decorative initial 'I' n order fully to comprehend Patmore's poetic project in The Angel in the House, we must examine his conceptions of poetic vision, and to do so, we must first examine his statements about poetry in his essays first published in The Fortnightly and The St. James Gazette and then collected in The Principles of Art. Patmore's prose took form within a larger tradition of poetic theories and aesthetics. Much like Carlyle (see essay on Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship) and E.B. Browning, Patmore believed that the poetic vision had acuity and depth. Like both Ruskin and Carlyle, Patmore thus saw the poet as a prophet, as one able to decipher hidden truths and divine messages present in the external world and ultimately to translate them into the language of poetry. This ancient notion of the poet as prophet placed the poet in an intermediary realm between the human and the divine. According to Patmore, the responsibility of the poet, who existed as a visionary artistic demigod, was therefore to make life understandable to the common man:

The poet's eye glances from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; and his faculty of discerning likeness in difference enables him to express the unknown in the terms of the known, so as to confer upon the former a sensible credibility, and to give the latter a truly sacramental dignity [Principles of Art, "Imagination," p. 47].

In this passage Patmore refers to the power of poetic metaphor give linguistic form to the inexpressible and to perceive an artistic and spiritual unity in the things that constitute the external world. Thus Patmore believed that the function of metaphor defined poetry, and that poetic vision was creative not in the sense that it simply imagined a world of shapes and images but that it re-imagined the world in which we already live. That is to say, it discovered and revealed the elements of its surroundings and intertwined them, reshaping or revealing a hidden landscape to the common eye. In an essay entitled "Real Apprehension," Patmore described this peculiar poetic faculty to his reader by recalling the image of a photographic plate:

Men of vigorous apprehension look at the heavens of truth, as it were, through a powerful telescope, and see instantly as realities many living lights which are quite invisible to the common eye. But contemplation — a faculty rare in all times, but wellnigh unheard of in ours-- is like a photographic plate which finds stars that no telescope can discover, by simply setting its passively expectant gaze in certain indicated directions so long and steadily that telescopically invisible bodies become apparent by accumulation of impression. Such men are prophets and apostles, whether canonical or not. [Principles of Art, p. 10]

These men of vision, whom Patmore later characterized as poets, were akin to impressionists, or perhaps they were more like the poetic expressionists who created a larger picture by fusing the fragments provided by philosophical and observational insights into nature and beauty.

Patmore thus argued in his collected essays, The Principles of Art, that the poet was the most visionary of all types of artists, and he characterized the poet as a mediator between the earthly and the divine. Nonetheless, he also stressed the human nature of poets, for in order to define the value of poetry Patmore had to show that the act of prophesy was possible for all men and women. The distinction which Patmore made between the poet and the common reader, of course, was that whereas all were capable of seeing deeply or prophetically, only poets habitually exercised such faculties. We all in rare moments of disaster or upon beholding a beautiful image, claimed Patmore, experience flashes of poetic or prophetic vision that provides brief glimpses of the inner nature of our surroundings. These instances of insight allow the common man always to comprehend artistic prophesy or poetic verse: "These prophetic moments — one in a million — pass; but, unless he has despised and denied them, they leave him capable, more or less, of understanding prophesy" (Principles of Art, "Possibilities and Performances," p. 28). Patmore here proposed an essentially Romantic notion of poetry much like that which Carlyle advocated in his essays and lectures. Both claimed that common reader's brief flashes of the poetic imagination could illuminate nature and the human world.

Nevertheless, Patmore ultimately differed from Carlyle and many of the Romantics in his theories on poetry, because he recognized the subtle differences between the Romantics' varied conceptions of imagination. When Patmore spoke of the "imagination," he was not thinking in any sense of the imagination as a faculty of fanciful or fantastic visions, a notion of the imagination that might appeal to the reader of Blakian verse. In fact, Patmore vigorously attacked Blake's poetry for precisely this kind of fantastic quality and he considered him a madman who not only invented his own mythology but also actually claimed to have seen all that he wrote, etched, and painted. In on essay on William Rossetti's appreciation for Blake, Patmore attacked his work entirely on the grounds that it was too out of touch with reality and real religious principles. For Patmore, therefore, poetry was about expounding and uncovering the real; it was about accessing and communicating knowledge and truth in a manner that combined both Socratic, or Platonic, philosophy with the Romantic vision. Thus Patmore set out to define the imagination by contrasting it with intellect and by rejecting Shelley's notion of the imagination as it related to spirituality. Insisting very specifically that it was "the intellect [which was] the faculty of the 'seer,'" Patmore asserted that when it came to the imagination:

