The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 36. Coventry Patmore

The first writer of poetic importance between 1820 and 1830 was Matthew Arnold; but the years immediately succeeding the decade added to the list a fair number of poets who were to be of note, especially Coventry Patmore, William Allingham, Francis Turner Palgrave, George Macdonald and the very remarkable writer known as a poet chiefly under the name of Johnson and as a prose writer under that of Cory. To this group some, perhaps, would add the rather younger Gerald Massey, whose birth drew towards the thirties, William Caldwell Roscoe, Thomas Woolner and Walter Thornbury. But none of these excite either personal enthusiasm or a sense of historical importance in some minds. Thornbury’s ballads are spirited, but too often, if not always, give one the depressing feeling that if Macaulay, Maginn, Thackeray and Aytoun had not written neither would he; and they constantly sin by exaggeration. Gerald Massey’s considerable bulk of war, love and miscellaneous poetry has, sometimes, been commended on the ground that he was a self-made man, sometimes on the other ground that, like Eliza Cook, he appealed to strictly popular and uncultured tastes. But nothing that the present writer has read of Massey’s work seems anywhere near poetic “proof.” Roscoe, coming of a family distinguished (not merely by the historian) in letters, had his work ushered to the world with strong recommendations from a well-known critic, Richard Holt Hutton, who was his brother-in-law; but it has no “inevitableness” whatever and no very special poetic qualities of any kind. Thomas Woolner, the sculptor, was a member of the early pre-Raphaelite group and had many literary friends outside it. His My Beautiful Lady was received with a round of applause which did not last very long, and has seldom been echoed since. His blank verse suggests an imitation of Tennyson, conditioned by an attempt to give roughness and originality to phrase, and generally unsuccessful; his lyrics are unimportant. Whether Allingham deserves to be given any higher place than these is very doubtful. He had the fluency and ease of verse which has been again and again noticed as common in Irish poets; and some of his lighter songs and ballads, such as Lovely Mary Donnelly, are really pretty. But he has been allowed by patriotic and competent critics to be dull, tame and uninventive; one of his best shorter things, Up the Fairy Mountain, borrows its first and best stanza from one of the most beautiful of Jacobite ballads and entirely fails to live up to it; while he constantly indulged in banalities like

  • A thing more frightful than words can say.
  • Not thus can the others mentioned above be dismissed. Coventry Patmore, though a recent and comparatively accidental coterie admiration has sometimes exalted him too high, was a very remarkable poet in more ways than one. That he was one of the few poets who have given careful attention to the mechanism of poetry is the least of these ways; nor were his prosodic speculations, though interesting and ingenious, very happy. It is of more importance that his actual verse was not only of great merit as a whole, but of two kinds exceptionally different from each other. The kind of criticism—scholastic, in the worst sense only—which has never been absent when there was any criticism at all, and which has recently been present to an intolerable degree, would, no doubt, if it had the chance, decide that the same person could never have written The Angel in the House and The Unknown Eros, though the last part of the first named work, The Victories of Love, might be a saving stepping stone to a few brighter spirits.

    The Angel in the House first appeared in 1854 and may be said to be—like Matthew Arnold’s nearly contemporary work in one direction and that of the spasmodics in another—a kind of half-conscious, half-unconscious revolt against both Tennyson and Browning, but especially against the former. Revolt, indeed, may seem too fierce a word for the mild domesticities of Patmore’s poem; some critical stand might even be made for the contention actually made, that it is a direct development of more than one of Tennyson’s poems, especially The Miller’s Daughter. But development itself has, in the language of the Articles as to another matter, often something “of the nature of” revolt; it indicates, at any rate, want of complete satisfaction. The poem contained, even at the first, much very pretty verse; as it went on, it was to contain not a little that is positively beautiful. But its ambling versification—somniferous to some of those whom it did not merely please, and positively irritating to others—the deliberate banality of the subject; and the equally deliberate adoption of language outgoing even Wordsworth, even Crabbe, in its avoidance of poetic diction, though they conciliated a large part of contemporary taste, produced a by no means conciliatory effect upon another part which, in the long run, has prevailed. When a man writes

  • Our witnesses the cook and groom,
  • We signed the lease for seven years more,
  • it is not unreasonable to think that Apollo, if he thought it worth his while, must have twitched the poet’s ear rather sharply and that attention should have been paid to the twitch. The scornful allusion “idylls of the dining-room and the deanery,” though its author, Swinburne, was courteous enough not to name the idyllist, expressed a good deal of the younger and youngest opinion of the time. Many years later, after changes of family, faith and circumstance, Patmore produced a book of odes, entitled The Unknown Eros, which, as was said above, might, but for certain evidence, have seemed the work of an entirely different person. Instead of the regular and too often monotonous flow of the Angel poems, abrupt Pindaric measures were tried, challenging, and sometimes attaining, splendour but, at the same time, risking—and sometimes falling into—harshness and dissonance. The simple, almost lisping language was changed, likewise (indeed, some hint had been given of this in The Victories), into a grandiose diction, sometimes violent and bombastic, but, at other times, really grand; and the subjects, instead of being those of ordinary and domestic prattle—“personal talk” of the most commonplace kind—were always elevated or deeply pathetic, at least in intention. It was as if someone who had threatened to sink to the level of Ambrose Philips had changed his models to Donne, Vaughan, Milton, even Aeschylus. It is true that, as Patmore had seldom fallen into actual silliness, so he rarely rose to actual sublimity; but he did reach it sometimes and often came very near it. And it must be admitted that such a combination of parts and scales in poetry is a curious and, perhaps, a unique thing.