The Burns Library owns a significant collection of Coventry Patmore Papers. Patmore (July 23, 1823 – November 26, 1896), a prominent literary figure, was for a short period one of the most widely read poets in England, though as the nineteenth century progressed his poetry was less and less appreciated. Raised in a literary home, his father a well-known man of letters, Patmore from early on was interested in art. His copy of one of Landseer’s pictures was awarded the silver palette of the Royal Society of Arts in 1838. He was only fourteen. He also developed a strong interest in science as a youth, his father even building him his own laboratory. Strongly influenced by Tennyson’s 1842 collected poems, Patmore in 1844 published his first book of poetry, Poems. Though well received by some, including Leigh Hunt, Robert Browning, and Bulwer Lytton, it was savagely reviewed by Blackwood’s Magazine: “This is the life into which the slime of the Keateses and Shelleys of former times has fecundated.” It is clear that Patmore himself later considered that these early poems were somewhat weak as he did not include any in his four volume collected poems published in 1879.
In 1846 Monckton Milnes helped Patmore secure a post as a supernumerary assistant in the Department of the Printed Books in the British Museum, a post he held until 1865. The Angel in the House was Patmore’s first major poetical work. This was composed of four volumes: The Betrothal (1854), The Espousals (1856), Faithful for Ever (1860), and The Victories of Love (1863). This poetry, a paean to his first wife Emily Augusta Andrews, had as its primary subject the pleasures of an ideal marriage. Though received very well by the Victorians as the ideal of married love-over a quarter million copies had been sold by Patmore’s death-it has been often criticized, for example by Virginia Woolf, as being sexist and contributing to the subordination of women. However, John Maynard observes that this subsequent vilification of Patmore is somewhat unfair, as his views were quite common in his day. Still, though Angel in the House has distinct poetic virtuosity, its frequent mawkishness renders its appeal to be limited for today’s readers.
Soon after Emily died in 1862 leaving Patmore with six young children, he traveled to Rome where he converted to Catholicism. In 1864 he remarried. His new wife, Marianne Caroline Byles, another Catholic convert, brought financial security to Patmore that allowed him to retire from his British Museum position and devote the remainder of his life to literary pursuits. In 1877 Patmore published the elegiac The Unknown Eros, and Other Odes whose themes center on the nature of both human love and the higher love of God. In the same year he visited Lourdes and made a number of retreats. In 1878 he published another series of narrative love poems, Amelia, reputably his favorite set of poems. At about this time Patmore became deep friends with the poet Alice Meynell who was a fervent champion of his poetry. However, after Patmore began to wish that the friendship become more than platonic, Meynell withdrew. (Burns Library has an important collection of Meynell’s papers including a scrapbook of articles, reviews, and poems, poetry and prose manuscripts, and correspondence. Burns also has a selection of Derek Patmore’s papers which contain the very interesting hand-written account by Derek Patmore, Coventry’s great grandson, “Coventry Patmore’s Unhappy Love for Alice Meynell”). A year and a half after Marianne died in 1880 Patmore married his third wife Harriet Georgina Robson who bore him his seventh child. Patmore died on 26 November, 1896.
Among the Patmore manuscripts in Burns is a beautiful, privately printed, green colored copy of Amelia that is inscribed to Edmund Gosse. Its multi-colored title page adorned with roses is particularly fine. There are signed manuscripts of “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Let Be,” and “Wind and Wave”, the third, fourth and ninth sections respectively of The Unknown Eros. There is also a signed manuscript of Patmore’s prose essay “Dieu et Ma Dame,” the last chapter of his Religio Poetae. In addition, the Burns material includes signed manuscripts of the essays “On Obscure Books” and “Peace in Life and Art.” The papers also include an unsigned manuscript of Patmore’s major poetical work The Unknown Eros. Patmore is, of course, best known today as a poet and man of letters. However, his interest in science was serious. Among the Burns material is a fascinating hand-written notebook detailing his scientific thoughts for the years 1839 to 1843. The first page heading reads: “Original Notes on Chemistry and General Science by C. K. D. Patmore”. Also among the papers is a very interesting undated hand-written “Notes of Conversation” which are Patmore’s own autobiographical notes. The opening sentence catches the eye: “Until I was about eleven years old, I was what is now called an “agnostic”, that is, I neither knew nor cared whether there was a God or no.”
