Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Patmore, Coventry Kersey Dighton
PATMORE, COVENTRY KERSEY DIGHTON (1823–1896), poet, the eldest son of Peter George Patmore [q. v.], was born at Woodford in Essex on 23 July 1823. He was educated privately and with no view to any special profession; in the main his own teacher, but, as he warmly acknowledged, profiting greatly by his father's precepts as regarded English literature. In 1839 he spent six months at a French school at St. Germains. Upon his return he addicted himself for a time to scientific pursuits, and afterwards thought of taking holy orders, but was discouraged partly by his father's inability to support him at the university, partly by scruples relating solely to the position of the church of England; for, although his father was a free-thinker, his own studies and reflections had already reconciled him to orthodox Christianity. He had begun to write poetry in 1840, and in 1844 published a slender volume containing, with minor pieces, four narrative poems: 'The River,' 'The Woodman's Daughter,' 'Lilian,' and 'Sir Hubert,' strikingly original and individual in style and thought, though not without traces of Tennyson and Coleridge. As narratives they are wholly uninteresting, almost vapid; but the weakness of construction is relieved by strokes of psychological insight and descriptive power altogether surprising at the author's age. In many respects the volume anticipated the principles and the work of the pre-Raphaelites in another sphere of art, and paved the way for the writer's subsequent relations with the leaders of that movement. It brought a letter of warm praise and sound advice from Bulwer, and an absurd denunciation enlivened by a clever parody from 'Blackwood,' but otherwise attracted little notice beyond the author's own circle.
In the following year (1845) the embarrassment of Patmore's father, due to unfortunate railway speculations, threw him entirely upon his own resources. Up to this time his circumstances had been good, and he had made no serious effort to earn a living. He now earned a scanty subsistence by translations and contributions to periodicals until, in November 1846, the recommendation of Richard Monckton Milnes (afterwards Lord Houghton) [q. v.], at the instance of Mrs. Procter, obtained for him an appointment as assistant in the printed book department of the British Museum. The post was congenial to Patmore, and he proved himself highly efficient. He appears to have about this time assisted Milnes in the preparation of the 'Life and Letters of Keats' (1848), but to what extent is difficult to determine. No part of it can have been written by him. Feeling now comparatively at ease in his circumstances, he married, in September 1847, Emily Augusta Andrews (b. 29 Feb. 1824), daughter of a congregationalist minister, a lady possessed of mental and personal charms far beyond the common, and a model of gracious geniality and clear common sense. She was herself the author of some small useful books, under the pseudonym of 'Mrs. Motherly,' and assisted her husband in the compilation of his excellent collection of poetry for children, 'The Children's Garland,' published in 1862. The union was most happy, although the cares and expenses of an increasing family, and, after a time, of Mrs. Patmore's declining health, frequently made Patmore's situation one of considerable anxiety. He never compromised his independence, and laboured hard to provide for his family by writing in reviews, especially the 'Edinburgh' and 'North British,' efforts the more creditable as the work was uncongenial to him. He wanted the first qualification of a literary-critic, sympathy with his author. An egotist and a mystic, he could take no vital interest in any one's ideas but his own, and hence his treatment of other authors is in general unsatisfactory: while his fine taste, intuitive insight, and careful study of aesthetic laws frequently render his isolated observations of great value. One exception to this habitual indifference to other men's work was the admiration he at this time entertained for