[This essay is Part II of the author's "Poet or Ventriloquist?: Reinterpreting Gender and Voice in Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House and Victories of Love."]
Upon looking at the first half of the series of dramatic monologues that constitute Patmore's The Angel in the House, we see that Felix's poems reveal a poetic progression concerning his attitude towards women. His masculine notion of womanhood at first depends upon certain paradigms of femininity derived from biblical and classical typology. However, this ideal of female nature is ultimately complicated by Felix's prospect of marriage. Both poets (Felix and Patmore alike) seem to conclude that the hierarchy between the male observer and the objectified and idolized female is undone in what becomes an equalizing, matrimonial union. The Angel in the House, nonetheless, begins with a series of preludes that idolize and sometimes deify the women they invoke. In a prelude entitled "The Fount of Honour," Felix places Honoria in a higher, almost divine, realm and aspires to embody her good graces and gentle nature:
There lives before my constant mind
An image, time-endear'd, of one
Who is to me all womankind:
Honoria call her: she confers
Bright honour when she breathes my name;
Birth's blazon'd patents, shown with her's,
are falsified and put to shame
The fount of honour is her smile; . . .
For as a queen, who may not find
Her peer in all the common earth,
Submits her meek and royal mind,
Espousing one of subject birth,
All barter of like gain above,
She raised me to her noble place,
And made my lordship of her love
The simple gift of her free grace. [Prelude: "The Fount of Honor." Canto III, Part II, lines 6-24; this passage missing from 1900 version.]
Here Felix catalogues Honoria's qualities, invoking all of her feminine attributes in the spirit of the endless epithets that accumulate in the style of the Homeric Hymns. Thus Honoria becomes like an ancient goddess, an untouchable divinity who raises the speaker up into her higher realm and good graces. It thus seems that at this stage of the poem women maintain a deified, separate, and mystical sphere that remains hierarchically above that of their more human, flawed male counterparts. Nevertheless, even at this point the poem does not present a simple, straightforward conception of femininity, for a kind of paradoxical notion of womanhood arises in the first prelude of Canto IV, entitled "The Rose of the World." Here, the speaker plays with an ever-shifting hierarchy in which the masculine nature dominates over the feminine and vice versa:
Lo, when the Lord made North and South
And sun and moon ordained, He,
Forthbringing each by word of mouth
In order of its dignity,
Did man from crude clay express
By sequence, and, all else decreed,
He form'd the woman; nor might less
Than sabbath such a work succeed.
And still with favour singled out,
Marr'd less than man by mortal fall,
Her disposition is devout,
Her countenance angelical;
The best things that the best believe
Are in her face so kindly writ
The faithless seeing her conceive,
Not only heaven, but hope of it. [Prelude: "The Rose of the World," Canto IV, Part I, lines 1-16]
The prelude starts by relying on the creation myth and the storyline of Genesis to emphasize the fact that in the chain of creation woman is formed as a lesser being than man. For example in lines 3-4, the speaker recalls God's manifestation of each creature in a hierarchy of "dignity" that begins with greater entities and ends with lesser ones. Having alluded to this part of Genesis, he then reminds us two lines later that in the biblical narrative, woman is created last of all and, most importantly, after man. Ultimately, the prelude turns on the image of the fall, which stigmatizes woman as having a lesser, or lower, nature than man. Nevertheless, after highlighting this biblical view of gender, the speaker immediately creates a sharp paradox by launching into a series of angelical and divine praises of womanhood lasting over forty lines that is reminiscent of the epithetic form of the prelude to Honoria. Therefore, although women are naturally below men (as accounted for in biblical typology and religious law), they are also paradoxically deified and idolized by men. Once we remember that this prelude is all enacted through the voice of Felix, we can then realize that this strange paradox of the genders is, in fact, Patmore's way of both conjoining various myths and paradigms germane to our preconceived notions of femininity and also exhibiting the utter ridiculousness of male behavior. Thus the female is simultaneously the angel and the seductress; she is as Felix states, "artless," "innocent," "persuasive," and "powerful" (lines 34-22) in her abilities to attract and charm mankind. The biblical tale of creation and fall, therefore, issues forth a paradoxical world which, as Carol Christ suggests, may be more revealing of a Victorian masculinity than a Victorian femininity in which men desire and strive to both worship and idolize, demean and control women. This somewhat subtle commentary on the masculine role also surfaces in a very short and seemingly out of place prelude entitled "Love and Duty" that occurs even before the above passages. Here, the speaker seems to comment on the very fickle and impulsive nature of man's love for the female form:
Anne lived so truly from above,
She look'd so radiantly good,
That duty bade me fall in love,
And "but for that," thought I, "I should!"
