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Memoirs and correspondence of Coventry Patmore (Volume 2) online

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For some seventeen centuries the mysteries of Eleusis
were the heart of the world's civilization, as those of Christ-
ianity have been for a like period since. To the knowledge
of those mysteries, as to those of Christianity in its earlier
times, only the pure were admitted ; the outside world
being allowed, however, to share the sacred light transmuted
through the clouds of myths and sacraments. The lesser
mysteries were veiled in parables — that is to say, in stories
having one meaning within another ; the greater in enigmas
in which the external lends no aid to the internal, being
altogether devoid of rational meaning, and being useful, not
to hint by analogy, but to corroborate by the secret com-
munion of intelligences already wise.

Eros and Psyche.

That this exquisite poetical novelette is in the main a
parable is obvious ; but none of the tasks imposed by
Venus upon her poor little rival and victim were more
seemingly hopeless than is that of explaining this parable
fully, though the light of its obscure significance flashes
from almost every sentence. It seems to us very doubtful
whether Apuleius himself had always a perfectly clear in-
telligence of what he was about.

He seems to have taken the fable as it stood in its older
and simpler forms and to have decked and obscured it with
ideas of his own. Notwithstanding this and other deduc-
tions from its literary merits that might be alleged, this
story must be reckoned among the best of books by those
who adopt the lively but sound saying that " a good book
is a book which does one good." It is impossible for any
but a very dull person to remain a merely passive recipient
of the ideas and images of this tale. It excites the reader
to a sort of active co-operation with the writer.

We seem constantly to be on the point of discerning
some happy secret of the soul, and are constantly but only
partially disappointed. " I know not how it is," writes St.
Bernard, " but the more the realities of heaven are clothed
with obscurity the more they delight and attract ; and
nothing so much heightens longing as such tender re-




THE following extracts are taken from similar
sources to the foregoing. The fragments
of poetry were no doubt intended for incor-
poration in future poems, and it is again needful to
warn the reader that they do not necessarily repre-
sent Patmore's final standard of perfection. The
prose extracts are selected with a view to illustrating
his general ideas about poetry and art, and to supple-
ment his published essays on the same subjects.
Section H. is from letters. Section HI. from occa-
sional writings for the press.


Daisies. — Of flowers none
So lowly and so like the sun.

Primroses. — That touch'd mine eyes like kisses cool.

Sad as a ship far off at fall of day,
Alone upon the wide sea-way.

The countless chase of feet.

The baby leaves of aged elms in Spring.

The winds are playing with their friends the clouds.

The iron muscle or electric nerve.

A cloud-bank pale

With phantom portent of unhappy peace.


Under the lily-leaf He the red tench.

The vent of feeling and the veil.

On store of memories. — Sad as a basket of old keys.

Crackles the hidden heat, and faster comes the smoke.

Dumbly the breakers flash'd : slow clomb great sighs.

The dead men got the battle : they
Who look'd on got the praise.

Her breath was like a bean-field,
Her body white as milk,
Straight as a stalk of lavender,
Soft as a robe of silk.

Puss, in her fervour of content.
Lay crackling like a fire.

Shafts of gauzy light.

And the fair sweep of soft, reposeful glades.

My only Dear,

The end is now intelligibly near.

A sweet and sunny intellect.

The herd of deer stood still,
Fronting me with their horns,
A little wood of wintry oaks.

A noxious flying thing
Winnowing the dusk.

The sunny field of shadowy stooks
Untied by ambush-fearing rooks.

Her feet

With chains are sweet ;

And, in her hands,

The apple, pleasure, and the poppy, sleep.


Calm my breast,

O sea, with thy beloved unrest.

The feverous languor ere the thunder-fit.

As seen from smoky street, the thymy head
Of some high hill alone with the sweet sun.

And o'er that gravity so bright
A smile passed, like a shooting light
That wends upon its unknown ways
Amidst a thousand steadfast rays.

Lonely and silent were the light and heat
Of noonday, in the little town's one street.

Sweeter than Venus, Dian not so chaste.


