Not a Victorian Dad Thing: ‘The Toys’ by Coventry Patmore

Greengage (and fairy lights) enjoying a stiff August breeze, August 2 

Yesterday I finished reading Coventry Patmore’s ‘Magna est Veritas’, and realised that I’d been unconsciously thinking of ‘The Toys’ while reading. So here is that poem:

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.”

Here’s a poem that confounds conventional stereotypes about Victorian fathers.

The first sentence  tells us what’s happened:

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.

I’d want to go  very slowly through these opening lines  and get my group to think about the order of  the various bits of information here. First, we are set down right in front of the child, ‘my little Son’, where the adjective ‘little’ seems almost an endearment as well as a descriptor.

Then we see him in a wider, more extended context:

…who look’d from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,

This child, is normally well-behaved, ‘thoughtful’ and easy to parent,  he ‘moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise.’ Does the father treat him as an adult? and could that be part of the problem – was he expecting too much? No childishness?

I realise as I am reading that this feels like overhearing a confession or a counselling session. The father is remembering and thinking about this painful incident, but he’s not just telling the story of the incident. He is telling us his feelings about what happened. There’s much love, tenderness, in the first two lines as he  recounts how much he loves the child and how good the child is normally. Which makes the next part so much the more painful:

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.

The father has a law – rules, we might call them, or, these days,  boundaries. But there is huge authority in that word law, and it does make me think (I know we are not there yet but I know it is coming, having read the poem through a couple of times) God The Father.

The child has tried his father’s patience and seven times. That’s quite a lot of times that your child has stepped over the boundary.  I imagine some small child-crime – pushing the sibling off the slide – once, three times – I’m getting pretty angry. Seven times?  Getting very cross indeed…But  is that ‘seven’ an echo of something? It must be a reference to the Bible:

(Romans 12:14-21)

21Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

We no longer think it right to strike children, but in Patmore’s day that would have been not simply socially acceptable  but considered the right way to enforce disciple – it was in my childhood and  in my own children’s childhoods. But as bad as the  blow, possibly worse, is the emotional pain of rejection –  it’s the father who did the rejecting –  in the name of parental authority – but he suffers it now :

I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.

We get to a key pain here for the father – the word ‘unkiss’d ‘ seems to raise the memory, ghostly presence, of the mother. That mother, ‘who was patient’, would  not have done this or let it happen, and is dead. ‘Being dead’  – that’s an odd way to put it. It feels raw.

Thre’s a kind of paraphrase I want to make:  ‘his motherbeing dead, I  hit the child and sent him away unkindly, unkissed. She’d never have let that happen.’

We are likely  to think of the poem at first as showing us a classic stern Victorian father stereotype but what we’re getting here is actually a different kind of classic: difficulty of the single parent, having to be both father and mother, having to set a boundary, stick to it and pull back when a line is crossed.  It’s hard that the little clause, ‘who was patient’, is  set in  the middle of that line about death, that patience is unavailable. The father has not been patient; certainly not to seventy times seven.

It’s so recognisable – every parent must have had this experience or something like it at some point.

But I want to think for a moment about that ‘recognisable’. ‘Relevance’ is another of those troubling matters which are not easy to resolve with a rule of thumb or principle. Does what you take to a  group of people who are  – or are about to become – a Shared Reading group have to be ‘relevant’ ?  Do you only take ‘The Toys’ to a group of parents?  For a group of men who like fishing, do you only take a fishing magazine? And for those who follow the Kardashians or Love Island what should you be taking?

But most groups aren’t made up of  single issue members: fathers or fishing fans or Kardashian followers, people with a fear of horses, single parents or  those who only live in odd-numbered houses. All those people might well attend the same group. So catering for a specific interest group, or what one assumes is a specific interest  or single issue group (people who live round here, people with no qualifications, people engaged with mental health services)  is rarely the best way to go.  ‘People who live round here’ are all different individuals  and  yet also share some underlying human experience which is not necessarily ‘living round here’. The ‘underlying human’ is more powerful, in my experience, than the ‘connected by our living round here’. Good poems will work well with most people.