Tennyson, with whom he had as much intercourse as the elder poet's distance from town and dislike to letter-writing would allow. Another friendship, which had more important results, was his acquaintance with Ruskin. who had been the pupil of Mrs. Patmore's father; Ruskin's enthusiasm for architecture was fully shared by Patmore, who wrote on this subject with far more enjoyment and spontaneity than upon literature. Patmore had made in 1849 the acquaintance of the pre-Raphaelite group of artists, with whom he had much in common, and to whose organ, 'The Germ,' he contributed a remarkable essay on Macbeth, as well as verses. They were almost succumbing to the universal hostility aroused by their originality and their peculiarities, when, at Patmore's prompting, Ruskin wrote the memorable letter to the 'Times' which turned the tide of public opinion. Another important service rendered by Patmore was his promotion of the volunteer movement after Louis Napoleon's coup d'état in December 1851. Others came forward simultaneously, but the idea was original with him. Meanwhile neither private cares nor public interests had interrupted Patmore's poetical work. In 1858 he published 'Tamerton Church Tower,' which he had begun as early as 1848. Like his former productions, it is a narrative poem, and as such quite pointless and uninteresting, but full of exquisite vignettes of scenery. The volume, which reached a second edition in the same year, included revised versions of the poems of 1844 and new pieces, some of great beauty. Among these were specimens of 'The Angel in the House,' the long poem now occupying all the time and thought he could devote to it, and designed to be the apotheosis of married love. The first part, 'The Betrothal,' was published anonymously in 1854. The anonymity was owing to Patmore's alarm at the unfavourable reception of his father's book, 'My Friends and Acquaintance,' published earlier in the same year. The name alone, he fancied, would condemn him; although, as portions of the poem had already appeared in 'Tamerton Church Tower,' his precaution was in reality quite futile. It would have been wiser to disarm criticism by removing the numerous trivialities which disfigured a beautiful poem; but this could not be expected, for Patmore could not see them. He had no perception of the sublime in other men's writings or of the ridiculous in his own. The great writers whom he sincerely admired were admired by him for any other quality than their grandeur ; and although the reverse of conceited as regarded his own works, and continually labouring to amend their defects, the worst defect they had was never admitted by him. Although, however, the 'Angel's' occasional lapses into bathos afforded a handle to detractors, the voice of the higher criticism was always for it. Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin, Carlyle were lavish of sincere praise, and even its commercial success (though the author himself was disappointed) was greater than could have been reasonably expected in the case of a book so entirely original and so devoid of meretricious allurement. 'The Betrothal' was followed in 1856 by 'The Espousals' (new editions of both parts appeared in 1858, 1863 two ed., and 1866) ; in 1860 by 'Faithful for Ever,' a poem of disappointed love ; and in 1862 by 'The Victories of Love,' a poem of bereavement. In the collected edition of his works 'Faithful for Ever' was amalgamated with 'The Victories of Love.' It must be said that the quality of poetical achievement went on decrescendo, though there are exceedingly fine things in 'Faithful for Ever.' The four poems nevertheless constitute among them such a body of deep and tender and truly poetical thought on love and lovers, embellished with charming pictures of English scenery and household life, as no other poet has given us. The obvious and unanswerable criticism is that the poet's professed subject of married life is only approached in the least successful parts of the poem, and hardly grappled with even there. The reason is plain: its domesticities were found incapable of poetical treatment.
