Monday, 14 March 2011

Recognising our own faults - Coventry Patmore’s poem, “The Toys”

I can’t bear laziness – yet I’m prone to it. Messiness drives me tonto – yet I remember one landlady at college leaving a furious note about the disgusting state of my room, where, she informed me, she had just removed 58 cigarette butts, balanced on their ends, from the mantelpiece. I hate meanness in others – yet I’m somewhat careful with money myself. I detest murderers, and yet… (oops!).

I was reminded of this universal truth – that what drives us mad about other people is often a trait that we share - when I was preparing to read “The Toys” by the largely overlooked Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore, at the Acton Pass on a Poem meeting last week (the one where I heard the Russian and Dutch poems referred to in a previous post). It’s not the exact message of the poem, mind you – but I suspect it’s what occasioned it.

Patmore’s poem (reproduced in full below) is about a single father who, when his young son disobeyed him once too often, “…struck him, and dismiss’d/With hard words and unkiss’d”) before making a sad, almost shamefaced aside which masterfully places everything in context: “His mother, who was patient, being dead.” 

Worried that the boy might be too upset to sleep, the poet visits his room. His son has been crying, but is now asleep. At this point, the father begins to weep:

For, on a table drawn beside his head, 
He had put, within his reach,  
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone, 
A piece of glass abraded by the beach, 
And six or seven shells, 
A bottle with bluebells, 
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,  
To comfort his sad heart.

Easy to dismiss as mawkish,  but the exactness of the description means we’re there with the father as he takes in the display his son has created, and realises what it’s for. These lines strike me as rooted in reality - and, because of that,  they’re extremely moving. (Our English teacher taught us a great lesson about the importance of specificity in poetry – I remember him leaving off his habitual, albeit affectionate, abuse of Tennyson to underline the brilliance of “The rusted nails fell from the knots/That held the peach to the garden-wall” from “Mariana”: I’ve enjoyed an awful lot of Tennyson in the intervening years, but have never got on, for instance, with Shelley’s often indistinct vapourings – and, thanks to my teacher, I know why.)

Up to this point, the poem has been on the verge of turning out to be a masterpiece, but drops off a bit at the end, where Patmore delivers The Message – in God’s eyes, we are all disobedient children who make “joys” of “toys” - as parent is to child, God is to all of us. He ends by asking God to forgive our childishness. Nothing wrong with the message, of course - we are all guilty in a very real sense. It’s just that, compared to the rest of the poem, it’s expressed rather labouredly. But reading the poem afresh, I found myself wondering if, whatever the boy had done to arouse his father’s anger, it hadn’t reminded Patmore – perhaps unconsciously - of something in his own nature: hence the harshness of his reaction. I wonder if this isn’t why fathers tend to clash with sons and mothers with daughters.

“The Toys” had already long been a favourite of mine when it was leant added poignancy by learning that Patmore’s first wife died in 1862, just two years after the birth of their son, Henry – hence the poet’s single father status. Just as Coventry inherited a love of literature from his own father (they were very close), Henry in turn became a poet. He predeceased his twice remarried father, dying at the age of 23. 

(I have no idea why Patmore was christened “Coventry” - but I suppose it’s a mercy Henry wasn’t called Droitwich or West Bromwich.)

Patmore, who worked as assistant librarian at the British Museum for two decades, writing in his spare time, wrote one other great poem,“Departure” about a young woman coldly ending her relationship with the poet – but “The Toys” strikes me as his very best work.

“The Toys” by Coventry Patmore (1823-1896)
My little Son, who look'd from thoughtful eyes 
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise, 
Having my law the seventh time disobey'd, 
I struck him, and dismiss'd 
With hard words and unkiss'd,        
—His Mother, who was patient, being dead. 
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep, 
I visited his bed, 
But found him slumbering deep, 
With darken'd eyelids, and their lashes yet  
From his late sobbing wet. 
And I, with moan, 
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own; 
For, on a table drawn beside his head, 
He had put, within his reach,  
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone, 
A piece of glass abraded by the beach, 
And six or seven shells, 
A bottle with bluebells, 
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart. 
So when that night I pray'd 
To God, I wept, and said: 
Ah, when at last we lie with trancèd breath, 
Not vexing Thee in death,  
And Thou rememberest of what toys 
We made our joys, 
How weakly understood 
Thy great commanded good, 
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay, 
Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say, 
'I will be sorry for their childishness.'


  1. Have you read "Amelia', his favourite? The two you cite are just this side of sentimental and genuinely affecting. On the other hand, "Amelia" vaults the Mawk Wall into Weird World, with his new love asked to worship the dead one with her mum looking on, no doubt wondering what on earth old Cov is up to. Creepy.

    Still, on the basis that his parents called him after a beautiful Cathedral later destroyed and replaced by a monstrosity I might try and reverse the process by calling my next child Guildford.
    Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 04:22 PM

  2. And what's more, why not try The Angel of the House out on the women members of your Share a Poem group. That should be good for a bit of consciousness raising. Let me know the time and place together with a plan of the building showing the emergency escape routes and I'll be there with protective equipment.
    Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 05:16 PM

  3. “Amelia” was one of several Patmore poems I gave up reading half-way through, but I’ve just read it properly – and, my God, it’s creepy! Imagine introducing your new girlfriend to your dead one! And the stuff with the mother – what is going on? Thank you for the recommendation – fascinating!

    The Sisterhood got in a pre-emptive strike – one of them came up to me after I’d read The Toys and was sniffy about The Angel of the House – but I told her not to worry her pretty little head about it.
    Saturday, March 19, 2011 - 06:46 PM