Also among the Burns Patmore papers is a variorum edition in scrapbook form of Angel in the House collated with the manuscript by Shane Leslie. This includes several handwritten pages of commentary by Leslie. This is essentially an encomium of Patmore together with mordant criticism from some of Patmore’s contemporaries. Of Angel in the House, Leslie writes:
Of that marvelous Epic, the supreme matrimonial classic, the several delight of Emerson, Carlyle, Newman and Ruskin, little remains to be said. Tennyson solemnly declared that it was ‘an immortal poem’ adding to the world’s slight store of great poetry. It was a poem needing a lover’s as well as a husband’s appreciation. It was more than Ruskin’s ‘sweet analysis of quiet domestic feeling,’ for Ruskin was scarcely a lover or a husband. Still less Carlyle, who only found what was ‘quaintly comfortable’ therein. It needed a woman to see the passages were ‘so poignant that their pain and pleasure are more than the reader expects from poetry, more than many a reader expects from life.’ Yet no poet was more ridiculed among the Victorians.
Leslie goes on to lampoon Swinburne who was deeply critical of Angel in the House:
Swinburne, who hymned lascivious leanings and was incapable of love either sacred or profane, wrote a comic version of the Angel in the same taste that might produce a comic Prayer Book. The poet’s reply to parody was sublime. He wrote the Odes which defy parody. The Unknown Eros left Swinburne panting in his gilded brothel…
The numerous letters both to and from Coventry Patmore are among the most interesting items in the Burns papers. These include correspondence to Patmore from Robert Bridges, Aubrey Thomas De Vere, Alexander Kinglake, Henry Kingsley, John Henry Newman, Francis Turner Palgrave, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Spedding and correspondence from Patmore to William Allingham, Havelock Ellis, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, John Ruskin, and Francis Thompson. The content of the letters is naturally very varied. Nathaniel Hawthorne thanks Patmore in 1858 for the gift of an edition of his poems. Ruskin writes saying how much he delights in one of Patmore’s poems. Tennyson, mentioning that he has a fowl and a bottle of sherry ready, asks Patmore to dine with him that evening. In September 1851 John Everett Millais who was painting a portrait of Patmore’s first wife Emily wrote to him:
I shall be in town the end of this week and will finish what is wanting to Mrs. Patmore’s portrait. I shall return again to this place, where we hope to entertain you some day in this coming month. You will I am sure be delighted with the house and country about it. If I should not happen to meet you, you shall have a clear written direction how to find us out. I have finished the background for Ophelia, and hope to commence another scene next week. I have been reading In Memoriam and it appears to me to be the most Godlike work since the Bible.
Rossetti in an undated letter to Patmore writes:
I have not been very well-at least, have been suffering continual pain from quite a week from neuralgia. I should before this have written to you and returned the proofs. I hope that I’m getting better now-though not quite yet…
I have still to thank you for all the pleasure the Espousals have given me. This volume I think has some decided advantages in form over the first, and there is more incident and variety of character. As poetry, the whole is simply admirable of its kind, and aught not to be talked of from the technical point of view, being too complete as art to need entering upon in that way.
On 6 February, 1875 Matthew Arnold wrote to Patmore about a mix-up regarding the latter’s address:
I got your note on my return home late last night. I should be very glad to see you again, and very glad to meet Mr Worsley, whom I missed, I am sorry to say, when he called upon me; and last night I fully intended to look in for an hour this evening, though not before nine o’clock, as I am engaged to dinner at 7. But now comes my difficulty: this morning your note can nowhere be found, and after a long search I am obliged to come to the conclusion that the housemaid has burnt it. I remember your street, and therefore I hope this will reach you, but I cannot remember your number, and your name is not in the new Court Guide. So, if this reaches you by 1 or 2 o’clock pray let me have one line to say to what number I am to come; if I do not hear from you, and do not arrive, you will know the reason. In that case give my very kind regards to Mr Worsley.
On 15 Oct, 1892 Patmore wrote to Edmund Gosse about consideration for the Poet Laureateship:
Thank you for your very friendly mention of me in your article on the Laureateship. I have always considered it to be so out of the question that it should be offered to me that I have never even considered what I should do if it were. I am glad that you advocate the claims of Austin Dobson. His appointment would satisfy every body. Certainly it would me.
I missed meeting you at Tennyson’s funeral by the accident of the invitation reaching me too late. I was staying in London, and the ticket was sent to Hastings and thence to Lymington, and thence to Town, where it found me just an hour too late.
The Burns Patmore Collection also contains numerous other letters neither to nor from Patmore. These include letters from Matthew Arnold, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas DeQuincey, James Anthony Froude, James Leigh Hunt, William Savage Landor, Frederick Marryat, Walter Horatio Pater, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Alfred Tennyson, among many others.
Coventry Patmore is one of the least known Victorian poets and writers today. Some critics argue that this is unfair as his work, despite certain subject matter that was probably more congenial to earlier Victorian readers, deserves wider attention. It is also high time that a new biography be written of this complex literary figure. For anyone wishing to be become better acquainted with Patmore and his work, his papers in Burns Library are an excellent place to start. To learn more, read the finding aid for the Coventry Patmore Collection or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Brendan Rapple, Collection Development Librarian, O’Neill Library