Spring 2014

Why We Need Coventry Patmore

Stratford Caldecott

“With his eye turned firmly outward and upward—to the world and to God—Patmore’s writing reveals a keen perception of the infinite disclosed in every single finite creature.”

The soul is the express image of God, and the body of the soul; thence, it, also, is an image of God, and “the human form divine” is no figure of speech. In the Incarnation, the body, furthermore, is God, so that St. Augustine dares to say, “the flesh of Christ is the head of man.” —The Rod, the Root, and the Flower

The era of European civilization marked by the French Revolution was one torn between the dialectic movements of Rationalism and Romanticism. If Rationalism glorified the idea of universal order perceived and attained through the use of reason, Romanticism rejected intellectual order in the name of self-expression; it is associated in philosophy above all with the “turn to the subject” and away from any kind of objectivism. The question of “the” truth was swept away, leaving rather a concern with what was true for me and for you (hence, historicism, evolutionism, relativism, and irony)—a glorification of the “active, dynamic and imaginative self,” and the attempt to “express” the world rather than “describe” it. Thus, nature herself becomes a form of self-expression (Hegel).

What the Romantic movement caught a glimpse of was that this “self-expression” of nature ultimately means that nature’s innermost form is symbolic. The finite expresses or at least gestures toward the infinite; everything that exists is overfull with meaning—meaning too rich or elusive to be adequately captured in prose or even poetry. But the Romantic movement was prone to excess, and in its denouncement of reason undermined the foundation of nature herself, leaving nothing but sentiments behind. Romanticism in its secular and literary form thus tends toward a nostalgia for religious belief, and substitutes for the journey to God a quest for the infinite Self—perhaps (as has become more manifest in the twentieth century) in the depths of the unconscious, which was itself an invention or discovery of the Romantics.


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