The Woman and the Angel by Robert Service

The Woman and the Angel stands as one of Robert Service’s many lyrical allegories, which would constitute a sizeable portion of his body of work. At the time it was written, he was in the earliest stages of his career; the work was published in Service’s first complete volume of poetry, Songs of a Sourdough. This poem addresses moral and religious aspects of life, presumably based in the British and Canadian landscapes where Service began his career, and uses Service’s well-known and unique approach to poetry to convey his message.

The Woman and the Angel Analysis

First and Second Stanza

An angel was tired of heaven, as he lounged in the golden street;

His halo was tilted sideways, and his harp lay mute at his feet;

So the Master stooped in His pity, and gave him a pass to go,

For the space of a moon, to the earth-world, to mix with the men below.

He doffed his celestial garments, scarce waiting to lay them straight;

He bade good by to Peter, who stood by the golden gate;

The sexless singers of heaven chanted a fond farewell,

And the imps looked up as they pattered on the red-hot flags of hell.

For The Woman and the Angel, Robert Service utilizes a simplistic AABB rhyming pattern, and structures his verses as quatrains, though the length and symmetry of each line gives the poem a semblance of ABCB when it is read aloud. Service also uses a great many religious and mythological remarks for the setting of his piece. In the fairly self-explanatory introduction, an angel realizes that he has become fairly bored of his life in Heaven, and so God takes pity on him and allows him to spend time on Earth for a brief period, for which the angel is so excited he barely makes time to fold his clothes before leaving. The emphasis on his “celestial” garments is an important aspect of the scene, because it highlights a sense of disregard the angel has attained for the things that are essentially synonymous with perfection. Other details like these include the tilted halo, the mute harp, and that the angel is lounging around. The fact that the angel is a being willing to leave Heaven in favour of Earth, however temporarily, is an interesting premise for the piece, one that echoes the Devil’s Fall from Grace in Abrahamic tradition. On that note, Service mentions that the angel’s “trip” is attracting the notice of his fellow angels, as well as that of those who reside in Hell, which is a foreboding message and a potential use of foreshadowing for the poem’s conclusion.

 

Third and Fourth Stanza

Never was seen such an angel — eyes of heavenly blue,

Features that shamed Apollo, hair of a golden hue;

The women simply adored him; his lips were like Cupid’s bow;

But he never ventured to use them — and so they voted him slow.

Till at last there came One Woman, a marvel of loveliness,

And she whispered to him: “Do you love me?” And he answered that woman, “Yes.”

And she said: “Put your arms around me, and kiss me, and hold me — so –“

But fiercely he drew back, saying: “This thing is wrong, and I know.”

On Earth, the angel stands out noticeably, however he chooses to spend his time as an observer, more than an active participant, and so when women are attracted to him, they are quickly put off by his silent demeanour, and some go so far as to assume that something is wrong with him. Service spends nearly all of the third verse describing the indescribably beauty of this angel come to Earth, and he finds it easier to compare the angel to Apollo, the Greek god of artistic forms, among other things, and say that Apollo would be found wanting. Using Cupid’s bow — another mythological comparison — as the means of describing the angel’s lips is a particularly telling description that describes feeling more so than physical appearance. All the audience knows for certain, is that the angel is an indescribably, love-at-first-sight kind of beautiful.

Finally, when the angel meets a woman he feels he can love, she makes a sexual advance on him, which he immediately rejects for moral reasons. The woman is described similarly to the angel, in that she is not really described at all. The principal means of identifying her the audience has is that she is the most beautiful suitor the angel has seen thus far. There is an interesting gap in the logic of this scene — the angel both attracts and responds to beauty, but is uninterested in her physical beauty in the same way she is to his. On the contrary, his refusal is fierce, an attribute not often associated with heavenly angels. The Woman and the Angel uses this moment to begin its musing into human and divine morality.

 

Fifth and Sixth Stanza

Then sweetly she mocked his scruples, and softly she him beguiled:

“You, who are verily man among men, speak with the tongue of a child.

We have outlived the old standards; we have burst, like an over-tight thong,

The ancient, outworn, Puritanic traditions of Right and Wrong.”

Then the Master feared for His angel, and called him again to His side,

For oh, the woman was wondrous, and oh, the angel was tried!

And deep in his hell sang the Devil, and this was the strain of his song:

“The ancient, outworn, Puritanic traditions of Right and Wrong.”

The Woman and the Angel concludes with the woman’s response to the angel’s refusal, which is to mock him, and say that they are not Puritans anymore; that societal condemnation of physical desire is something that the world has moved on from. At this point, God recalls the angel to heaven, fearful that she will successfully seduce him, while the Devil in Hell delights at the exchange, seeing opportunity in the concept of “outliving” standards of morality.

The Woman and the Angel uses the evolution of morality as its central theme. The question Robert Service appears to be posing in his allegory is whether or not morals are things that can be outgrown or outlived. Most societies in the world have changed a great deal from their inceptions, and their standards of ethics have as well. Service uses the example of physical desire because it is a very old issue, and one that largely depends on the perspective of the involved parties. In his example, the angel — in theory an expert on classifying right and wrong — strongly rejects the prospect of a sexual relationship with a stranger. At one point, the wider society she came from agreed with his perspective. As time has changed, however, the morality of Heaven and Earth have come to disagree, something that the people of Earth are entirely unaware of.

Of course, it is impossible for the angel to tell the woman this, leaving The Woman and the Angel to end on a somewhat ambiguous note, only directly addressing its central theme in its concluding verse. Ultimately, Service appears to argue that tradition is not a bad thing because it is old, and that aspects of morality and ethics should be properly considered before they are abandoned for being “ancient” or “outworn.” Like any good allegory, he leaves the implications of his work for the reader to decide.

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