If Patmore retained any desire to pursue the subject of connubiality further, it must have been checked by his irreparable loss in the death of his wife on 5 July 1862. She had long been sinking from consumption, and her life had been prolonged only by his devoted care. She left him three sons and three daughters. His feelings found an inadequate expression in 'The Victories of Love, but he had reached the turning-point of his career, and the break with his past was irreparable. He went abroad for his health, embraced (1864) the Roman catholic religion, which he would probably have professed many years earlier but for the influence of his wife, and found a second mate in Marianne Caroline Byles (b. 23 June 1822), a lady of noble though reserved manners, and singular moral excellence. His family followed his example, and with the exception of two sons old enough to go forth into life, and a daughter who after a while entered a convent, remained under his roof. He retired from the British Museum, and, after short residences in Hampstead and Highgate, bought the estate to which he gave the name of Heron's Ghyll, near Uckfield in Sussex. This he so improved by building and planting as to be able after some years to dispose of it at a greatly enhanced price. He then settled at The Mansion, Hastings, a fine old house which had attracted his fancy when a child. Tranquillity and retirement had brought back the poetical impulse; in 1868 he had printed for private circulation nine odes, remarkable alike for their poetry and for their metrical structure, or rather, perhaps, their musical beauty in the absence of definite metrical form. They may be regarded as rhythmical voluntaries, in which the length of the lines and the incidence of the rhymes are solely determined by the writer's instinctive perception of the requirements of harmony, and the rich and varied music thusattained contrasted no less strikingly with the metrical simplicity of 'The Angel in the House' than did the frequent loftiness of the thoughts and audacity of the diction with the quiet feeling and unostentatious depth of the earlier work. Other similar compositions were gradually added, and in the collective edition of the poet's works in 1877 the whole took shape as 'The Unknown Eros and other Odes' (another edit. 1878 ; 3rd edit. 1890), forty-two odes in two books. It is not likely that these will ever attain the popularity eventually won by 'The Angel in the House,' nor are they nearly so well adapted for ' human nature's daily food.' But they frequently exhibit the poet at greater heights than he had reached before, or without them would have been deemed capable of reaching ; and the lofty themes and fine metrical form have in general acted as an antidote to his worst defect, his tendency to lapse into prose. The effusions of inward feeling, frequently most pathetic in expression, and the descriptions of external nature, of mirrorlike fidelity, are alike admirable, and often transcendently beautiful. The weak parts are the expressions of political and ecclesiastical antipathies, mere splenetic outbursts alike devoid of veracity and of dignity ; and a few mystical pieces in which, endeavouring to express things incapable of expression, the poet has only accumulated glittering but frigid conceits. The gulf between 'The Angel in the House' and the 'Odes' is partly filled by 'Amelia,' first published in 1878, an exquisite little idyll akin to the former in subject, and to the latter in metrical structure, and not unjustly esteemed by the author his most perfect work. He meditated a much more ambitious poem, which, taking the Virgin for its theme, was to have embodied his deepest convictions on things divine and human. Finding the necessary inspiration denied, he recorded his thoughts in a prose volume entitled 'Sponsa Dei,' which he ultimately destroyed, professedly upon a hint from a Jesuit that he was divulging to the uninitiated what was intended for the elect, but in reality, no doubt, because he had failed to satisfy himself; and partly, perhaps, from apprehension of censure in his own communion. His relations with the church of which he had become a member were curious ; he detested and despised her official head in his own country, abused the priesthood as individuals, and made no point of the pope's temporal power, while he performed four pilgrimages to Lourdes, and desired to be buried in the garb of a Franciscan friar. There can be no question of the perfect sincerity of his Roman catholic profession, and as little that this was but the exterior manifestation of the mysticism which, as he tells us in an interesting autobiographical fragment, had possessed his being from his youth. Patmore's latter years passed in tranquillity, except for family bereavements. In 1880 he lost his second wife, in memory of whom he erected an imposing Roman catholic church at Hastings, designed by Mr. Basil Champneys, afterwards his biographer. In 1882 his daughter Emily died, and in 1883 his son Henry (see below). In 1881 he married Miss Harriet Robson, by whom he had a son. In 1891 a change in the ownership of his Hastings residence obliged him to remove, and he settled at Lymington. His poetical works had been definitively collected in 1886, with a valuable appendix on English metrical law, enlarged from an early essay in the 'North British Review.' In 1877 he wrote a memoir of his old friend Bryan Waller Procter [q. v.], at the desire of Mrs. Procter. About 1885 he became a frequent contributor of essays and reviews to the 'St. James's Gazette,' then edited by his intimate friend, Mr. Frederick Greenwood. Selections from these contributions, with additions from other sources, were published in 1889 and 1893, under the respective titles of 'Principle in Art' and 'Religio Poetae.' In 1895 Patmore published 'Rod, Root, and Flower,' observations and meditations, chiefly on religious subjects, which probably embody much of the destroyed 'Sponsa Dei.' He died at Lymington after a brief attack of pneumonia on 26 Nov. 1896.
