Patmore, Pascal, and Astronomy

By Fontana, Ernest | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Patmore, Pascal, and Astronomy

Fontana, Ernest, Victorian Poetry

IN THE VICTORIES OF LOVE, WRITTEN THREE YEARS BEFORE PATMORE'S 1864 conversion to Catholicism in Rome, extended astronomical metaphors begin to appear with such frequency in his poetry that one might consider the later Patmore a rival of Tennyson as the Victorian poet who demonstrates the greatest knowledge of contemporary astronomy. (1) What could have prompted such an emphasis? I contend that Patmore shortly before and after his conversion to Catholicism grapples with the legacy of the great Jansenist Catholic writer, Blaise Pascal, whose Pensees we know Patmore read2 and which he conspicuously imitated in his late collection of apothegms, "The Aurea Dicta," from The Rod, The Root, and The Flower (1895).

Pascal employs astronomical references to express feelings of dread, terror, and alienation. For him, the heavenly cosmos does not affirm God's existence, but instead reveals an immense abyss from which He is absent or hidden: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread." (3) For Patmore, the dominant focus of his post-conversion poetry, specifically The Unknown Eros (1877), is the nuptial metaphor for "man's basic relationship with God, with the universe, and with his fellow human beings." (4) Patmore, unlike Pascal, assumes a benign, eroticized universe in which sexuality, rather than evidence of sinful concupiscence, is a preparation and model for the reciprocal desires linking man and God. My argument is that for Patmore, astronomical metaphor is the site in which he enacts his quarrel with Pascal, the site of a differentiation of importance, given Pascal's eminence as a Catholic apologist and thinker. I shall also argue that Patmore's astronomical metaphors demonstrate a close acqua intance with Sir John Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy, which was published in five editions between 1849 and 1866 and "which for decades was deemed the most authoritative astronomy text in English." (5) A close examination of the content and language of Patmore's astronomical metaphors and the relevant corresponding passages in Herschel's Outlines suggests that it was Herschel's book that enabled Patmore to contend with Pascal's astronomy of dread. (6)

For Pascal the human condition is one of "inconstancy, boredom, anxiety" (24:36). Man exists in "a state of corruption and sin"; fallen from his first state, he "has become like the beasts" (131:66). For Pascal Christianity is strange; it "bids man to recognize that he is vile, and even abominable, and bids him want to be like God" (351:133). How different is the tenor of Patmore's apothegms from his "Aurea Dicta"; for example, "if you wish to influence the world for good, leave it, forget it and think of nothing but your own interest," (7) or "the power of the soul for good is in proportion to the strength of its passion. Sanctity is not the negation of passion, but its order" (The Rod, p. 51). Whereas Pascal's Pensees seemed to Pater "the utterance of a soul diseased, a soul permanently ill at ease," (8) Patmore's Catholic writings are robust, affirmative, and, at times, healthy to excess. (9) As John Maynard has shown, for Patmore "sexual desire is both the source of man's humanity, the essence of human na ture, and also the connection to the divine." (10)

Patmore's first extended astronomical metaphor appears in the epistolary Victories of Love (1863). Frederick Graham, in a letter written to his mother from an inn at Plymouth, tells of his disappointed love for his cousin Honoria Churchill, who has become betrothed to Felix Vaughn, the male protagonist of the earlier Angel in the House:

Blest in her place, blissful is she;
And I, departing, seem to be
Like the strange waif that comes to run
A few days flaming near the sun,
And carries back, through boundless night,
Its lessening memory of light. (p. 220) (11)

In this self-pitying metaphor, Frederick compares himself to a comet that, as it approaches the sun (Honoria), is for a brief period illuminated before passing into "boundless night. …

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