Taking comfort from the experience of the Victorian Patriarch

front garden in rain.JPG
Front garden and a hard rain, 3 August

Yesterday I’d started reading ‘The Toys’, which I’ll reread here, now:

The Toys

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 tranced 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.”

I’d read to the end of the first sentence yesterday  so I am going to pick up here:

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.

It’s interesting that the word ‘grief’ comes in straight after the line about the mother being dead. I’d had the feeling that the father was feeling grief too, grief at hitting the child, at being unkind, harsh, not kissing him goodnight. So this line ‘Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep’ feels to me  as much about the father as the child. The father is feeling remorse and wants now to comfort the child.  How closely he looks at the child, seeing his eye lashes are wet. This isn’t just putting your head round the door and thinking , oh, he’s gone off!  The distressed father, crying himself now, kisses the child. He was moved before he entered the room  but he is moved even more now. The wet eyelashes, the bruised looking lids, play a big part in agitating the father’s feelings, but it is the comforts to which the child has turned which really get him:

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.

Lovely things, loved by the child and all of them standing in for his father’s kiss. You love these things, the father is thinking, you havedrawn them close when I should have been close.

As someone who has sometimes  lost her tempter with children, and others,  and as someone who was once a child sometimes sent angrily to bed, crying myself to sleep, who has felt these feelings of sadness and remorse, I find this poem very moving, very real. but now we reach ‘God’ and I have to do my usual exercise of reading what Coventry Patmore has written and trying to understand, get inside it. and at the same time doing some sort of  spiritual translation for myself so that  ‘God’ can  mean something to me.

So when that night I pray’d
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced 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.”

Coventry Patmore prays to God ‘that night’ as, I imagine he does every night.  for non-God readers, what might this translate into? A period of meditative reflection?  You are thinking over  the events of the day and evaluating how you did ?  Patmore’s God is God The Father, and I suddenly feel, as if for the first time, what a burden that might have been for Victorian patriarchs – not just backup and authority but an impossible role model.

If the child broke the father’s law seven times and got a whack for doing so, how many times has the father broken God’s law? Which includes forgive people not seven times but seventy times seven. Patmore the father will be  thinking of his own failure – ‘how weakly understood/Thy great commanded good’ just as his little son did not understand the meaning or reality of Patmore’s law. and what comforts does Patmore the child of God the father seek – things like  ‘a box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,/A piece of glass abraded by the beach/And six or seven shells,’…. stuff, things, worldly comforts? when all the time there is a possible comfort in god – not always a wrathful Old Testament patriarch, but one who can kiss your head and say  “I will be sorry for their childishness.” This isn’t a biblical quotation so far as I can see, though I do wonder if it is an echo  or memory of Psalm 38.

When you don’t have God, you are left with your own feelings and what’s happened. That can be extremely lonely, and it is hard to control the remorse, you are (I am) left to suffer guilt.  Believing in God who would forgive and understand your weakness, failures, would be a great comfort.  This poem contains that comfort, and offers, as it were through the story of the poem, indirectly, a model of such a feeling, which, reading, I too can feel. I can feelingly imagine a comforter, even as I am feeling with Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Oh Comforter, where is thy comforting?’

Imaging that possibility – for Patmore, if not for myself –  introduces that possibility into my range of thought. Putting the shape – even through a fiction –  into my mind helps create it. So it is the poem helps me feel better.

 

 

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