Coventry Patmore (1823-1896), one of the most skilled Catholic poets of the second half of the 19th century, today is almost completely forgotten. His fame survives to a limited extent in France, thanks to the excellent translation that Paul Claudel made of some of his verse. C. S. Lewis was also an admirer of Patmore’s works.
Before his conversion in 1864, two years after his wife’s death, Patmore had already written extensively. In 1844 he had published a volume entitled Poems, and between 1854 and 1856 he had produced a long poem, “The Angel in the House”, dedicated to marital love. The Victorian public was enthusiastic, struck by the author’s uncommon ability to capture the reader’s imagination by presenting a domestic portrait of affection and tenderness.
By contrast, To The Unknown Eros (1878), the collection following the conversion, could hardly have met the appreciation of his contemporaries. Thanks to it, however, Patmore became one of the best known “papists”, constantly advised and supported by his poet friends Francis Thompson and Alice Meynell. Obsessed with achieving stylistic and speculative perfection, around 1880 he also met the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins who was able to provide him with valuable advice.
To The Unknown Eros contains compositions of great seriousness, written in free verse, which anticipate the poetry of the following century. The issues related to Catholicism concern, in particular, human love and divine love, treated from a perspective that will exercise a great influence on Claudel.
One of the shorter poems in the collection, “Vesica Piscis”, well exemplifies the art of Patmore. It echoes the story of one of the miracles of Christ, when he orders the fishermen, who have not caught any fish during the night, to cast their nets back into the sea. The author rewrites the story, and in the end the fishermen get their prize: the recognition of the hidden divinity.
But the most famous poem from To The Unknown Eros is “The Toys”. In it, the author, who has severely scolded his son, goes to the latter’s room and finds him surrounded by his favourite toys to comfort his sad heart. The poem ends with a reflection on Man, who is slow to understand God’s will.
Despite sentimentality, the poetry of Patmore is able to effectively illustrate Christian humility and divine mercy, inaugurating a new way of writing Catholic poems, captivating and poignant at the same time.