I have been reading Shelley again, after never having
looked at him for thirty years. My young impression of
him is quite unchanged. Most of his poems — even his
most celebrated, as " Prometheus Bound " — is all un-
substantial splendour, like the transformation scene of a
pantomime or the silvered globes hung up in gin-palaces.
He is least unreal when he is wicked, or representing
wicked people, as in the Cenci.

Browning has nearly every poetic faculty — except that
of writing poetry — in an eminent degree. But as a pie
must have a crust, and a good pie must have a good crust,
so a good poem must have, not merely worthy contents,
but a beautiful exterior. Indeed, the external in poetry is
of more consequence than the internal.

I have lately read again Morris's Poem, " Love is enough,''
which you gave me. It is a most lofty and delicate atmo-
sphere of mystic tenderness and joy. I don't know that a
poem can have higher praise. But it is one of those things
which, as Lord Dundreary says, " No fellow can be expected
to understand."



I lay in bed until dinner time to-day, and since then have
been going through Coleridge's Poems again, with a view
to keeping up my ideal of style. I wonder whether you
know his poems as well as you ought to do.

There is a good deal which is not much worth reading;
but when he is himself, that is, in about one-sixth of what
he has written, he is quite beyond any modern poet in
the power of expressing himself consummately and with
apparent ease. Yet he, more than any one else, always
gives me the impression that poetical expression is far
from having received its last development. Language, I
am sure, has latent musical powers beyond anything we at
present imagine ; and, if I were twenty years younger I
would set about endeavouring to prove this.

Perhaps I may yet do a little in that way.

I am reading the Excursion with astonishment. I used
to read it with delight twenty years ago, but with none of
the conviction, which I now have, that it is the very greatest
poem in our language, if not in any, not excepting that of
the " Divine Comedy." ^

It is a common mistake of modern artists — poets, painters,
musicians, and others — to think that they are intense when
they are only tense. Great intensity is always calm, often
gay and playful in its exterior.

I have read the dream of Gerontius and did not care for
it much as poetry, though it seemed a striking piece of
knaginative psychology — if you know what that means. I
do not think Newman a poet. His verse wants the per-
fection of language which his prose has. The longer
I live the more I am convinced that no one — since the

^ This was Patmore's confirmed opinion which he often stated
to me. If I called attention to the great inequalities of the poem,
he admitted the criticism, while he maintained that the less suc-
cessful portions were undervalued because they were necessarily
contrasted with the more inspired. Otherwise — compared with
any other standard — these lower passages were often high ; just as
in a mountain range, the mountain tops tower above the valleys,
which are nevertheless at an immense height above the sea-level
or the plain.


Hebrew Prophets — has ever written religious poetry, except

Last night I went by myself to hear Bach's " Passion
Music " at the Albert Hall. As I like all Bach's secular
music, as far as I know it, I thought it was a good chance
of trying if I could get over my inveterate indifference to
" sacred music," in common with all other " sacred " art.
But my feeling that all religious art is a mistake was
further confirmed. Indeed, a moment's reflection shows it
to be so necessarily a mistake that one ought not to require
experimental corroboration. Can the most expressive of
all arts — poetry — attain to express the sweetness, sadness,
or grace of life in any common human passion of love,
pity, etc. ? Nay, can it express the pathos of affection even
in the voice and gestures of an animal ? Carlo's, for in-
stance, the other day, when I went to Heron's Ghyll and
passed his kennel without unfastening his chain. What
insanity then to write poetry and music about the Cruci-
fixion ! The Albert Hall was filled to the roof with people,
all fancying or trying to fancy that they were interested,
or that they were lifted into a " Good Friday " sphere of
feeling simply because they were brought into a vacuous
and semi-idiotic state of mind by a series of sounds which
had no vital relation to anything. If a number of jigs or
airs, such as "Jim Crow" and "All round my Hat," had
been played all in minims it would have had the same
effect. It would have been " religious " because it was
"slow." In art, as in life, it is the most fatal of mistakes
to think that we can get above ourselves. What we want
is to become our true selves ; and art can help us immensely
by casting light upon the ground upon which we stand, and
dissolving by its warmth the cold mist of indifference and
unconscious falsehood in which we are all more or less

You will be amused, after what you told me in your last,
to hear that my verses in the " Pall Mall " ' are to appear in

* Compare the following from "Prophets who cannot Sing"

" At least, from David unto Dante, none.
And none since him."

