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




Beyond The Utmost Bound

bee on hebe
A bee enjoying a Hebe, front garden, 2 July

Day Four of my  slow reading of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ – an idea for a Shared Reading group, which will take a full session, and won’t be suitable for every group. But for a bunch of people who may be in a give up/don’t give up situation, or for those of us facing the growing closeness of age… really worth reading. Search ‘Ulysses’ to find previous posts. Go here to find the whole poem and don’t forget to read it all aloud before you start trying to get into it!

Yesterday I was writing in the back garden to keep the birds away from the cherries, and I am back there today, late to my writing for a number of reasons, one of which is the  big online sleep experiment.  Scientists are trying to  see how much sleep or lack of sleep affects brain function. My goodness, some of those puzzles are scary!  I realised while I was doing them that even the word ‘test’, as in ‘Take the Test!’  makes me feel anxious. All those years of failure at school leave their mark.  But I enjoyed participating and am hoping that the study will encourage me to get my sleep  hours up to at least  seven a night.

However, to ‘Ulysses’. I was in this section:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

I think I was about up to ‘but every hour is saved/from that eternal silence’, which is sometimes how I feel on days when I wake up early and have the dawn hours to myself to read and write. Ulysses doesn’t just want the time, he wants time for a purpose, to him time gained is time as a ‘bringer of new things’. He makes his own argument for movement, for change, against  staying put, and  as he slightly thinks about his stay-at-home life we’re back to the frustrated vocabulary of the opening – ‘vile’, ‘store’, ‘hoard’.

What does he mean by ‘for some three suns’?  It’s a period of time and I guess years – though why that would be a sun I do not know.  But I don’t think it is months. This is the kind of thing someone in the group might want to look up on their phone but I’d ask them to hold off until we’ve tried to work it out a bit – we want the sense that we can either understand it or not be  bothered by not understanding it. It’s not the time period but the feeling of ‘hoard’ that is important here, the feeling of going ‘grey’ when you still have

                         spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This ‘utmost bound of human thought’ seems connected to the arch we read about yesterday:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

This is that sense of what Wordsworth calls ‘something ever more about to be’, the uncatchable,  the ineffable, the  reaching after which is the engine of human endeavour. There is always more, and a person like Ulysses will always want to pursue it.  And so he does, turning now to his son, and handing on the duties of  rulership:

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

You can feel him reaching for his coat and heading for the door as he speaks. Telemachus is suited to one kind of job – and that job is not nothing, either –  building a civilisation:

by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

This is good work, but not  the kind  of work Ulysses  could fancy.  And Telemachus seems damned by his father’s faint praise: he is described as  discerning, prudent, blameless, decent and ‘centred in the sphere /of common duties’.

I would want to stop here, in my Shared Reading group, to talk about ways in which the good can seem mundane, or even boring. The wildness of a Ulysses, or any great hero who goes beyond the bounds of human experience, human thought, is enormously attractive, but as a species we need our Telemachuses as much as our great adventurers, don’t we? Is it simply because the great adventurers are rarer spirits that we  prize them more?  (If we were making a film of this poem, who would you cast to play Ulysses? Clint Eastwood, Russell Crowe?  and Telemachus? Some quiet, well-behaved bod I can’t even  remember the name of… This is a game  I often play in groups, because most people have ideas about actors, and know they stand for something when you are trying to cast them, it gives us a clue into the character we are reading about).

And the faint praise continues: Telemachus can keep everything ticking over, even ‘pay/Meet adoration to my household gods’.

I would want to ask what might be lost by not paying  ‘meet adoration’ to your own household gods –  loss of domestic security, the quiet comforts of home, or of being well-ordered at home.  How much does that matter?

But the poem presses on and Ulysses manages a  generous wave as he leaves the palace:  ‘He works his work, I mine.’ And he is about to get to his work now… but we’ll leave the last movement til tomorrow, as I must stop now for today.