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Memoirs and correspondence of Coventry Patmore (Volume 2) online

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Manning). On this retort reaching Manning's ear, he made a
remark about it to Canon Macmullen, who, with his wonted
readiness of repartee, replied, ' I pity the man who repeated it
to your Grace.' "



COVENTRYPATMORE was,abouttheyear
1888, urged by his wife and a friend, Father
Gerard Hopkins S.J., to write an account
of his Conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
This he did in the form of the rehgious autobio-
graphy which follows. The only allusion to it in the
correspondence occurs in a letter to him from Father
Hopkins. I have already (vol. ii., p. 6, note) alluded
to this account as a striking example of Patmore's
exclusive reliance on intuition, and have shown
(vol. i., p. 125) that this retrospect gives a different
impression of his theological position during his
first wife's life to that conveyed by the memoranda
made immediately after her death. I may also
point out how strongly this paper exemplifies the
tendency of his which I have noted (vol. i., p. 246)
to annex to " Catholicism " all that he approved
either in religion or morals. I am unable to detect
one single thought in the " Angel " or in the " Vic-
tories of Love " which should prove less acceptable
to Christians generally than to Roman Catholics.
Patmore indeed frequently asserted that his poems,
including those written after his conversion, had met
with far greater appreciation from others than from
his co-religionists.

Such portions of this narrative as may strike the
reader as egotistical are written with the obvious
purpose of showing that it was through no defect of
faculty or of knowledge that he became a " Catholic."


If, as my personal opinion stands, this autobiography
only partially and imperfectly represents his religious
character, enough will be found to amplify, or correct
the impression it makes on the reader, in the extracts
from his unpublished writings (given later) and in
what I have already recorded of his conversation.

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.

My father professed to disbelieve in any spiritual exist-
ence. He had, however, great positive virtues, some if not
all of which were in strange practical contradiction to his
unbelief He had a love of truth, which many sincerely re-
ligious persons whom I have known might well have envied.
He set even minute verbal veracity quite above considera-
tions of expediency, except the eternal expediency, in which
he declared that he had no belief His ideas of purity —
which he guarded in his children to the best of his power —
were singularly high, real, and unpuritanical, and intellect-
ually quite unjustifiable except by the light of Catholic
doctrines, of which he had probably never heard. But what
struck me, even when I was in my boyhood, as being
curiously contradictory, was that he was extremely reverent
in regard of ideas which he held to be without any sub-
stantial reality. One of the gravest rebukes which I can
remember to have received from him was for my disrespect,
when I was about twelve years old, in taking from the
bookshelves a thick old Bible in order to enable me to sit
more conveniently at my dinner.

From the time I could speak until I was about five years
old, my mother used to make me say the Lord's Prayer and
a little hymn at her knees, before I went to bed, but, as she
told me afterwards, my father, when he found that she was
in the habit of doing this, forbade her thus to interfere with
my future freedom of intellect, and for some five or six
years afterwards I do not remember that I ever said any
prayers, except on a certain occasion when, my nurse hav-
ing provoked me greatly by some real or imaginary ill-
usage, I knelt down and prayed with much fervour that
she might hate me as I hated her ; for I could imagine no
more terrific punishment for her than that. I believe that


up to this time I had never been taken to church, except
when I was baptized, wiiich I presume was done at my
mother's wish ; or perhaps to comply with universal custom,
for my father was no conceited fanatic, and never paraded
his unbelief before the world.

I was about eleven or twelve years old when I happened
to open some little devotional book, of which I forget the
title, and, after reading a few sentences, it struck me, what
an exceedingly fine thing it would be if there really were a
God with whom I could be on terms of love and obedience.
A sort of momentary experiment of faith filled me with a
torrent of light and joy, which, though it soon subsided, did
not leave me quite as I was before. Not to believe in the
existence of God after I had seen him a thousand times
more clearly than the sun at noonday, was impossible ; but,
the delight being over, it did not leave much sensible effect
beyond an habitual discontent with the un-ideal condition
of the world within and without me.

