Saturday 26 November 2016

On Coventry Patmore

Coventry Patmore died on this day in 1896. The house he lived in is a few minutes' walk from here: Highwood Lodge, 85 Fortis Green, Muswell Hill. 

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896)

Besides having an excellent name - one to rank alongside Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams - Coventry Patmore was an enormously popular poet who wrote The Angel in the House, a domestic epic providing the recipe for a happy and lasting marriage. It makes today's feminists spit feathers but we should make allowances - things were different then and only a simpleton will judge the past by present standards with what E. P. Thompson called 'the massive condescension of posterity'. Time passes, things change.

Having said which, feminists at the time were not among his admirers. Virginia Woolf loathed Patmore's verses. Having said which again - isn't is at useful, necessary even, to have evidence of such long-abandoned patrician attitudes? Long-abandoned by most of us. I mean, although looking around I begin to wonder.  In many parts of the world patriarchy is in rude good health and many a religious head honcho would denounce Coventry Patmore as a dangerous radical.

In the preface to his Collected Poems of 1886 he wrote, half-pleadingly:

I have written little, but it is all my best; I have never spoken when I had nothing to say, nor spared time or labour to make my words true. I have respected posterity; and should there be a posterity which cares for letters, I dare to hope that it will respect me.

Are we living in an age that cares for letters? I'm afraid Dame Posterity, a notoriously fickle mistress, has not been kind, and Coventry Patmore doesn't enjoy much of a poetic afterlife. You can look him up on the internet but don't expect to be blown away. By way of small consolation he's remembered by the great Ogden Nash in this Clerihew:

Walter Savage Landor
Stood before the fire of life with candor.
Coventry Patmore
Sat more.

Even better, there's the following which is (I think, but apologies if I'm wrong) is by John Julius Norwich:

A pat on the head
Sends me happy to bed;
I wish, how I wish you'd do that more.
Cold words and neglect
Leave me wretched and wrecked;
Don't send me to Coventry, pat more.

1 comment:

  1. Loved the Norwich! Thanks for a nod to those forerunners in a glorious course,