In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the one common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks and italicized the titles of paintings. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to let the editors of this site know. — George P. Landow
HERE is an anecdote of an honest Irishman whose mingled sense of the duty of gratitude and the awkwardness of obligation found vent in the characteristic aspiration — " O that I could see your honour knocked down in a fight! Sure and wouldn't I bring a faction to the rescue!" Like the worthy Hibernian, we could almost wish to see the author of this delightful poem once more in jeopardy from the critics, modestly figuring to ourselves that we might, in such a contingency, possibly render the republic of letters some slight service. We may not entirely approve the method of our friend Mr. Borrow, who intimates that, when a critic annoys him, he merely "holds the offender up by the tail, the blood and foam streaming from his broken jaws!"—since which announcement, by the way, we have thought it well to give the author of Lavengro a wide berth. But, seriously—greatly preferring, as we do, tho positive pole of criticism to the negative, and holding it a thousand times better to help one true writer to recognition than to anticipate natural death by summary execution in the case of twice two hundred pretenders — we could almost prevail upon ourselves to quarrel with Mr. Patmore for having won his position propria Marte [by his own efforts], and left nothing for us but the task of chronicling his success. After a long and almost painful process of printing and re-printing, casting and re-casting, polishing, erasing, and dislocating, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, the various components of the Angel in the House, accompanied by a kite-tail of minor pieces, have ultimately assembled in two handsome volumes, indubitably destined to occupy an honourable place among British classics, and to reach posterity as terse and vivid expositors of some of the finest thought and deepest feeling of our age.
This is not the opportunity, nor are ours the limits, to enter upon any detailed examination of verso already so widely known, and, in general, so weighty with meaning, so provocative of emotion and reflection. If asked, however, for some justification of our praise, we would direct attention in particular to the brightness, freshness and cheerfulness of the first half of the first volume, as contrasted with the repressed intensity of emotion depicted in the first book of tho second. Each representation is equally masterly; yet they respectively sound the extremest notes of the scale of passion, and the qualifications demanded for the treatment of each are of a totally different character. To borrow an illustration from the motto of "Tamerton Church Tower," these are respectively as Beauty and Bands, the two staves which Zechariah took unto him when he fed the flock. The first poem is a morning landscape, which we are somehow obliged to associate with birds—not, as Mr. Patmore elsewhere has it, singing in the lonely recesses of a wood songs
Fit for their only listener, heaven —
but only the most audible participants in the general concert of all nature, animate and inanimate. In the opening cantos of “Faithful for Ever,” on the other hand, we encounter severe introspection, perplexed meditation, subtle casuistic balancings and counterbalancings, the suppressed passion that clenches the hands and tightens the veins, a sense of pending issues of good or ill that contracts the horizon, and shuts out all thought of enjoyment from its darkened circuit. This certainly denotes uncommon versatility of power. Equally admirable is the variety, no less than the beauty, of the charming little landscapes that sparkle up and down those volumes:—
The clouds, the intermediate blue,
The air that rings with larks, the grave
And distant rumour of the wave,
The solitary sailing stiff,
The gusty corn-field on the cliff,
The corn-flower by the crumbling ledge.
Or, far down at the shingle's edge,
The sighing sea's recurrent crest,
Breaking, resigned to its unrest.
This is, indeed, to speak to the eye; nor would it bo easy to find a better example of the definition of a good style — the employment of proper words in proper places. Another rare merit, which must strike the most cursory reader, is the frequent (we cannot say invariable) pithiness of thought and condensation of diction, especially when the poet enunciates some precious aphorism like this: —
Kind souls, you wonder why, love you,
When you, you wonder why, love none.
We love, sir, for the good we do,
Not that which unto us is done.
Or when he indulges us with one of his singularly terse and original similes, as “In joy's cap danced the feather jest,” or
In heaven the symbol of my mood,
Where one bright star engrossed the blue.
A cordial appreciation of Mr. Patmore's merits renders it doubly our duty to say a word touching his faults. As with all good writers, these are closely allied to his most characteristic excellences: the sunny side of the fruit is the most exposed to damage and decay. His intense sensitiveness to the beauty of homely things leads him to make a household god of any triviality. He seems incapable of discriminating between the limpid waters of domestic life and the sticks and straws they gather as they flow. We note with pleasure that the alterations in this edition nearly all tend towards greater dignity and refinement; and much of which we must still disapprove may be explained by the obvious fact that the poem was conceived under strong pre-Raphaelite influences, and may therefore be expected to participate in the mellowing process to which that salutary but crude protest against conventionalism is gradually ecoming subjected. A kindred but more pardonable fault is the introduction of theological and metaphysical themes, with which poetry has no business, and for the treatment of which Mr. Patmore possesses no peculiar qualifications. As an exponent of ethical truth, he is weighty, straightforward, keen, and perfectly perspicuous; but his treatment of more abstruse subjects suggests the interposition of some opaque medium between his intelligence and the object it would scrutinize, and (a sure token of imperfect discernment) his diction then becomes hazy and laboured. It is infinitely worse when he strives to render the abstract into the concrete. How a mind that had dwelt for an instant with Shelley's Muse in her lucid pavilions — that had mingled but once with the luminous flight of the angels in the "thin flame" of Mr. Rossetti's sublime and spiritual vision — how such a mind should have perpotratcd anything like the celestial revelations of the last book of this poom is to us an inscratablo mystery.
Such minor oversights cannot impair a reputation acquired by something far higher than mere literary merit. the secret of Mr. Patmore's genius and of his fame may be road by all in the simple and noble dedication of his work— “The Angel in the House is inscribed to the memory of her by whom and for whom I became a poet.” Knowing something of what these proud and mournful words would convey, we feel it would be a profanation to add another of our own.
“The Angel in the House.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (16 May 1863): 356-57. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street,” 1863. Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 21 July 2016.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. London: Macmillan & Co., 1863.
Last updated 18 May 2006