^ See vol. i., p. 246^


a translation in that model of " ultramontane " orthodoxy,
the " Univers " (M. Veuillot's journal).

I went to see the exhibition of Blake's drawings at the
i^urlington Club, and they quite confirmed me in my old
view of Blake as artist and poet. It was nearly all utter
rubbish, with here and there not so much a gleam as a
trick of genius. He does not seem to me to have been
mad, but only to have assumed a sort of voluntary madness
of freedom from convention, in order to make himself
original. He is therefore in a measure original, as any
tolerably clever and perceptive mind would become if it
chose to pay so ruinous a price for originality.

He reminds me a good deal of that " pet lamb " we had
at Heron's Ghyll, who imperceptibly grew into a strong
pet ram, and was still called the "pet lamb," until suddenly
it dawned on us it was not a lamb at all, but a very ill-
behaved ram assuming the airs and privileges of his infancy.
So, you remember, we sent him to the butcher.


Thoughts and feelings may be too high as well as too
low to " move harmonious numbers." The inner life of the
saint, which is well called the " hidden life," has no adequate
expression. The most delicate and glowing poetic imagery
in the hands of the most inspired and accomplished poet
scarcely suffices to shadow forth the affections of ordinary
humanity ; and it seems to us that we get the best insight
into the life which claims to be far higher than that, from
the, for the most part, hard and stuttering prose of saintly
writers. These seem to be serious arguments against ex-
pressly religious poetry generally — not against " hymns,"
which, as we all know, scarcely ever attempt to be poetry,
but which have their necessary use in public devotion. But
there is a very real sense in which poetry may, and ought
to be, " religious " : it should, and most of the best poetry
in the world does, represent the fruits of religion in beau-
tifully ordered life, and nature as seen by the eye which is
interiorly illuminated by spirit.

" By grace divine,

Not otherwise, O Nature, are we thine,"


sings the special poet of nature, Wordsworth ; but there
are few serious poets who have been more careful than
Wordsworth has been, when he has been most himself, to
keep " religion " at arm's length. The greatest religious
poets have, in all ages, expressed themselves in purposely
obscured and often playful myths and parables, of which
the merely external sense has sufficient beauty to charm
and satisfy the common reader, and to lure him away from
their true significance, which is for other ears.

The distinction between the so-called Classic and
Romantic schools, which was spoken of with impatience by
Goethe when it was generally held as a fundamental
doctrine of criticism, has now become so antiquated and so
justly discredited that it is surprising to find it figuring in
a treatise of . . . learning and good sense. . . . Every
work of art which has unity of idea and completeness of
finish is " classical."

There is no generic difference between a tragedy by
Sophocles and one by Shakespeare, except that the unity
of the one is simpler and more obvious than that of the
other. The " Classic " and " Romantic " in so far as they
can be opposed, are the proper names of two equally false
schools ; one governed by mainly conventional rules, or by
artistic rules misunderstood in their application ; the other
defying, more or less, the essential and fundamental rules
of all art.

Literature proper implies a certain amount of art and
consciousness. It is scarcely enough that its modes of
expression should be simply good : they should have a
certain additional reflected goodness, such as is given to
the manners of a graceful woman by a graceful knowledge
of herself.

The " character " of the sonnet is that it is generally
fitted for everything and peculiarly fitted for nothing, its
difference from the stanza consisting in the fact that the
latter has, or should have, a rhythmical construction adapted
to the particular purpose for which it is used. The
arrangement of rhymes in the model sonnet is such as to
distribute the emphasis as equally as possible throughout
the whole piece, with an almost imperceptible increase


