Tennyson; and he contributed ‘The Seasons’ to The Germ, which was the organ of Rossetti and his colleagues. Patmore’s poetic road was not smooth. ‘The Angel in the House’ had what Mr. Gosse calls a “rustic success.” After that it became, in the mind of most readers, a work to be classed with Mr. Tupper’s ‘Proverbial Philosophy.’ It included ‘Tamerton Church Tower’ (1853), ‘The Betrothal’ (1854), and ‘The Espousal’ (1856); the two latter he printed in ‘The Angel in the House’ (1858), to which he afterwards added ‘Faithful Forever’ (1860) and ‘The Victories of Love’ (1863). Then came ‘Amelia’ and ‘The Unknown Eros’ (1877).  3
  His important prose works are ‘Principles in Art’ (1889), ‘Religio Poetæ’ (1893), and ‘The Rod, the Root, and the Flower’ (1895). Mr. Gosse laments the destruction of ‘Sponsa Dei,’ a “vanished masterpiece, not very long, but polished and modulated to the highest degree of perfection.”  4
  The reason why the sensitive and singular poet destroyed ‘Sponsa Dei’ may be inferred from the underlying motive of much of ‘The Unknown Eros.’ He was a mystic; he dwelt on the heights with St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa, and the English poet Crashaw. And his favorite theme was the spiritual beauty of the body redeemed by Christ from degradation. He found in the sacramental union of man and wife the truest and most glowing symbol of the union of God and man; as he says in his ‘Scire Te Ipsum,’—
  “God, Youth, and Goddess, one, twain, trine,
In altering wedlock, flamed benign.”
  If men knew the Christian mystics better, or many were able to comprehend them, the ‘Sponsa Dei,’ which concerned itself with human love as typical of the Divine, would not shock “the general reader.” But though Patmore had a deep contempt for this undistinguished person, his conscience was scrupulous when it came to consider the moral effect of his beautiful revelation upon the weaker brethren, and so the last of his works was destroyed.  6
  In his essay on ‘Love and Poetry’ in ‘Principles in Art,’ he expresses his sense of the relation of human love to life:—
          “Every man and woman who has not denied or falsified nature knows, or at any rate feels, that love, though the least ‘serious,’ is the most significant of all things. The wise do not talk much about this knowledge, for fear of exposing its delicate edge to the stolid resistance of the profligate and unbelieving; and because its light, though, and for the reason that, it exceeds all others, is deficient in definition. But they see that to this momentary transfiguration of life all that is best in them looks forward or looks back, and that it is for this the race exists, and not this for the race,—the seed for the flower, not the flower for the seed. All religions have sanctified this love, and have found in it their one word for and image of their fondest and highest hopes; and the Catholic has exalted it into a ‘great sacrament,’ holding that, with Transubstantiation,—which it resembles,—it is only unreasonable because it is above reason…. Nothing can reconcile the intimacies of love to the higher feelings, unless the parties to them are conscious—and true lovers always are—that for the season at least, they justify the words, ‘I have said, Ye are gods.’ Nuptial love bears the clearest marks of being nothing other than the rehearsal of a communion of a higher nature.”
  The poet who interprets this love is a seer, a mystic,—one who knows the meaning of hidden things, the heart of the mysteries; and “perfect poetry and song are in fact nothing more than perfect speech upon high and moving objects.” Thus Patmore speaks in his essay on ‘English Metrical Law.’ He earnestly believed it; and though he was not in love with modern scientific methods, he was willing to put the form of poetry to any test, in order that the divinity of its spirit might be better understood and expressed. “With this reprint I believe,” he says, in the preface to the fifth collective edition of his ‘Poetical Works,’ “that I am closing my task as a poet, having traversed the ground and reached the end which in my youth I saw before me. I have written little, but it is all my best; I have never spoken when I had nothing to say, nor spared time or labor 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.”  8
  Time has begun to show that Patmore had ground for his hope. The peculiar management of the catalexis in his odes has repelled many who do not seriously consider the relations of music and rhythm, to whom psychology as applied to poetical form does not appeal; and the boldness of his images, invariably borrowed from the Scriptures, or the mystical outpourings of saints madly ecstatic with Divine love, shocks folk brought up in those modern ideas of purity which he condemns. In his prose—marvelously effective and condensed—he is at times arrogant, intolerant, and always he is a reckless Tory. Nevertheless his poetry and prose are treasures, the value of which is becoming more and more apparent every day. With the author of ‘Religio Medici,’ the writer of ‘Religio Poetæ’ hated the multitude; he wrote only for the elect; and probably it would not please him if he knew that his fame is so rapidly spreading, that there are those of the multitude who respect and admire more in his work than ‘The Toys,’—which long ago seized the popular heart, though constructed on that catalectic method which has caused some critics to pause when they had expected to go on admiring.  9
  Coventry Patmore assisted Lord Houghton in editing the ‘Life and Letters of Keats’ (1848); he wrote a curious pamphlet, ‘How I Managed my Estate’ (1886); the ‘Life of Bryan Waller Procter’ (1877); and part of a translation from A. Bernard on the ‘Love of God’ (1881).  10
  His odes revive a quality not found in English poetry since Crashaw; and his prose has, above all, that distinction which he so loved. He is fervent, sincere, exalted; and if we do not understand him in his highest moods, it is because we have not yet learned to look with undazzled eyes at the very face of the sun.  11

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