Coventry Patmore

Coventry Patmore by John Singer Sargent. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Coventry Patmore’s career as a poet was cursed by his father’s misfortunes, but blessed by his happiness in his three marriages. His first collection of poetry was published in 1844, when he was just 21. Unfortunately, his father had recently libelled the Duchess of Richmond and the subsequent fallout meant that his father’s enemies were highly critical of the poems, using terms like ‘weakest inanity’ to describe them. Robert Browning, however, allowed that for a man so young the poems had a ‘wonderful success’.

Patmore persevered. He composed his first volume of poems about pure and legitimate (married) love, celebrating his happy marriage to his wife Emily. He adored her and was deeply in love with her, writing ‘You are like an Angel in Heaven’.

The poems, eventually called ‘The Angel in the House’, describe the hero’s proposal and marriage, and are thought to reflect Coventry’s own happiness.

‘And she assumed the maiden coy,

  And I adored remorseless charm,

And then we clapp’d our hands for joy,

  And ran into each other’s arms.’

Initial reviews were disastrous although one reviewer saw what Coventry was trying to achieve – a chivalrous tribute to the honour of women. One of Patmore’s colleagues at the British Museum, where he worked, wrote privately, “I would not have written it for any money. It has a sad lack of invention and imagination.”

In 1887 the publisher Cassell printed a series of literature’s greatest works. ‘The Angel in the House’ was part of this series and sold 20,000 copies in the first fortnight, at 3d each. This was the beginning of the real popularity of ‘The Angel in the House’, which by the end of Patmore’s life had sold nearly a million copies.

Patmore believed in ‘the woman’s excellent privilege of subordination’. The interest and argument in England about the role of women led a British philosopher, John Stuart Mills, to conclude, “There is no difficulty in understanding why the subjection of women has become a custom. No other explanation is needed than physical force”. Punch joined in the debate, with a cartoon featuring a woman in the ‘House’ at Westminster. ‘Angel in the House’ came to signify a perfect, docile wife – the poem became a kind of guide to matrimony.

In 1931 Virginia Woolf alluded to the poem, speaking of the need to ‘kill the Angel in the House’. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life Coventry Patmore was popular, despite parodies from Swinburne, another poet and critic, and criticism from independent literary reviewers.

He retired to Lymington and one cold November day, walked to a local hotel, ironically, called The Angel. He later caught a cold, and died. Many tributes followed his death.

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