During the next four or five years, I do not remember
that I read or thought about God or said any prayers, ex-
cept at one time [when], being at school at St. Germains, I
entertained a passion of a kind not uncommon in youths;
a passion which neither hoped nor cared much for a return.
On this occasion I remember praying more than once with
torrents of tears that the young lady might be happy,
especially in marriage, with whomsoever it might be.

For some two or three years before I was fifteen I had
devoted all my spare time, with great assiduity, to science,
especially chemistry, in which I made real advance. My
father greatly encouraged me in such studies, of which he
knew something himself, and he strained his not very
abundant means to enable me to fit up a laboratory, with
furnaces and other apparatus. I did not stop at repeating
the experiments of others, but carried on original investiga-
tions, not altogether without results, among which was the
discovery of a new chloride of Bromine.

I studied, more or less, the natural sciences all round, and
by fifteen had attained an amount of knowledge consider-
ably beyond what is expected of or ordinarily found in a
young man, even in these days. I also attained a consider-
able proficiency in mathematics, my knowledge being m
this department rather sound than extensive. I knew
algebra so well that I had solved every problem given in


supplements to Hind and other treatises used at Cambridge,
and in the published selections of problems from University
examination papers there were no properly algebraic diffi-
culties which I had not overcome. An intimate friend, who
used to assist me in my studies and had passed as a high
Wrangler, pronounced me, at this time, able to rank as a
Senior Optime at the Mathematical Tripos. My father in-
tended me to go to Cambridge ; but was unable, by reason
of his narrow means, to fulfil his intention.

I mention these studies because there are many persons
who entertain the strange opinion that ignorance of natural
science is a disqualification for forming a right judgment in
the spiritual matters with which this short notice will be
chiefly occupied.

While encouraging my liking for material science, my
father also did all he could to develop my still greater
ardour for poetry and the best sort of prose. His own taste
was so severely good that, at fifteen, I cared little for any
but the classics of English literature. At this age I had
read almost all the standard poetry and much of the best
secular prose in our language, and was in the habit of study-
ing it critically ; in proof of which assertions I may mention
an " Essay on Macbeth," which was written by me when I
was between fifteen and sixteen, and which was published,
without a word of alteration, in the " Germ " — a periodical
issued by the " Pre-Raphaelites " — some years afterwards.
With this love of literature was combined a great love and
some slight technical knowledge of art. At fourteen I gained
the silver palette of the Society of Arts for a drawing I had
made the year before ; and my shortly subsequent interest
in and knowledge of architecture maybe inferred from many
articles which I wrote some years afterwards in the " Edin-
burgh " and other reviews.

I repeat that I speak of these things chiefly in order that
some of my readers, who might otherwise endeavour to
account for my taking up in these times with religion, by
setting me down as exceptionally ignorant and stupid, may
see that I was no more ignorant and stupid than themselves.

When I was about fifteen my love for poetry began to
get the better of my love for science, though, for some time,
the two kinds of study w^ent on together. The first lines I
ever wrote, except some dozen or fourteen lines of blank
verse which I attempted when I was quite a child, were " The


River." This little poem and another called " The Wood-
man's Daughter " were written when I was between fifteen
and sixteen/ They pleased my father and some of his
friends, Leigh Hunt and " Barry Cornwall " among others,
so much, that my ambition to do great things in verse was
highly excited, and, with an amusing ignorance of my in-
sufficiency for the task, I began planning a tragedy, or rather
to prepare for planning a tragedy. My first step was to
ascertain, if I could, what was the essential character of the
highest tragedy ; and to this end I made a very elaborate
study of Shakespeare, and discovered, as I believed, a
method in many if not all of his plays, except the strictly
historical, no hint of which was to be found in Schlegel,
Coleridge, or any other critics I am acquainted with. I
carried on this investigation with great diligence and made
a prodigious quantity of notes for a work which I proposed
to write upon it, and I wrote one specimen analysis (of the
"Two Gentlemen of Verona") which afterwards appeared
in a quarterly review, the " ]3ritish " or " North British,"
I forget which.' The proposed work was never executed ;
for, after having spent much time and labour in preparing
for it, I found that Ulrici had so far followed the same lines
in his work, that mine, though it would have proved his
views of Shakespeare's method with much greater fulness
than he proves them, would have seemed to be no more
than an elaboration of his ideas.

