f Patmore was going to reject such poetic subjects as social reform in order to create a poetry of divine aspect and transcendental value, then he needed to find a theme for his verse which would successfully unite the mortal with the heavenly. Not surprisingly to those who have read The Angel in the House, this underlying thematic thread became for Patmore a mystical approach to the subject of love. I have stated that Patmore was very set on emphasizing the role of the poet as a prophet, as one who discovers or hears a divine message in nature and communicates it through verse. This poetic ability celebrated in Patmore's image of the photographic plate and earlier in Keats' image of the Mansion of many apartments (Letter to Reynolds, 3 May 1818) thus allowed the poet to glimpse into the obscurities of life and reveal what was, more or less, the divine secrets of nature. For Patmore, love was therefore not only a mechanism through which the human became intertwined with the eternal, but also it was the greatest mystery one could behold. In an essay on "Love and Poetry," Patmore described the poet as a kind of mystic who was, therefore, the only interpreter fit to try to understand this "absurd" emotional phenomenon:
The common handicrafts used to be called mysteries; and their professors were mystics to outsiders exactly in the sense that poets or theologians, with sure, but to them uncommunicated and perhaps incommunicable, knowledge, are mystics to the many. The poet simply knows more than they do . . . Love is eternally absurd, for that which is the root of all things must itself be without a root. Aristotle says that things are unintelligible to man in proportion as they are simple; and another says, in speaking of the mysteries of love, that the angels themselves desire in vain to look into these things. In the hands of the poet, mystery does not hide knowledge, but reveals it as by its proper medium. [Principles in Art, p. 73-74]
According to Patmore,the poet was a mystic and love an enticing mystery necessarily obscured in darkness. In his essay "Love and Poetry," Patmore quoted St. Bernard when the latter described love as a divine secret: "The more the realities of heaven are clothed with obscurity, the more they delight and attract . . ." Then for Patmore love and poetry naturally went hand in hand, and consequently he advocated love as the ideal poetic subject. In the time of his writing The Angel in the House, however, Patmore was not simply speaking of love as he had seen it in Keatsian or Rossettian rhyme, for these kinds of love were for him those of a passionate, and therefore, ephemeral and physical nature. Hence, it was necessary for Patmore to carefully construct a particular definition of love in his essays much in the same manner that he had previously defined the poetic imagination. It was for this very reason, in order to gain a sense of permanence in poetry and remove himself from the transience so characteristic of Romantic themes, that Patmore settled on the subject of marital, and not physical, love as the ideal substance of verse:
Love is sure to be something less than human if it is not something more; and the so-called extravagances of the youthful heart, which always claims a character for divinity in its emotions, fall necessarily into sordid, if not shameful, reaction, if those claims are not justified to the understanding by the faith which declares man and woman to be priest and priestess to each other of relations inherent in Divinity itself, and proclaimed in the words 'Let us make man in our image' and 'male and female created them.' Nothing can reconcile the intimacies of love to the higher feelings, unless the parties to them are conscious-- and true lovers always are-- that, for the season at least, they justify the words 'I have said, Ye are gods.' Nuptial love bears the clearest marks of being nothing other than the rehearsal of a communion of a higher nature. [Principles in Art, "Love and Poetry," p. 77]
Hence, marital love for Patmore implied a union of souls, a merging of two individuals, in which both parties then attained a higher or more heavenly kind of existence.This kind of ideal union thus marked the metamorphosis or transcendence into the divine which Patmore wished to capture in his poetry. Moreover, it was not merely important for Patmore to advocate such a conception of marriage, but also he saw the necessity of setting this kind of macrocosmic love against the backdrop of a lesser form of desire or romance, that which he termed here in the passage above as "extravagances of the youthful heart." Juxtaposing earthy and spiritual love in his poetry allowed Patmore to distinguish between physical desire and the true emotional mechanics of love, which he felt had been lost amidst the shuffle of Romantic love poetry and the general yearnings of humanity. Indeed, much of the emphasis behind Victorian and Romantic (particularly second generation Romantic, or Keatsian) verse was on the losses, not the gains, of romantic love. Think for a moment of the of the fair lady fading into the distance, or dying upon her true love's kiss, and suddenly you may remember Wordsworth' Lucy, Coleridge's poor woodman following the Brachenspectre shadow, Keats' Urn, or perhaps you will recall Tennyson's "Lady of Shallot," or Swinburne's "Triumph of Time," or even one of Browning's earlier poems, "Two in the Compagna." These poetic fantasies and fancies are the melancholies which Patmore so wished to avoid.
Consequently, these poems also mark a focus on idolized and objectified femininity, so to speak, with which so many twentieth century feminist critics have taken issue. So why then has Patmore become the anti-Christ of modern feminism? As I have previously stated, it seems that in creating a poetry of what Patmore would have deemed higher love, the poet did not want to lose sight of this distinction between young, or physical, passion and a transcendent spiritual and physical union. Therefore, Patmore wrote the first half (Books I and II) of his Angel in the House as a Kuntslerroman, or the poetic equivalent of a Bildungsroman, and this structure marks the poetic nuance which modern Patmore criticism has seemed to overlook. If we read the first two books of The Angel in the House, "The Betrothal" and "The Espousals," closely we thus note that the character Felix undergoes an important progression in regards to his spiritual development as it pertains to an overall outlook or attitude concerning love. What this character development marks is the distinction between passion and union, or the shift between young love and nuptial love, which Patmore discusses in the above excerpt from his essay on "Love and Poetry."