I worshipp'd Kate with all my will.
In idle moods you seem to see
A noble spirit in a hill,
A human touch about a tree. [Preludes: "Love and Duty." "Canto II, Part III, lines 1-8]
This little poem within a poem points to the danger that man's love for women might be both fleeting and indecisive, for the speaker shifts in mid-poem from loving Anne to loving Kate. Moreover, in the first lines that describe the speaker's reasons for loving, tthis kind of worship disguised as love proves superficial. The speaker loves Anne because she simply appears or "looks" to be immaculately good, and thus Patmore seems to allude to the possibility that it is man, and not woman, who acts foolishly and frivolously passionate by placing woman in a fanciful and idolized realm above himself. This realization might not appear even to be an attack on masculinity or the male behavior. However, the last few lines of this short poem shed further light on its subject matter. Here, the poet very likely points to a kind of classical source in which the "noble spirit in a hill" and the "human touch about a tree" allude to Ovid's Metamorphoses. Thus the poem points to a state in which unbridled male passion forces women to take on new forms or to conceal themselves in new shapes. The allusion to the tree, for example, might very well refer to Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree to escape Apollo. This kind of image thus emphasizes the futility of masculine objectification and idolatry of women. In the myth of Daphne and Apollo, Apollo continues to caress and worship his tree despite Daphne's new inhuman form, and thus the poet invokes a myth in which male passion is rendered absurd.
What is such an observation then doing in the midst of a work supposedly about masculine idolatry of women? Once we recall that The Angel in the House is, in fact, composed of a series of different voices, or Browning-esque monologues, we realize that this little prelude is a kind of authorial intrusion. After all, Kate and Anne appear nowhere else in the plotline of the poem which primarily involves Felix and Honoria (and eventually Jane and Frederick along with their corresponding social circles). It may therefore be that we have not given the gender complexities of Patmore's The Angel in the House enough credit, for in a poem that both practices female idolatry and denounces it, which both calls for masculine mastery and domination over womankind and yet states "the kiss works better than the rod," (Canto VII, Part IV, line 8), Patmore relishes the very chicanery of the Victorian dramatic monologue.
In fact, Felix's resolution to his series of poetic endeavors is quite similar to that of E.B. Browning's Aurora Leigh, for once Felix ceases to idolize Honoria and enters into matrimony with her (see Part II, / Volume I, "The Epigraph") he concludes that marriage is a union second in strength only to the divine, or to the realm of heaven. Thus Felix's final notions of marriage ultimately form a perspective in which the hierarchy, however ambiguous, between men and women dissolves, and both sexes, now equalized, become one and the same:
NATURE, with endless being rife,
Parts each thing into "him" and "her,"
And in the arithmetic of life,
The smallest unit is a pair;
And thus, oh strange, sweet half of me,
If I confess a loftier flame,
If more I love high Heaven than thee,
I more than love thee, thee I am. [Preludes: "A Demonstration." Canto X, Part IV, lines 1-8]
The poem thus concludes that the division between the genders, between "him" and "her," is thus a mere construction, that only seems natural, for if nature's or life's purpose is to unite men and women, then the "smallest unit" would be a conjunction of the two, a genderless entity. Thus Felix's paradoxical and ever-shifting hierarchy of the genders is ultimately resolved in a natural reconfiguration of things in which the new hierarchy becomes not one of man and woman but one of god and humankind. In creating a division between the earthly and divine realms, Felix thus removes Honoria from her lofty and unnaturally deified status, realizing that man and woman are one and the same in that they are subjects of the earthly realm whereas God exclusively exists in the only natural hierarchy above humankind. Therefore, we come to realize that the poem's gender issues are part of a dramatic voice and a Bildungsroman format similar to that of Aurora Leigh in which the poet's observations on women fluctuate as his character develops. Thus Patmore creates a series of paradoxes which are only resolved in the climax of part I of the poem with the speaker's final absorption into society through marriage.
Other sections of "Poet or Ventriloquist?: Reinterpreting Gender and Voice in Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House and Victories of Love
Browning, Robert. Poems of Robert Browning. Ed. Donald Smalley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1956.
Christ, Carol. "Victorian Masculinity and The Angel in the House." A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women. Ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. 146-162.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Ed. Jerome H. Buckley. New York: Norton, 1990.
Harper Collins Study Bible. New Revised Standard ed. Ed. Wayne A. Meeks. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Henderson, Jeffrey, ed. Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Homerica. Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. New and Revised ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Innes, Mary M. Trans. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. London: Penguin, 1955.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
Last updated 12 June 2004