Sunday Night Journal — July 10, 2011
This is something I’ve been planning to mention for some months. It’s been quite a while now—I’m not sure I want to remind myself of just how long—since Dale Nelson sent me a copy of his excellent article on Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s long poem The Angel In the House which appeared in the March-April 2002 issue of the bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. The article focuses, naturally, on the connections between Patmore’s ideas and Lewis’s. I delayed in writing about it because I wanted to take some time to read something of Patmore first; I vaguely remembered that he had appeared briefly in the anthology which served as the text for a course in Victorian literature I’d taken as an undergrad, but that was all.
I still have that anthology, and another, larger one, which I thought had a good selection from Angel. As it turned out, the two together provided me with not much more than a hundred of the several thousand lines that comprise the poem, but those are excellent. (The entire work can be found online at VictorianWeb, but I don’t care to read at that length on the computer).
The Angel in the House, published in parts between 1854 and 1862, ultimately became “perhaps more generally loved than any other poem of the age,” in the words of one of my anthologies. Considering that “the age” included Tennyson and Browning, that’s saying quite a lot. As is often the case, the best-loved poem of its time did not remain so when its time had passed, but neither did it become a mere relic or antique; there seems to be a good deal in it which still speaks to us.
If I had pursued an academic career, I would most likely have specialized in the Victorian era. Part of the reason is that the Victorians were already dealing with the crisis of faith, and the deep anxiety it produced, long before the 20th century would come to be known as the age of anxiety, but were coping with it in a very different way, a way still owing much to Christianity and characterized by common sense and a high sense of personal duty and honor. And where they were or became serious Christians, as Patmore was, they had already begun to hold a kind of faith that has come to be familiar to us, a faith that has to be, for any moderately educated person (apart perhaps from natural saints), self-conscious and self-examining in a way that was not required in the Middle Ages.
And so with Patmore’s long hymn to married love: perhaps I’m showing my ignorance here, but I’m not aware of any earlier literature which approaches the subject in quite this way. Obviously there had been all manner of love poetry, and the idea that romantic love could lead one toward God was hardly novel, but the raptures of that kind of poetry did not feature or even necessarily involve marriage as such, much less domesticity. And what Patmore seems to have attempted, among other things, is to paint married life as a continuing revel in the sacramental beauty and significance of love between the sexes, domesticated but still rich and powerful.
These ideas have been further explored in modern times, by C.S. Lewis among others, and Dale Nelson’s piece reveals that the connections between Patmore and Lewis were conscious connections: Lewis had read and admired Patmore. Unfortunately the article is not online, but it is among the back issues of the bulletin which are available for mail order at the Society’s web site . Here is one of the key points:
A chief conviction of Patmore’s is the centrality of gender for the whole creation (“nuptial contrasts are the poles / On which the heavenly spheres revolve” [Book I, Canto II]). Compare Lewis in Perelandra, Chapter 16: “Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaption to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings....”
Patmore’s wife, Emily, who was the subject of The Angel In the House, died after fifteen years of marriage. Not long afterward, Patmore became a Catholic, and Nelson tells us that he burned all the copies of The Angel that he could get his hands on because he believed it to be heterodox. Perhaps it is in parts; perhaps it goes a bit too far in its exaltation of love between the sexes. That may be—or it may be that it only seemed so from the somewhat puritanical viewpoint that has, it can’t be denied, sometimes characterized the Catholic view of love and marriage. In any case the few poems I’ve read from it did not strike me as problematic in that line.
As Nelson points out, there is (based only on what he quotes and what I’ve read) quite a bit in Patmore that strikes us as Victorian in a bad way: I expect the title alone would be enough to put not only feminists but most contemporary women on guard. It appears that there is a good deal of condescension, to say the least—a good deal of woman as childlike, charming, and saintly, but not the mental equal of her husband. Nevertheless, there can’t be much doubt that he was writing about, and from, real love, and a real grasp of the connection between romantic love and spiritual aspiration. No culture gets everything right, and I’d say a flawed testament of real love and real faith is far preferable to a sick popular culture which speaks of women only as “hot” or not, and has given us the term “hookup.”
In one of the last poems of The Angel In the House, the poet asks himself why, though he is now married to the woman he has been pursuing, he still desires to woo her, and closes with this lovely picture of the something-unattainable that is always there in the woman one loves; I suppose the female point of view has a counterpart, but I suspect it would be expressed differently:
Because her gay and lofty brows,
When all is won which hope can ask,
Reflect a light of hopeless snows
That bright in virgin ether bask;
Because, though free of the outer court
I am, this Temple keeps its shrine
Sacred to Heaven; because, in short,
She’s not and never can be mine.