In attacking small fragments from Patmore's "Angel," feminist critics have thus forgotten to look at the work as a whole, to see it in the spirit of the long Victorian poem, as a book-like, or novel-esque, verse rife with character-specific plot, voice, and moral development. Whereas Patmore himself may not have been a complete equal-opportunist when it came to his masculine and Anglo-centric opinions on the poetic gems of the Western world (see his essay on Keats for example), in lieu of his poetic masterpiece and his treatise on love, on the other hand, Patmore was actually anything but what one might call typically Victorian. In fact, if Patmore's Angel is like any of its contemporary works, it is like Aurora Leigh, but before turning to E.B. Browning as a possible co-conspirator in Patmore's vision for transcendental love, I would like to discuss the one predecessor whom Patmore clearly had in mind throughout The Angel in the House.
One of the most famous discussions of transcendental, or eternal, love of course appears in Plato's Symposium, a work which Reid cites in his biography as one of Patmore's most beloved pieces of literature from the time in which he was studying as a boy under his father, Peter G. Patmore. The reader of the Symposium will recall two of the dialogue's most famous passages, which are very much in line with Patmore's philosophy on love in his essay entitled "Love and Poetry" and which also, as we will soon see, become essential to the climactic resolution of Patmore's first installments of The Angel in the House. The first episode of the Symposium that influenced Patmore's thought and verse is that of Aristophanes' oration of the myth of the androgyn, an image which Swinburne became well known for using in his erotic poetry. In this story, which recounts Zeus' splitting of the primeval androgyn of four legs and four arms into two separate beings (either a man and a woman, or two individual men or women), Aristophanes articulates the essence of his notion of true love when he recounts the words of Hephaestus who in an act of pity welds the essence of the two human halves back together again:
Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another's company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one, and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two-- I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this? [p.18]
Of course, the primeval humans answer "yes" to Hephaestus' proposal, and thus Aristophanes concludes his portion of the dialogue with the assertion that we are all mere halves aspiring for completion and searching for happiness in our proper counterparts who roam the earth. What is significant about Hephaestus' speech, however, is that this symbolic reunion of the androgyn is not a simple remolding of the body but is also a reunion of the souls. Hence, we arrive at the notion of two individuals becoming one, an act which for Patmore reflects the ideals of marriage and which is not only a physical, or mortal, union but is also one which continues into the afterlife. Thus the love of the androgynous being is a love that transcends the divisions between heaven and earth and surpasses the transience of a purely sexual encounter. It is therefore no surprise that in the climax of the first half of The Angel in the House, which focuses on the story of Felix and Honoria, Patmore takes a hold of the image of the androgyn as a metaphor for his ideal of transcendental love. Here, in another prelude which Felix writes to Honoria after their marriage, the young poet finally reaches a conception of love which is more profound than his previous attempts at romantic verse, and surpassing the frivolity of his formerly transient desires, invokes a more modern interpretation of the reunion of the androgyn:
Nature, with endless being rife,
Parts each thing into 'him' and 'her,'
And in the arithmetic of life,
The smallest unit is a pair;
And thus, oh, strange, sweet half of me,
If I confess a loftier flame,
If more I love high Heaven than thee,
I more than love thee, thee I am;
And, if the world's not built of lies,
Nor all a cheat the Gospel tells,
If that which from the dead shall rise
Be I indeed, not something else,
There's no position more secure
In reason or in faith than this,
That those conditions must endure,
Which, wanting, I myself should miss. ["The Demonstration," Book II, Canto X, Prelude IV, lines 1-16; in later versions this section appears in Canto XI, "The Wedding."]
If we take a look at the first half of Felix's resolution on love in lines 1-4 of this prelude, we recognize Patmore's direct allusion to Aristophenes' myth of the androgyn. Here, the introductory word "nature" triggers the initial state of humanity which Plato has Aristophenes describe in The Symposium as a "double nature." Thus the first two lines of Patmore's climactic prelude are literally speaking to a time when humanity was split into two separate genders, "him and her." Lines three through four then point to the speech and conclusion of Hephaestus who allows the androgynous halves to reunite back into their original, or natural, state of being. In claiming that "the smallest unit is a pair," Patmore's Felix, therefore, recognizes that in an ideal, or perhaps, a true state of nature there is no isolated individual; there is essentially no gendered love. In this epiphanic moment of sorts, Felix thus sees clearly, or as Patmore would claim "poetically," and realizes that his former idolization of Honoria simply stemmed from a superficial kind of desire and a pure state of disillusionment. Patmore's ideal love is, therefore, exactly the opposite of what twentieth-century criticism has labeled it. In these four lines of Felix's epiphanic moment, Patmore not only rejects the kind of idolized feminity so common to the poetic themes of his contemporaries, but also he recalls a kind of mystic and or metaphysical take on love reminiscent of the poetry of John Donne.