therein towards the end. By its brevity and careful avoid-
ance of rhythmical emphasis, the sonnet is supposed to
become the fittest vehicle for the expression of a single
grave thought ; and there can be no doubt that it is
negatively well calculated for this object, since wit and
feeling, the epigrammatic and the lyrical, are absolutely
incapable of moving in the weighty shackles of this metre.
But, on reviewing the sonnet literature of our language, it
seems much to be doubted whether this form has not been
the means of extinguishing more good poetry than it has
ever been the means of expressing. We are well within
the bounds in affirming that the difficulties and disqualifica-
tions of the pure sonnet form have been found to be so
great that there are not twenty thoroughly good specimens
of it in our tongue. Its bonds are found so insupportable
that even Wordsworth, the greatest of our sonnet-writers,
often breaks through them before he gets to the fourteenth
line ; and, in Mr. Sharp's selection of two hundred and
sixty five, there appear no fewer than seventeen different
modes in which the rhymes of the last six lines are
arranged ; all of which Mr. Sharp considers "entirely per-
missible," though we cannot find any better reason for the
permission than one similar to that which gives a semi-
legality to the act of a man who steals a loaf when he is

At all times . . . the greater English poets have seen
nature in a far nobler way — namely, that which discovers
and reveals an imaginative unity of human expression in
the multitude of external objects. The synthetic eye,
which is the highest and rarest faculty of the artist, is
almost one and the same thing with what is called poetic
imagination, and is the source of all artistic beauty.

The heather is not much, and the rock is not much ; but
the heather and the rock, discerned in their living expres-
sional relationship by the poetic eye, are very much indeed
— a beauty which is living with the life of man, and there-
fore inexhaustible. The greater the number of objects that
are taken in at once by the poet's or artist's eye, the greater
the beauty ; but true poets and artists know that this power
of visual synthesis can only be exercised, in the present
state of our faculties, in a very limited way: hence there is
generally, in the landscapes and descriptions of real genius,


a great simplicity in and apparent jealousy of their subjects,
strikingly in contrast with the works of those who fancy
that they are describing when they are only cataloguing.
This power of seeing things in their living relationships,
which constitutes genius, is rather a virtue than a talent ;
and the general intuition that it is so is perhaps the reason
why so many departures from the common code are con-
doned in men of great genius — much being pardoned to
those who have much loved. The condition of their vision
is an interior simplicity and an immediate and absolute
faith — the rarest of all kinds of faith — in what they see,
which comes of the survival of a childlike mental innocence
and affection. The mass of mankind, after their infancy,
see little or nothing of the reality and beauty of things, be-
cause they believe only in what their understanding teaches
them to expect to see, or to think they ought to see, and,
when seen, to comprehend ; whereas reality and beauty are
always unforeseeable, surprising, and more or less unaccount-
able. Simply to believe the witness of their own eyes is
what few men ever dream of unless such witness happens to
have the testimony of common consent. There is perhaps
more of the innocent vision of ripe genius in English poetry
than in all other poetry, ancient and modern put together ;
and this confers upon English poetry a rhythmical excel-
lence which is not only scarcely ever found in the poetry
of any other modern people, but which no other modern
people seem to have faculties to comprehend. This music is
moved by the particular mood of feeling which is awakened
by each particular perception of things in their living re-
lations to each other.




HE following extracts from private letters
of Patmore's refer to more general sub-
jects :

The Winter here is as severe as ever. The iSth of April,
and scarcely a bud, far less a leaf, upon the trees. The
hawthorn is as black as in December ! Yesterday how-
ever we had one beautiful and curious reminder of Spring.
I was shewing Mr. and Mrs. Paley the garden, and was just
saying that we sometimes heard nightingales in it, when
all at once five or six nightingales set up a chorus in the
Ilexes and Bays! I called the children out that they
might hear; but when they came all was silent; and we
have heard nothing more of the songsters. I suppose that
they had just rested here, and sung their first song and then
gone inland.

All that you write about the hatefulness of vanity in
women is true. I misled you by my exaggerated way of
stating things. All I meant was, that a woman should take
pleasure in the beauty that gives pleasure to the man she
loves. It is " Her pleasure in her power to please," which
you do not find amiss I hope in the " Angel." So you see
this is not the " one thing on which we shall always dis-

I quite agree with you that young ladies at the " divine
age" are almost always disagreeable. Their emptiness and
conceit are only less abominable than these characteristics
are in young men. I am often amused in my walks, when
my eyes happen to direct themselves towards those of some
very young lady, but my thoughts are far from her, to
observe the smirk or curl of the lips with which my imagin-
ary tribute to her charms is received.


