Patmore’s “Angel,” a Dangerous Poem

George Elgar Hicks, “Woman’s Mission: Companion to Manhood”


A poem that shaped history but that no one reads anymore is Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House (1854). Allison Barrett, one of last semester’s senior seminar students, learned about the poem when studying Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and made it the subject of her final project.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, the students in “Theories of the Reader” were to choose a work of literature that created a stir and figure out why it did so. While Patmore’s description of his wife, whom he considered perfect, did not at first attract much notice, Nathaniel Hawthorne liked it and spread the word. Once Queen Victoria read and recommended it, it came to define how wives were supposed to behave. The poem contains such passages as

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.

Victoria was entirely on board, describing marriage at one point as

great happiness…in devoting oneself to another who is worthy of one’s affection; still, men are very selfish and the woman’s devotion is always one of submission which makes our poor sex so very unenviable… it cannot be otherwise as God has willed it so.

Allison’s survey of contemporary criticism found that the reviewer agreed with the Queen that women belonged in the home:

Of the line, “Her pleasure in her power to charm,” one critic wrote, “This is an excellent line…for which the author deserves to be presented with a service of plate from the ladies of the empire. Who would have believed that the ugly and often unjust word vanity could ever be melted down into so true and pretty and flattering a periphrasis!” Additionally, that same reviewer went on to claim that all women should be grateful to Patmore for his admirable “profound respect, delicate politeness, and religious chivalry, which are there molded into a fair poetic form, to the special honor of womanhood.” The reviewers of the time clearly held the popular belief that women should be “grateful” to Patmore for providing such a righteous and “flattering” manual of how to behave as a wife. Patmore’s friend, Alfred Lord Tennyson, would go on to state that, despite some problematic issues with form, the poem would “do our age good” and that “women ought to subscribe a statue for” Patmore’s instruction on how to live. Tennyson, at one time the Poet Laureate of England, [liked] the message of domestic idealization. Even Patmore’s harsher critics, who condemned Patmore’s obvious classism and prejudice, still praised his work in its portrayal of proper domestic roles for women. [Another critic wrote that Patmore’s theme] “is a noble one; comparable, indeed, to Dante’s. He has his Florence and his Beatrice; his degenerate countrymen; his earthly love foreshadowing a love celestial and ideal…The worship of the Virgin Mother will have, let us admit it freely, a fascination for the human spirit as long as gentleness, compassion, purity, and all the other graces that contribute to form the ideal of perfect womanhood can thus be enshrined and hallowed.” Clearly, at the time of the poem’s publishing, critics agreed that the role of the woman was in the home, and that woman must uphold a certain set of characteristics in order to be viewed as a proper wife, characteristics which Patmore promotes ad nauseum in his work.

If a work proves this popular, Allison posited, it must be responding to certain anxieties, and she found two historical factors at work. On the one hand, women were flooding into the cities with the rise of the industrial revolution and, as many were unable to find husbands, they began working in the textile mills. Harsh though the conditions were, women still found more independence from men than they had experienced in the country.

Men found this new independence to be doubly threatening when, during the American North’s cotton blockade, England experienced a sharp economic downturn, which undermined masculine self-respect. Allison imagined that men sought reassurance from Patmore’s poem, telling themselves that domestic angels feared “too much liberty” and therefore craved submission to a lord:

When blest with that release desired [from parents],
First doubts if truly she is free,
Then pauses, restlessly retired,
Alarm’d at too much liberty;
But after that, habitual faith,
Divorced from self, where late ‘twas due,

Her will’s indomitably bent
On mere submissiveness to him;
To him she’ll cleave, for him forsake
Father’s and mother’s fond command!
He is her lord, for he can take
Hold of her faint heart with his hand…

It wasn’t only men who ascribed to the fantasy. One can see even in a novel like Jane Eyre that the author is torn between a heroine who is independent and a heroine who is submissive to her husband. In the following century, Virginia Woolf said she had to kill the angel in the house to save herself:

I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing …Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.

For the theoretical framework that I required of the project, Allison chose the reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss, who argues that great works of literature challenge the age’s “horizon of expectations” while lesser works merely reenforce them. Angel in the House, a lesser work, was popular because it articulated what people already believed while Woolf’s To the Lighthouse set out to redefine women. Whereas Mrs. Ramsay is a traditional angel, the artist Lily Briscoe represents something new:

Lily Briscoe is Woolf’s attempt to “kill” the Angel by providing a new kind of role toward which women can aspire. Woolf’s writing pushes back against the horizon of expectations promoted by works like Patmore’s and systems such as the English Monarchy and Church. By having Lily end unmarried and painting, Woolf challenges the traditional ending for female characters, offering a new kind of horizon of expectations for readers. 

Allison, who is applying to graduate school to study neuropsychology, concludes,

Work such as Woolf’s paved the way for future writers, such as Sylvia Plath, whose work would go on to dismantle not only the restrictive domestic roles for women, but also the stigmatizing and oppressive horizon of expectations associated with the role of motherhood. As we continue to move forward, hopefully toward a more egalitarian society in which gender does not determine social status, it is important to review works that promoted the constraining, dehumanizing ideals as well as responses to those works so that we might better address public perceptions and better inform future writing and reading experiences.

To this I add that, when it comes to redefining expectations, Allison herself must be taken seriously. If you want to be inspired, read the excerpt I posted last spring about how she used poetry to grapple with her considerable neurological challenges. It is entitled “Assemble Me Piece by Piece: Femininity, Visibility, and Disability.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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