After much meditation on the idea of tragedy, I came
gradually to the conclusion that this idea, in order to con-
stitute a just foundation for the highest kind of poetry,
ought to represent the solution rather than the mere con-
clusion, by death, of the evils and disasters of life. This
set me upon inquiring whether there was any such solution ;
and this train of thought brought me again face to face with
the idea of religion, which, except for the short time I have
mentioned, had hitherto remained with me, a sub-conscious
reality indeed, but one with which I had little intellectual
concern, as offering nothing sufficiently tangible for the
understanding to work upon.

When I say that religion never occupied my thoughts, I

^ The " Prse-Raphselite Journal " says, "from the age of sixteen
to seventeen " (vol. i., p. 44).

^ It was in the "North British" for November, 1849.


do not mean that the spiritual life and the idea of eternity
did not ; but it was only as present actualities that this life
and this idea occupied me with varying degrees of conscious-
ness. That sin was an infinite evil, and love (which had as
yet no definite and satisfying object) an infinite good, were
facts to me, and seemed to have little or nothing to do with
the future. Angels spoke from time to time to me, as they
do to all, and I frequently saw, as others do in youth, the
things of earth lighted up with light which was not of the
earth ; and I was endowed with what, from my subsequent
experience of men, I am obliged to conclude was an unusual
faculty for implicitly believing my own eyes, without regard
to the present defect of visible continuity between their
reports and the facts of the natural and external life. The
things I saw, in those rare moments when the properly
human eye was open, remained with me as abiding land-
marks, and were the jewels of my life.

It was given to me, among other of these real apprehen-
sions, to discern sexual impurity and virginal purity, the
one as the tangible blackness and horror of hell, and the
other as the very bliss of heaven, and the flower and con-
summation of love between man and woman. How far such
meditations and apprehensions affected or failed to affect
my life, otherwise than as means of leading me ultimately
to the Faith, I am not concerned, nor would it be fitting
here to attempt to relate.

During my preparations for writing a tragedy, as it had
occurred to me, in my childhood, to contemplate, with the
results I have described, what it would be to believe in and
obey a loving and presently governing God, so now, by
steps which I need not and indeed could not at present
trace, it came to me to consider how it would be if
Christia7iity were true, and if there were, not only a loving
and governing God, but one who was also Man, and so
capable of according to me the most intimate communion
with Himself The idea no sooner flashed upon me as a
possible reality than it became, what it has ever since re-
mained — however much I have fallen short of obedience to
the heavenly vision — the only reality worth seriously caring
for ; a reality so clearly seen and possessed that the most
irrefragable logic of disproof has always affected me as
something trifling and irrelevant. As, before, the idea of
a personal, loving, and governing God, so now that of God


incarnate in Jesus Christ, seemed to me, and still seems to
me, to be its own evidence, only requiring to be looked at
to be recognized, provided the mind has not, as mine had
not, been poisoned by positive infidel teaching, or, what is
worse, by teaching involving ideas of God which are contra-
dicted by the orthodox instincts of humanity — by which I
am far from meaning the feeble apprehensions and the
vitiated emotions of the modern " humanitarian."