It is difficult not to recall Donne's "Canonization" in these four lines. When writing this prelude, Patmore, who was just as much a student of Donne and the Metaphysical poets as he was of Plato and Aristotle (see Reid), most certainly had in mind Donne's line "we two being one are it" which refers to a pair of lovers as a metaphoric testament to the phoenix myth. In Donne's poem, the two lovers in the act of making love rise and fall, unite and split apart, die and are reborn. In essence, they become both like Plato's androgyn and like the phoenix, who in an endless cycle of life and death is resurrected from his own ashes. For Donne, if the lovers have the capacity of rebirth, then as a pair they are essentially immortalized, or as Donne wrote, they are sainted, or "canonized," through their love. It is no surprise that such a metaphor would have appealed to Patmore, a proponent and philosopher of transcendent love, but it is also clear that in their verse both Patmore and Donne combined two parts of Plato's dialogue from the Symposium.
The resolution of the speakers' discussion in the Symposium lies in Socrates' monologue when he comes to understand the mysteries of love from wise Diotima. Socrates's conversation with Diotima, which he recalls to his friends, is essential to understanding Patmore's attempt to distinguish between the superficial love of youth and the divine love of marriage. More importantly it also explains the second half of Felix's prelude. In the dialogue, Plato arrives at a conclusive definition of love when Diotima asks Socrates:
"When a man loves the beautiful what does he love?" I answered her, "That the beautiful may be his." Still, she said, "the answer suggests a further question, which is this: What is given to the possessor of beauty?" "That," I replied "is a question to which I have no answer ready." "Then," she said, "let me put the word good in the place of the beautiful, and repeat the question: 'What does he who loves the good desire?'" "The possession of the good," I said. "And what does he gain who possesses the good?" "Happiness," I replied. "Yes," she said . . .Then love, she said, may be described generally as the everlasting possession of the good . . . [pp. 28-29]
Here, Diotima points to the exact philosophical subtlety, which Patmore tries to describe in the Angel in the House, when she shows Socrates that beauty, unlike the good, is not something that we can hold in eternal possession. Therefore, a love which is "the everlasting possession of the good" is, she ultimately explains, a love which allows man, or woman, to become immortal; it is a love which transcends the human and the earthly. The "everlasting possession of the good" in essence signifies the possession of the divine, something which Patmore claims we can only obtain through true poetic vision or nuptial union. When Felix states in lines 7-8, "If more I love high Heaven than thee, / I more than love thee, thee I am," he thus extends the myth of the androgyn to Socratic philosophy by claiming that the true love between two individuals is a love of the divine, or in other words an aspiration towards heaven. Moreover, he claims that we can only achieve this kind of love through the binding of two souls, through the reunion of two halves into one whole. With a love which transcends the mortal realm, Felix and Honoria can finally arrive at a divine status by loyally uniting themselves to one another, by stripping themselves of desire, human idolatry, and their separate gendered titles so that they can together, as one, focus on God. In the last section of the prelude, Felix thus recalls the lines of the gospel which promise human resurrection or the soul's upwards departure from the body, and in doing so gives himself over to a binding and immortal love. The last four lines of the prelude, which reassure the reader that the resurrection of the soul is possible, then also act as Felix's farewell salute to the earthly realm and the superficial pleasures, or loves, of the body:
There's no position more secure
In reason or in faith than this,
That those conditions must endure,
Which, wanting, I myself should miss.
Here, Felix distinguishes himself from the temporal qualities of a young love and a merely human existence. The "enduring conditions" most likely are those of human desires and the transient pleasures and pains of the body which still exist in the earthly realm.
Nonetheless, the last line which confirms Felix's departure from both the mortal realm and a purely physical outlook on love, leave the reader somewhat troubled, for here Patmore plays with the double entendres of the words "wanting" and "miss." Although both imply a continued sense of yearning (for by "wanting" Felix could mean "desiring," and "miss" could signify a retrospective longing), Patmore clearly intends Felix to invoke the alternate meanings of these words. By "wanting" Felix, therefore, means "lacks," and with the word "miss" he wishes to express a sense of ignoring or surpassing that which is human or of a physical, transient, and disillusioned kind of love. However, these puns clearly serve a poetic purpose for Patmore if not for Felix, and Patmore challenges his reader when he has Felix simultaneously describe his own ability to rise above physical pleasure and recall the ever-present human tendency towards fanciful longings and desires. The last line of Patmore's climactic prelude, therefore, asks us do we wish to remain in a world and a poetry of physical concerns and transient satisfaction, or do we dare to seek out our own heavenly union? Can we too be "canonized by love?"
Champneys, Basil. Memoirs and Correspondence of Coventry Patmore. 2 vols. London, G. Bell & sons.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
Reid, John Cowie. The Mind and Art of Coventry Patmore London, Routledge & Paul .
Last updated 29 July 2004