Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Coventry Patmore

Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore (July 23, 1823 - November 26, 1896) was an English poet and critic.

The eldest son of Peter George Patmore, himself an author, Coventry was born at Woodford in Essex. He was privately educated, his father's intimate and constant companion, and inherited from him his early literary enthusiasm. It was his ambition to become an artist, and he showed much promise, being awarded the silver palette of the Society of Arts in 1838. In the following year he was sent to school in France for six months, where he began to write poetry. On his return his father planned to publish some of these youthful poems; but meanwhile Coventry had become interested in science and the poetry was set aside.

He soon returned to literary interests, moved towards them by the sudden success of Alfred Lord Tennyson; and in 1844 he published a small volume of Poems, which was original but uneven. Patmore, distressed at its reception, bought up the remainder of the edition and destroyed it. What upset him most was a cruel review in Blackwood's Magazine; but the enthusiasm of his friends, together with their more constructive criticism, helped foster his talent. The publication of this volume bore immediate fruit in introducing its author to various men of letters, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, through whom Patmore became known to William Holman Hunt, and was thus drawn into the pre-Raphaelite movement, contributing his poem "The Seasons" to the Germ.

At this time Patmore's father was financially embarrassed; and in 1846 Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton obtained for Coventry the post of assistant librarian in the British Museum, a post he occupied for nineteen years, devoting his spare time to poetry. In 1847 he married Emily, daughter of Dr Andrews of Camberwell. At the Museum he was instrumental in 1852 in starting the Volunteer movement. He wrote an important letter to The Times upon the subject, and stirred up much martial enthusiasm among his colleagues.

In the next year he republished, in Tamerton Church Tower, the more successful pieces from the Poems of 1844, adding several new poems which showed distinct advance, both in conception and treatment; and in the following year (1854) appeared the first part of his best known poem, "The Angel in the House," which was continued in "The Espousals" (1856), "Faithful for Ever" (1860), and "The Victories of Love" (1862). In 1862 he lost his wife, after a long and lingering illness, and shortly afterwards joined the Roman Catholic church.

In 1865 he married again, his second wife being Marianne Byles, daughter of James Byles of Bowden Hall, Gloucester; and a year later purchased an estate in East Grinstead, the history of which he wrote in How I managed my Estate (1886). In 1877 appeared The Unknown Eros, which unquestionably contains his finest work in poetry, and in the following year Amelia, his own favourite among his poems, together with an interesting essay on English Metrical Law. This departure into criticism continued in 1879 with a volume of papers entitled Principle in Art, and again in 1893 with Religio poetae. His second wife died in 1880, and in the next year he married Harriet Robson. In later years he lived at Lymington, where he died.

A collected edition of his poems appeared in two volumes in 1886, with a characteristic preface which might serve as the author's epitaph. "I have written little," it runs; "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." The obvious sincerity which underlies this statement, combined with a certain lack of humour which peers through its na´vetÚ, points to two of the principal characteristics of Patmore's earlier poetry; characteristics which came to be almost unconsciously merged and harmonized as his style and his intention drew together into unity.

His best work is found in the volume of odes called The Unknown Eros, which is full not only of passages but of entire poems in which exalted thought is expressed in poetry of the richest and most dignified melody. Spirituality informs his inspiration; the poetry is glowing and alive. The magnificent piece in praise of winter, the solemn and beautiful cadences of "Departure," and the homely but elevated pathos of "The Toys," are in their various manners unsurpassed in English poetry. Patmore is one of the best-regarded Victorian poets.

His son, Henry John Patmore (1860-1883), was also a poet.