Shelly [had] made a mistake . . .when he declared that the imagination is the power by which spiritual things are discerned; whereas the truth is that intellect is the power by which such things are discerned, and imagination is that by which they are expressed. [Principles of Art, "Seers, Thinkers, and Talkers," pp. 21-22]

Patmore's rejection of this Shellyian ideal most likely was connected to the fact that Shelly was himself a firm atheist, and for Patmore poetry was about expressing the real in terms of its religious or spiritual importance. Thus imagination, much like language, became for Patmore the instrument by which the real, the true, or the essential in life, visible only to the poetic eye, was expressed. Shelly's conception of the imagination for Patmore thus seemed to suggest that the spiritual was relative, or imaginary, instead of tangible and actual. Much like Blake, Shelly for Patmore was too much a proponent of the fanciful or fantastic kind of imagination and, therefore, in Patmore's terms he became an anti-visionary, or rather one who wrote of what was not, rather than what was, actually there. For Patmore, Shelley was not "imaginatively credible," and in an essay asserting that Shelly's imagination was "unreal" Patmore stated: "Shelley's thoughts and perceptions were for the most part 'Pinnacled dim in the intense inane' of a fancy which had no foundation in earth or heaven" (Principles of Art, "Crabbe and Shelly," p. 139). Patmore was also at times critical of Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats, leaving Coleridge as his only true Romantic ideal and inspiration, but his conception of the proper use of poetic imagination was mostly Keatsian.

Let us return for a moment to the image of the photographic plate. Here, what the poet sees in the external world are images or truths which are there in actuality but which are invisible to the common eye. Thus as Patmore stated, "good art is nothing but a representation of life" (Principles in Art, "Cheerfulness in Life and Art," p. 31) though it was for Patmore a representation unique in its conception and was something expressive of divine beauty and insight. The poetic vision pointed, therefore, to the moment in which the mind of the poet met that which existed in the external world. However, without the poetic mind or eye, faculties which Patmore saw as being part and parcel to the imagination, the image in the external world remained unseen, obscured in darkness. We can perhaps imagine Patmore's poetic eye as a flashlight of sorts shining directly onto the object it perceives and thus calling that object into poetic question, or in a sense re-calling that object into existence. This kind of search and discovery pattern to poetic thought was much like Keats' notions of Negative Capability or of life as a "darkness shrouded in mystery" into which only the man of genius could glimpse (Letters, To George and Tom Keats Dec. 21-27, 1817 and To Reynolds 3 May 1818 respectively). In order to understand Patmore's photographic plate, we must then ask ourselves in regards to the object, is it there without the poetic eye, and if so what becomes the subject of poetry, the object in nature or the eye which gives that object expression? Much in the spirit of the nineteenth-century German philosophers, Patmore seemed to believe that although the object existed before it was realized in the mind of the poet, artist, or prophet, it was practically irrelevant until expressed in human, or poetic terms.

This distinction between the mere object and the object in the eye of the poet then becomes significant to understanding Patmore's seemingly irrational objection to Ruskin's pathetic fallacy. In his essay entitled "Poetical Integrity," Patmore quibbled with Ruskin when he stated:

The interest of what is called descriptive or representative in real poetry and all real art is always human, or, in other words, 'imaginative.' A description by Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Burns, a landscape by Crome, Gainsborough, or Constable, is not merely nature, but nature reflected in and giving expression to a state of mind. The state of mind is the true subject, the natural phenomena the terms in which it is uttered; and there has never been a greater critical fallacy than Ruskin's strictures on the 'pathetic fallacy.' Nature has no beauty or pathos . . .but that with which the mind invests it. Without the imaginative eye it is like a flower in the dark, which is only beautiful as having in it a power of reflecting the colours of the light. [Principles of Art, p. 59]

Therefore, for Patmore, in literally bringing to light that which was otherwise dormant and inanimate in nature, the poet was in a sense making it real, for only in the poem did the specific natural phenomenon or beauty become comprehensible in human terms. Although poetry thus looked to nature, a thing which Patmore often described as being equivalent to the divine, nature itself could never be the subject of poetry. Only nature as it was interpreted and seen in the poetic vision and the poetic art of metaphor could be the subject of verse, for in poetry, the imagination, or the faculty of the mind, was coupled with images from the external world. Thus it was the imagination as Patmore defined it which lay at the heart of poetry. Instead of seeing this process in Ruskin's terms as a "fallacy," Patmore therefore wished the reader to conceive of poetry as an art form which represented the closest we could ever come to truth, nature, or divine essence. Of course, Ruskin himself argued that the role of the artist and poet involved showing nature as human beings experienced it and not as it existed in some objective,scientific way; what he denied, however, was poets and poems who emotionally distorted nature could ever rise to the level of Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer.