I am so glad to hear that you find plenty to do. Only
don't overdo it as " it is your nature to." You are rather
like an automaton mouse. The little creature, once screwed
up and set down, whizzes away, runs straight off the table,
or against the skirting board, without the slightest con-
sciousness of having a neck or a nose to break. I won't
have your neck or your nose put out of joint merely
because you are screwed up and have a blind enjoyment
in rushing forward till you are stopped by some disaster,
or by your machinery's exhaustion.

Emily when she was three years old, cried to someone
who was dancing her on his knee, " Oh! don't: you'll shake
all the sawdust out ! " Please say to yourself sometimes,
" Oh, don't : the spring is nearly run down ; and who is to
wind it up again ? "

I returned the call of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe yester-
day, but he was out. I shall be glad to know him, for he
proved himself a statesman of real vigour in the time of the
Crimean War.

I had a long talk with Lord Stratford de Redcliffe yes-
terday. He takes just as gloomy a view of England's
prospects as I do. Thank you for Ruskin's letter. It is
short but not sweet. The day after to-morrow is Valen-
tine's day. I wonder whether I shall begin to sing then.
Also I wonder how many Valentines you will get. If each
of your admirers sends you one, the Postman will hardly
get up that steep hill.

The bank-holidays, as you say, are a prodigious nuisance.
The whole population of England seems now to be
chronically drunk every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday,
Feast-day or Fast. It is very lucky. Nothing but uni-
versal drunkenness among the labouring classes can keep
them from making use, i.e., abuse, of their new political
power. It will be an unhappy day for England when the
mechanic takes to becoming a sober, respectable man.

All my life, my reading, with the exception of novels for
recreation, has been limited almost wholly to the few great
books from which the world derives all its knowledge. I


like to consume the spirit of these great books diluted
with my own thoughts, not with those of other people.

I am not hoping for any great pleasure in going abroad,
but am merely flying from as much of the wretchedness of
this houseless time as I can. It is wonderful how little I
have come to care for scenery, architecture and such like.
I get no pleasure now from anything but persons ; but
from these I get a livelier pleasure than ever. If one did
care for pictures, exhibitions, and scenery, there would be
little reason for going abroad.

London possesses — scattered over its immense spaces —
as much magnificent architecture, chiefly modern, as would
make three of the finest capitals of Europe. There is no
gallery in the world equal to the National Gallery, and
the English and Scotch mountains and lakes seem to me
finer than the Alps.

There is a beautiful Danish schooner come on shore on
the rocks behind the new groin, and, as there is no hope of
getting her off", they have abandoned her to become a
wreck. It is something quite heart-breaking to look at the
beautiful ship, at present almost uninjured, left there to
become the prey of the first rough sea. It is like Andro-
meda waiting to be devoured by the dragon, only there is
no Perseus at hand to save.

I dined with Mrs. Bishop to meet Mrs. Craven, the
famous authoress of the " Recit d'une Soeur " yesterday.
She is a highly finished Frenchwoman, and we did not
manage to hit upon any common interests : so conversation
flagged, and Mrs. Bishop told me, after Mrs. Craven (who
was not well) had gone to bed, that she complained I had
not talked to her. But as I was not familiar with the
princes, ambassadors, etc., or the ecclesiastical politics,
with whom and with which she seemed mainly taken up,
how could it be helped ? I am a dreadful ignoramus,
except in the one or two things I know better than other

We all went yesterday to luncheon at . There was

a large party of people there, who had been got together for


private theatricals two or three nights ago. We were asked,
but decHned.

Mrs. is a pleasant unaffected woman ; but the im-
pression of waste wealth there is dismal. However great
the wealth, there ought to be an appearance and a reality of
economy — economy on a great scale when there are great
means — to give any beauty to the results. I think I could

Online LibraryBasil ChampneysMemoirs and correspondence of Coventry Patmore (Volume 2) → online text (page 8 of 36)