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Full Online Book HomeEssaysMr. Coventry Patmore's Odes
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Mr. Coventry Patmore's Odes Post by :cr1275 Category :Essays Author :Alice Meynell Date :April 2011 Read :1852

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Mr. Coventry Patmore's Odes

To most of the great poets no greater praise can be given than praise of their imagery. Imagery is the natural language of their poetry. Without a parable she hardly speaks. But undoubtedly there is now and then a poet who touches the thing, not its likeness, too vitally, too sensitively, for even such a pause as the verse makes for love of the beautiful image. Those rare moments are simple, and their simplicity makes one of the reader's keenest experiences. Other simplicities may be achieved by lesser art, but this is transcendent simplicity. There is nothing in the world more costly. It vouches for the beauty which it transcends; it answer for the riches it forbears; it implies the art which it fulfils. All abundance ministers to it, though it is so single. And here we get the sacrificial quality which is the well-kept secret of art at this perfection. All the faculties of the poet are used for preparing this naked greatness--are used and fruitfully spent and shed. The loveliness that stands and waits on the simplicity of certain of Mr. Coventry Patmore's Odes, the fervours and splendours that are there, only to be put to silence--to silence of a kind that would be impossible were they less glorious--are testimonies to the difference between sacrifice and waste.

But does it seem less than reasonable to begin a review of a poet's work with praise of an infrequent mood? Infrequent such a mood must needs be, yet it is in a profound sense characteristic. To have attained it once or twice is to have proved such gift and grace as a true history of literature would show to be above price, even gauged by the rude measure of rarity. Transcendent simplicity could not possibly be habitual. Man lives within garments and veils, and art is chiefly concerned with making mysteries of these for the loveliness of his life; when they are rent asunder it is impossible not to be aware that an overwhelming human emotion has been in action. Thus _Departure_, _If I were Dead_, _A Farewell_, _Eurydice_, _The Toys_, _St. Valentine's Day_--though here there is in the exquisite imaginative play a mitigation of the bare vitality of feeling--group themselves apart as the innermost of the poet's achievements.

Second to these come the Odes that have splendid thought in great images, and display--rather than, as do the poems first glanced at, betray--the beauties of poetic art. Emotion is here, too, and in shocks and throes, never frantic when almost intolerable. It is mortal pathos. If any other poet has filled a cup with a draught so unalloyed, we do not know it. Love and sorrow are pure in _The Unknown Eros_; and its author has not refused even the cup of terror. Against love often, against sorrow nearly always, against fear always, men of sensibility instantaneously guard the quick of their hearts. It is only the approach of the pang that they will endure; from the pang itself, dividing soul and spirit, a man who is conscious of a profound capacity for passion defends himself in the twinkling of an eye. But through nearly the whole of Coventry Patmore's poetry there is an endurance of the mortal touch. Nay, more, he has the endurance of the immortal touch. That is, his capacity for all the things that men elude for their greatness is more than the capacity of other men. He endures therefore what they could but will not endure and, besides this, degrees that they cannot apprehend. Thus, to have studied _The Unknown Eros_ is to have had a certain experience--at least the impassioned experience of a compassion; but it is also to have recognised a soul beyond our compassion.

What some of the Odes have to sing of, their author does not insist upon our knowing. He leaves more liberty for a well-intentioned reader's error than makes for peace and recollection of mind in reading. That the general purpose of the poems is obscure is inevitable. It has the obscurity of profound clear waters. What the poet chiefly secures to us is the understanding that love and its bonds, its bestowal and reception, does but rehearse the action of the union of God with humanity--that there is no essential man save Christ, and no essential woman except the soul of mankind. When the singer of a Song of Songs seems to borrow the phrase of human love, it is rather that human love had first borrowed the truths of the love of God. The thought grows gay in the three _Psyche_ odes, or attempts a gaiety--the reader at least being somewhat reluctant. How is it? Mr. Coventry Patmore's play more often than not wins you to but a slow participation. Perhaps because some thrust of his has left you still tremulous.

But the inequality of equal lovers, sung in these Odes with a Divine allusion, is a most familiar truth. Love that is passionate has much of the impulse of gravitation--gravitation that is not falling, as there is no downfall in the precipitation of the sidereal skies. The love of the great for the small is the passionate love; the upward love hesitates and is fugitive. St. Francis Xavier asked that the day of his ecstasy might be shortened; Imogen, the wife of all poetry, 'prays forbearance;' the child is 'fretted with sallies of his mothers kisses.' It might be drawing an image too insistently to call this a centrifugal impulse.

The art that utters an intellectual action so courageous, an emotion so authentic, as that of Mr. Coventry Patmore's poetry, cannot be otherwise than consummate. Often the word has a fulness of significance that gives the reader a shock of appreciation. This is always so in those simplest odes which we have taken as the heart of the author's work. Without such wonderful rightness, simplicity of course is impossible. Nor is that beautiful precision less in passages of description, such as the landscape lines in _Amelia_ and elsewhere. The words are used to the uttermost yet with composure. And a certain justness of utterance increases the provocation of what we take leave to call unjust thought in the few poems that proclaim an intemperate scorn--political, social, literary. The poems are but two or three; they are to be known by their subjects--we might as well do something to justify their scorn by using the most modern of adjectives--and call them topical. Here assuredly there is no composure. Never before did superiority bear itself with so little of its proper, signal, and peculiar grace--reluctance.

If Mr. Patmore really intends that his Odes shall be read with minim, or crochet, or quaver rests, to fill up a measure of beaten time, we are free to hold that he rather arbitrarily applies to liberal verse the laws of verse set for use--cradle verse and march-marking verse (we are, of course, not considering verse set to music, and thus compelled into the musical time). Liberal verse, dramatic, narrative, meditative, can surely be bound by no time measures--if for no other reason, for this: that to prescribe pauses is also to forbid any pauses unprescribed. Granting, however, his principle of catalexis, we still doubt whether the irregular metre of _The Unknown Eros_ is happily used except for the large sweep of the flight of the Ode more properly so called. _Lycidas_, the _Mrs. Anne Killigrew_, the _Intimations_, and Emerson's _Threnody_, considered merely for their versification, fulfil their laws so perfectly that they certainly move without checks as without haste. So with the graver Odes--much in the majority--of Mr. Coventry Patmore's series. A more lovely dignity of extension and restriction, a more touching sweetness of simple and frequent rhyme, a truer impetus of pulse and impulse, English verse could hardly yield than are to be found in his versification. And what movement of words has ever expressed flight, distance, mystery, and wonderful approach, as they are expressed in a celestial line--the eighth in the ode _To the Unknown Eros_? When we are sensible of a metrical cheek it is in this way: To the English ear the heroic line is the unit of metre, and when two lines of various length undesignedly add together to form a heroic line, they have to be separated with something of a jerk. And this adding--as, for instance, of a line of four syllables preceding or following one of six--occurs now and then, and even in such a masterly measure of music as _A Farewell_. It is as when a sail suddenly flaps windless in the fetching about of a boat. In _The Angel in the House_, and other earlier poems, Mr. Coventry Patmore used the octosyllabic stanza perfectly, inasmuch as he never left it either heavily or thinly packed. Moreover those first poems had a composure which was the prelude to the peace of the Odes. And even in his slightest work he proves himself the master--that is, the owner--of words that, owned by him, are unprofaned, are as though they had never been profaned; the capturer of an art so quick and close that it is the voice less of a poet than of the very Muse.


(The end)
Alice Meynell's essay: Mr. Coventry Patmore's Odes

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