The sudden coming into me of faith in the Incarnation
of God in Jesus Christ was accompanied with delight not
less immense and far more abiding than the joy of that
first glow of belief which had come upon me in my child-
hood. I instantly recognized the obligations under which I
had now come to lead a perfect life, and, so long as I could
see any immediate possibility or hope of doing so, my hap-
piness remained at an unspeakable height. But, as I was
wholly unprepared by previous teaching for this "conver-
sion " of my intellect and feelings, and had no practical
conception of the impossibility, which all religions recog-
nize, of leading such a life in this world, I became, in a few
weeks, fearfully discouraged by the discovery of my own
inability to sustain my conduct, interior and exterior, at the
elevation which seemed now to be absolutely demanded of
me, on pain of separation from Christ. As long as I walked
or fancied that I walked perfectly, the vision of God with
and in me, was, as before, clearer a thousand times than the
sun of noonday; but the minutest fault — lying in bed a
moment longer than the time appointed for getting up, a
careless word, or the slightest indulgence in any of the
somewhat undisciplined habits formed in me by the season
of youth having been mainly spent at home — would cause
a cloud, or at least a mist, to come between me and my
glorious vision, and fill me with the horrors and regrets
proper to mortal sin. A season of great despair ensued,
with a subsequent season of recovery and violent renewal
of effort ; and, for years and years afterwards, my life was
an alternation of periods of hope and despondency ; the
hope and despondency becoming, however, each time more
and more subdued, until my frame of mind at last arrived
at somewhat of that equable state of mingled hope and fear
with which I ought to and should have begun had I had the
means of seasonable .instruction and direction. But my
religious life was an utter solitude ; I never heard religion


as much as named by any of my family or my father's
friends, or my own, and, though I read incessantly on the
subject, my favourite works were the "Analogy," the "Ec-
clesiastical Polity," the "Divine Legation," and others of a
kind not fitted nor intended to regulate devotion. The few
devotional books that came in my way struck me as unreal
and did not help me.

As none of my family or friends ever went to church, it
was not till two or three years after this time that I began
to think it might be a serious duty to do so ; and when at
last it dawned upon me, when I was about nineteen, that
this would be right, it was with extreme shyness that I
made what seemed to me so bold and extraordinary a pro-
fession of faith.

About this time I made a visit of several months to some
relations in Edinburgh. They were very pious members of
the then new born Free Kirk, and were the first religious
persons I had ever had anything to do with. I was at first
greatly delighted with this atmosphere, and the warmth
with which I communicated my own aspirations much in-
terested my new friends in me ; but the inequality of my
moods startled and somewhat shocked one of my aunts,
who told me that my strange alternations of ardent effort
and despondent indifference reminded her of Saul. As I
was exceedingly ignorant (for all my reading) of what
practical religion ought to be, I at first naturally went with
whatever my aunts and their friends practised and believed.
Anxious to advance me in the good way, they introduced
me to a widow and her daughter who had a great reputa-
tion for sanctity in their circle, and I went to this lady's
house evening after evening expressly to be talked to and
instructed in sanctity. I was a good deal repelled by my
first lessons, but I thought that my repugnance was my own
fault. I tried to follow the advice of these ladies in every
particular. One point of their teaching was that an " eminent
Christian " — such as I aspired to be — ought to be able to
make extemporaneous prayer aloud, for the benefit of his
company. I was the shyest of youths, but the thing being
a duty had to be attempted, and some of my readers may
perhaps be able to imagine the agony with which, at the
request of my new friends, I dropped on my knees in their
presence, and remained there utterly incapable of venting a
word, and at last rose silent, confused, and ashamed. This


meat was too strong for me. I did not repeat my visit.
Perhaps the most noteworthy and enduring effect of this
time at Edinburgh was the contagion of genuine horror
which these pious persons felt and expressed with regard to
the Catholic Religion. I remember repelling a moment's
attractive thought that it might possibly be right, as a
terrible temptation of the fiend, and prayed fervently that
the abominable allurement might never for an instant be
entertained by me again.