Patmore not only tried to set his conception of poetry apart from some of the Romantics, but also he wished to distinguish his ideal for poetry and poetic responsibility from Carlyle's. Patmore, a man of perhaps too many words, knew most of the important literary figures of the day — and eventually quarelled with most of them: he parodied or misunderstood the ideas of his friend Ruskin, took issue with his friend William Rossetti's love for Blake, wrote a bad review of his friend Browning's wife, turned his back on his friend Tennyson, and accused his friend D.G. Rossetti of wallowing too much in his versified Italian passions. Somehow he preserved an oddly agreeable and peaceable relationship with the thorny Carlyle. Nonetheless, in an essay entitled "The Poetry of Negation," Patmore rejected the most significant and most influential aspect of Carlyle's poetic theories. Whereas Carlyle changed the face of Victorian verse by combining his notions of an acute Romantic-poetic vision with a call for a more socially-concerned poetry (see above and link to Heroes and Hero-Worship essay), Patmore saw social poetry as a lesser form of verse untrue to the ideal poetic subject. Essentially, Patmore's issue with socially active writing approximated the spirit of his complaints about Keats. Just as Keats's sonnets and odes often dealt with ephemeral forms of physical beauty, social and politicalpoetry, according to Patmore, dealt with merely transient conditions and earthly themes. If the point of the poet was to bring us closer to the divine and the permanent, argued Patmore, then poet must remain focused on more lasting, even eternal, subjects, such as the principles of life and nature:

Poetry is essentially catholic and affirmative, dealing only with the permanent facts of nature and humanity, and interested in the events and controversies of its own time only so far as they evolve manifestly abiding fruits. ["The Poetry of Negation," Principles of Art, p. 62]

Essentially, Patmore sought a kind of poetry of spiritual transcendence that lifted the reader out of common, every day life into a realm of divine thought and existence. In other words, Patmore believed the poet a soul-searcher for immortality. Unlike most people, he or she was meant to strive for things higher than our mundane everyday existence.The poet social contributed to society only by offering a prophetic vision that served as a window into the extraordinary:

The statesmen, the social reformer, the political economist, the natural philosopher, the alms-giver, the hospital visitor, the preacher, even the cynical humorist, has each his function, and each is rightly more or less negative; but the function of the poet is clearly distinguished from all of these and is higher though less obtrusive than any. It is simply affirmative of things which it greatly concerns men to know, but which they have either not discovered or have allowed to lapse into the death of commonplace. He alone has the power of revealing his insight and magic words the undreamt of mines of felicity which exist potentially for all social relationships and affections. The inexhaustible glories of nature are a blank for many who are yet able to behold them reflected in his perceptions. [Principles in Art, "The Poetry of Negation," pp. 65-66]

According to Patmore, the poet therefore gave a greater gift than the social reformer by focusing on higher spiritual concerns and natural phenomena in his verse. Nonetheless, Patmore's call for an anti-social poetry did more than simply reject Carlyle's artistic ideals. Not only did Patmore believe that the poet should not engage in social themes, he also he saw the act of social reform to be something entirely devoid of use and purpose:

It is scarcely without a feeling of amazement that a man of ordinary good sense contrasts the power of poetic vision in writers like Victor Hugo and Carlyle with the childishness of their judgments when they propose antidotes for evils which they so clearly see, but for which they do not see that there are no antidotes, but only palliatives. ["The Poetry of Negation," Principles in Art, p. 64]

Part of Patmore's belief that social reform was futile of course reached back to the implications behind the Christian paradigm of the fall. Following his conservative Christian thought, Patmore thus assumed that in the earthly realm human beings were predisposed to evil and sin; only in heaven or in the process of divine transcendence could mortals reform or be saved. Thus in advocating a kind of poetry whose glimpsesof the divine could transform the human into the heavenly, Patmore believed that his poetic vision would lead to the most reformative and profound of art forms. Patmore's rejection of social reform, however, owed more to his political conservatism than to his Christianity. True, some advocates of social reform and political engagement, like Carlyle, Arnold, and Ruskin, turned to improving society after they lost their religious belief, but throughout the century Christians of all denomimations engaged in social reform, too: evangelicals within and without the Church of England led the fight to abolish slavery, Broad Churchman taught at workingmen's colleges, and High Churchmen and Roman Catholics worked with the poor in the slums of English cities.


Patmore, Coventry. Principles in Art. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.

Victorian Overview Coventry Patmore Thomas Carlyle Literary Relations

Last updated 29 July 2004