The poem The Angel in the House was arguably the most popular ever published during the Victorian era, but then it was always intended to be more than just a poem. It was a long, sentimental, and often rambling love song to the female sex, to the ideal woman, the perfect wife, but one as seen through the man’s eyes – devoted, obedient, domestic and subordinate to her husband in all things. Totally dependent upon his wise counsel in matters unrelated to hearth and home and with no thought or ambition to do other than serve. She was to be a fluttering butterfly to be protected, cherished, and adored.
It was written in 1854 in tribute to his wife, Emily, whom Patmore believed to be the best a woman could be and an example for others to follow. Whether the poem reflects common attitudes towards women at the time or served to develop and cement them remains a subject of conjecture. But The Angel in the House has since become synonymous with and a by-word for the role and status of women in Victorian society.
What follows is an extract from the poem that amply sums up its tone and meaning:
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.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon, in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s till his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.