Coventry Patmore: The Angel in the House

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 – 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.

Emily, who was a much-admired woman and not just by her husband, she had her portrait painted by John Everett Millais and another poem written in her honour by Robert Browning, died in 1862 following a long illness aged just 36.

A devastated Patmore was to remarry soon after but Emily was to remain his one true love and the need for a deeper spiritual understanding of her early demise was pivotal in his later conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Patmore remained a friend of many of the major poets of his day particularly among the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he has rarely been held in such high regard partly because of the success of The Angel in the House which has since been seen as an example of a male condescension and misogyny representative of a regressive and repressive society. Yet it achieved more perhaps than any poem before or since  in becoming a pillar of Victorian society, an era of British history unsurpassed in its self-confidence, stability, power, and prosperity.

Coventry Dighton Kersey Patmore, died in November 1896, aged 73, having lived his entire adult life during the reign of Queen Victoria an era he had come so closely to represent.

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.

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