There are exceptions. I wouldn’t in the first instance think of reading ‘The Toys’ with a parent in prison for  abusing a child. As a man at Reader event once said to me, poems are like poems, they can go off, they can  hurt people. But that is not to say that I wouldn’t think of reading the poem later, when we had been reading together long enough, when we trusted one another, if it seemed as if it might help. Read in The Reader magazine about my colleague Megg, reading Charles Bukowski’s poem, ‘Bluebird’ in Send prison -sorry can’t remember which issue.

And of course, you do not know, you never know, the individual private experience of members of your group, who might have been abused by parents  or others, or have been perpetrators or sufferers of domestic violence.

Most people know quite a lot about most human experiences, wherever they live, whatever their educational experience, whether or not they work, live with a chronic illness or are in recovery from addiction. Poems will touch a spot in someone in your group. That  isn’t a  thing to be too afraid of –  though be a bit afraid, because it helps keep your mind on the likely responses – that is what poems do. That is what they are for, to find, activate  and connect the underlying human experience.

Almost everyone can relate to ‘The Toys’ because it is about feeling guilty after a bad mistake. That’s a human thing, not just  a Victorian dad thing.

Finish reading ‘The Toys’ tomorrow




‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know…’

clematis rouge
Albertine going over, Clematis coming out, 20 June
England, in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

After writing here only  a couple of weeks ago that I  never want to read Shelley, I found myself stopping at this poem this morning.  I don’t think I’ve read it since I was an undergraduate and can’t remember reading it at all, yet it is one of those poems that has passed into my consciousness – I seem to know it. Yet the anger arrested me, perhaps because I already have it in me. Not many poems are angry. Or rather, I do not read many angry poems. Yesterday I read a lot of poems by Denise Levertov that were angry about the Vietnam war. Most war poems are angry. For me, poems about social injustice do not seem to work, they become trite, you get propaganda or party lines.  But today Shelley’s spitting anger seems  the right feeling.

Like many people I cannot get the Grenfell Tower tragedy out of my head.  I recommend listening  to Sir Michael Marmot on  yesterday’s Radio 4 Start The Week. Marmot talks about  life expectancy in Kensington: the difference between the wealthy south of  the borough and the impoverished north is 14 years for men. The average income for the borough is  £125,000 but for  half of the  population it is below £35,000. All kinds of problems, social, physical, and mental follow these stats. Marmot says, just because we have the NHS offering treatment doesn’t mean that is the right way to go about things. In the case of a fire, we’d say, not we have to treat the results of fire, but we have to prevent fires. The same is true for heart attacks and mental illness.    (from about 12 minutes in)

Yes, I want a new world. I believe that new world starts with education, not simply for the poor children of Kensington, but also for the apparently well-educated people who make the decisions about the £5000 saving on the flammable tower coverings. The Marmot Review  (2010) called for us to act in 6 domains simultaneously in order to  help close the inequalities gap. Those domains are

1. giving every child the best start in life

2. enabling all children, young people and adults to maximize their capabilities through education and lifelong learning and have control over their lives

3. creating fair employment and good work for all

4. ensuring a healthy standard of living for all

5. creating and developing sustainable places and communities

6. strengthening the role and impact of ill-health prevention.

What does the poem say? It says everything’s broken, the instituitions (state, people, army , church,  parliament)  it’s all disgusting, corrupt, dead. It says I’m sick of it all.  It says, something may happen to change that, some glorious phantom may burst forth… but, at this point I stop reading.  I don’t believe in that phantom. (And perhaps neither does Shelley, otherwise, why call it a phantom?)

So, back to work. I’m working on the second  (and the fifth, and the sixth) of Marmot’s recommendations and must get back to it.