Left: Coventry Patmore (1849) by John Brett.
Right: Coventry Patmore (1855) by Thomas Woolner.
Click on images for larger pictures.
Like George Eliot and Charles Dickens, Coventry Patmore was one of those Victorian authors those whose lives intrigued contemporary and modern readers just as much as their work. Raised in a literary household, known from his youth to nearly all of the great poets and essayists of his time, this poetic advocate of religion and marriage (who was in fact married three times and became a follower of more than one faith) has proven to be a compelling subject of biography. In fact, Patmore's status in mid- to late nineteenth-century literary circle has perhaps made it difficult for critics to separate the man from his work, and the majority of the secondary material on Patmore has sought textual allusions that connect the poet's verse to his life.
Coventry Patmore, who was born in Woodford, Essex, on July 23, 1823, most likely was named after his godmother, a Mrs. Coventry. Patmore's earliest literary influence was certainly his own father, Peter George Patmore, editor of the New Monthly periodical from 1841-1853, who was a fairly well known novelist and drama critic in his own time. Somewhat of a bohemian and a dandy, P.G. Patmore did not commit himself to any specific religious faith but revered certain forms and concepts of Christianity. Patmore senior took charge of his son's education, teaching him mathematics, literature, classics, theater, and art. According to Champneys, Peter George even built his son his own laboratory specifically designed for the boy's own scientific experimentation. In 1839, Patmore's father sent his son to Paris, where at the age of 16 he fell in love with a young woman of 18 named Ms. Gore. Althoughs he did not return Coventry's affections, his infatuation became important in the young poet's career because it inspired two of Patmore's earliest poems, "The River" and "The Woodman's Daughter" (text).
Patmore's early immersion into the world of literary society sparked his career as a poet. His father, who numbered William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb among his literary friends, often took the boy for visits to two important households. The first household was that of Mrs. Basil Montagu, a woman whom Patmore much admired and honored to the extent that he was known to compliment women by asserting that they resembled Mrs. Montagu either in appearances or character. The second house which Coventry often frequented with his father was the house of Bryan Waller Procter (or Barry Cornwall), where he met Monckton Milnes who later offered him a job at the British Museum. Champneys attributes the rise of Patmore's poetic career to the publication of Tennyson's collected poems in 1842. However, regardless of the effect which this volume of poetry had on the young Patmore, it was certainly his father's friends who mostly encouraged his writing, and in 1844 Coventry's father forced him to publish a small volume of his poems. It was around this time that Patmore left the sciences, urged by the great stir that the publication of his early poems had created. These early works launched a popular critical enterprise that attempted to place the young poet within the line of descent from vaious importabnt poets. Some criticsclaimed, for example, that he was a definite Tennysonian; others insisted that he was a follower of Browning. Many associated him with Wordsworth and the Lake Poets, and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton grouped him with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of poets with whom Patmore eventually became very well acquainted. His biographers Champneys and Reid, however, argue against Patmore's contemporaries, insisting that he was rooted in the tradition of Coleridge from the very start of his career.
Both his father's friends and other members of the literary world unknown to the young Patmore helped to him establish himself financially when the elder Patmore's money troubles forced him and Coventry's mother to escape to France in 1844. This sudden change in the young Patmore's financial status forced him at the age of 22 to find work, and for a while he only earning less than a pound a week from translations and reviews. Fotunately, Patmore's growing reputation as a writer quickly came to his aid, and in 1846 Monckton Milnes, who had read the young poet's small volume of verses, secured him a job cataloguing books at the British Museum Library. On October 3rd of the same year, William Mackpeace Thackeray, who was never previously known to the young poet, wrote a letter to Mr. Nickisson, the editor of Fraser's magazine, on Patmore's behalf:
I beg you 10,000 pardons for not answering your note. I quite forgot it, that's the truth, until it reproached me yesterday. Will you pay attention to the accompanying paper by young Patmore the poet — he is himself a most deserving and clever young fellow who will be a genius some day; and his paper is so odd, humorous and amusing that I hope you will secure it, and its author as a future contributor. — Yours ever W.M.T. [Champneys, I, 62]
- Patmore's Marriage to Emily Augusta Andrews, 1847-1860
- Patmore's Marriage to Marianne Caroline Byles, 1864-1880
- Patmore's Marriage to Harriet Robson, 1881-1896
- Patmore's Religious Background and Conversions
Champneys, Basil. Memoirs and correspondence of Coventry Patmore. 2 vols. London, G. Bell & Sons, 1900.
Last updated 13 June 2004