On returning home to my old studies and surroundings I
found myself more and more repelled by the style of religion
with which I had been brought in contact. And this,
coupled with a clearer insight than ever of my present in-
ability to realize in myself the life which our Lord seemed
to require, may have been the main cause of the coming on
of a short and terrible season of obscurity. In this state I
was foolish and ignorant enough to think it a justifiable
freedom and even a duty to examine what was to be said
in the way of negation, and the first books that came to
hand were Strauss's " Life of Jesus " and Blanco White's
" Memoirs." Neither of these books, however, troubled me
much, for I felt that I had seen what neither of these writers
had seen. Strauss seemed to me, with what justice I
cannot at this distance of time say, to be writing from a
merely literary and sentimental point of view, and neither
he nor Blanco White came near the region of my trouble,
which, as I have said, mainly arose from the apparent in-
ability of religion to change and exalt the individual life to
an ideal perfection, or even at once to eradicate any serious
faults of character and habit. In my heart, I never really
doubted at all. I had seen, and my present anguish was
simply that a dense cloud had come between me and my
sun. One can scarcely be said to doubt of that, which,
however obscured to the intellect, is still so beloved that its
obscuration makes the universe dark and life intolerable.

This obscuration gradually passed off. All possibility of
intellectnal question was once and for ever removed by a
renewed and closer study of the "Analogy," and the moder-
ating lessons of experience were aided by much reading
of Scripture, and, among other books, by Coleridge's
" Aids to Reflection " — which I got almost by heart — the
" Pilgrim's Progress," Leighton's " Sermons," Taylor's
" Holy Living," and other books having a more practical


tendency than most of those with which I began my studies
of religion.

But, though I never came under this cloud again, my life
continued for a long time in the state of moral oscillation
which, I suppose, was mainly due to the ignorant violence
with which I attempted to put ill-understood doctrines into
practical effect. I knew of no difference between " Com-
mandments " and " Counsels of Perfection." The latter, the
keeping of which is ordinarily the reward of long fidelity in
a lower order, seemed to me, as I have said, as binding as
the former, and, as I was bent on doing nothing by halves, I
made the most extravagant and pitiable mistakes, praying,
for example, and meditating sometimes for considerable
periods together, at the rate of eight or ten hours a day, in
order to fulfil the precept, " Pray always," and relapsing
into periods of moral and physical exhaustion, during which
I scarcely prayed at all.

Two events soon happened which were of immense ad-
vantage to my religious life. At twenty-three I obtained a
place in the library of the British Museum, and the year
afterwards I married. For nearly the whole of my youth I
had been left free to do pretty nearly what I liked with my
time ; not from any neglect on the part of my father, but
on account of his belief, mistaken I think, that I was edu-
cating myself in the most effectual way. I was getting
knowledge, indeed, far more rapidly than I should have got
it at school, but of educational discipline I obtained none ;
and it was well for me that the duties of marriage and of a
public office came upon me early enough to remedy in some
degree this loss. But the prime benefit of this great change
in my mode of life was that it compelled me to bring the
occupations of my spirit within reasonable limits, and to
give reality by reducing it mainly to the exercise of simple,
obvious and ordinary duties. I had to work six hours a
day at the Museum, and, in order to bring up my income
to the absolutely necessary figure, I was obliged to write
two or three hours more in the evening for reviews. This
saved my intellect, and my wife saved my heart from the
alternating excesses which I have described, and thence-
forward I made less haste but far more speed.

My reading also took a more salutary course. A simple
sense of reality led me at first to the exclusive use of ancient
Catholic books of devotion, and afterwards to abandon, as



almost useless, all moral and theological writings which
were not Catholic. I except of course Butler's " Analogy,"
the one great work, as far as I know, of a Protestant divine
which has been practically adopted into the teaching of the
Catholic Church. But of this I was not then aware ; and I
was only led to cling to the " Analogy " by the same sense
of reality which induced me to take up exclusively with
other Catholic writings, long before the question of the
possible obligation of accepting the Catholic religion seemed
to me to be an open, or at least a pressing one. I cannot
excuse the inconsistency of which I was guilty in thus
drawing all my ideas of moral and religious truth from a
source which I did not immediately recognize as being
itself the truth. The sole palliating explanation of it which
I can give is that the only sincere and effective religion
I had come across in the world had been that of persons to
whom the name of the Catholic religion was an abomina-

Online LibraryBasil ChampneysMemoirs and correspondence of Coventry Patmore (Volume 2) → online text (page 4 of 36)