A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirty-six
MID-VICTORIAN POETRY

(3) PATMORE, THOMSON, AND OTHER MINORS

COVENTRY PATMORE ( 1823-1896) had no childish faith to lose, for he was brought up without religion, until, at the age of eleven, or so he tells us, it suddenly struck him what a fine thing it would be if there was a God. So early did he display his gift for wilful thinking. Later, having willed a God, and convinced himself that he had identified his own will with God's, he found all things plain, and dismissed Science as an "agile ape."

Patmore's has been a curious fate. For some years his Angel in the House was the most popular poem in England. It describes a course of true love that runs smooth to happy Christian marriage. Felix is a handsome squire with £600 a year; Honoria, the Dean's daughter, a dear, good girl, has £3000 now and more in prospect. The story of their unruffled courtship, sung in sparkling quatrains to the tune of the Old Hundredth, appealed to all that was respectable and sentimental in England and America. Then the wind changed, and a generation intoxicated with Swinburne scoffed Patmore's domesticities and his psalm-tune off the field. Admirers and scoffers were both wide of the mark. The merit of the poem does not lie in its story. There is no reason of course why true lovers should not be prosperous, and Patmore was only following Wordsworth in poetising the common; but his realism, unsafeguarded by humour, makes him ridiculous when he means to be sprightly. The Angel in the House lives by its Preludes, with their intimate analysis of a lover's moods, their epigrams, sometimes trite but always polished, and their occasional felicities of phrase and profundities of feeling. Here is a cold dawn worthy of Rossetti:

The moon shone yet, but weak and drear,
And seemed to watch, with bated breath,
The landscape, all made sharp and dear
By stillness, as a face by death.

-496-

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