Patmore's character was curiously unlike the idea of it generally derived from 'The Angel in the House.' Instead of an insipid amiability, his dominant characteristic was a rugged angularity, steeped in Rembrandt-like contrasts of light and gloom. Haughty, imperious, combative, sardonic, he was at the same time sensitive, susceptible, and capable of deep tenderness. He was at once magnanimous and rancorous ; egotistic and capriciously generous ; acute and credulous ; nobly veracious and prone to the wildest exaggerations, partly imputable to the exuberance of his quaint humour. His capacity for business was as remarkable as his intellectual strength, and was not like this warped and flawed by eccentricity. This inequality of character is reflected in his poetry. No one had sounder views on the laws of art, no one strove more earnestly after worthiness of subject and unity of impression, and yet the themes of all his objective poems are trivial orunsuited to his purpose, and his subjective pieces, with few exceptions, attract chiefly by the beauty of isolated details. He was the last man to write, as he aspired to do, the poem of his age, but no contemporary poet offers such a multitude of thoughts 'as clear as truth, as strong as light,' and descriptions of exquisite charm and photographic accuracy, easily detached from their context and remembered for their own sakes. His prose style, without attaining to eloquence, which he never attempted, is a pattern of dignified simplicity, and of lucidity slightly tinted by the hues of feeling. His critical powers were of the highest, but were impaired by his besetting sin of egotism. A few of the greatest writers excepted, he could take no strong interest in any man's work but his own; his attitude towards other men's ideas was that of Omar towards the Alexandrian library, and his essays on their writings affect with a painful sense of inadequacy. They are, nevertheless, well worth reading for the detached remarks, often most subtle and penetrating. His religious and moral aphorisms also have much worth: and this is even more true of those casually expressed in the fragments of correspondence published by Mr. Champneys than of those which he himself gave to the world. In other departments of thought he is little better than a wasted force, chiefly on account of his disharmony with his own age.
Patmore's portrait, painted in 1894 by Mr. J. S. Sargent, R.A., is in the National Portrait Gallery. Several other portraits, as well as likenesses of members of his family, are reproduced in Mr. Champnevs's biography.
Henry John Patmore (1860–1883), the youngest son of Coventry Patmore by his first wife, was born on 8 May 1860. He was chiefly educated at Ushaw College, where he obtained numerous prizes, but which, to judge by his youthful letters published by Mr. Champneys, cannot have done much to stimulate his intellectual powers. Apparently, however, this childishness was but, in Emersonian phrase, 'the screen and sheath in which Pan protects his well-beloved flower;' for the little poems published after his death are not only excellent in themselves, but constitute a psychical phenomenon. They possess in an eminent degree those qualities of ease, symmetry, and finish which are usually the last to be expected in the work of so young a man; they are sufficiently like the elder Patmore's work to seem almost written by him, while yet differentiated from his by a subtle and indefinable aroma of their own. That Henry Patmore would have proved a charming lyrical poet can hardly be doubted ; whether he would have been anything more can scarcely be conjectured in the absence of any clear evidence how far his limitations were natural, and how far due to a mistaken system of education. His health had always been feeble, and, debilitated by a serious illness in 1881, he succumbed, on 24 Feb. 1883, to an attack of pleurisy. A selection from his poems was privately printed at Mr. Daniell's Oxford press, and partly incorporated with the edition of his father's works published in 1886.
[Almost all attainable information respecting Patmore is to be found in the Memoirs and Correspondence (1900), edited by his friend Mr. Basil Champneys. Mr. Edmund Gosse has contributed two highly interesting papers of recollections to the Contemporary Review (January 1897) and North American Review (March 1897). Selections from Patmore's poetry, respectively entitled 'Florilegium Amantis' (1879) and ' Poetry of Pathos and Delight,' have been edited by Dr. R. Garnett, C.B., and by Mrs. Meynell.]