Touched By An Angel by Maya Angelou

Concepts that are associated with strong emotions tend to be commonplace in art forms like poetry. Generally speaking, of course, the stronger the emotion, the more resonance it has in a field like poetry, and the more capacity a writer has to create a meaningful and unique work that speaks to a myriad of different readers. The power of the written word to convey emotion is debatable, but when done well, it becomes a significant part of what makes poetry such a diverse and enjoyable art form. For Maya Angelou, love is an emotion worth writing about and her use of metaphor and imagery to convey her own unique story results in Touched By An Angel, one of her more notable and powerful works of poetry.


Touched By An Angel Analysis

Stanza 1

The first of three verses of the poem, which can be read in full here, follows very much the same pattern as the rest of the work, in particular that there is no apparent pattern to it; it is written in a very free style of verse. There is no especial adherence to rhyme or syllable count, with the line breaks seemingly added for dramatic purposes more so than anything else — keeping “exiles from delight” on its own line helps it to stand out particularly strongly, for example. That the final line of the verse ends with a period and only the first word is capitalized makes the verse read almost as a run-on sentence, except that the line breaks give it a sense of pacing and rhythm despite not having any other punctuation.

The actual content of the verse discusses a number of unnamed individuals who are described as being “exiles from delight,” and as people who aren’t used to feeling courageous. The description brings to mind the image of people who simply live through their lives, alone and afraid to make an effort to change that about themselves. In this description, they are waiting for love, which is described as a divine force that chooses to leave its “high holy temple” to grace these lost souls with its presence. The image of a high temple, while not especially descriptive in itself, suggests that love is a power of divine proportions and that these “exiles from delight,” these people who do not feel joyous emotion, are simply waiting for love to appear in their lives and raise them from their small shells.


Stanza 2

In the second verse, the ramifications of love’s arrival are explored more closely. There is no image of love, but it is described metaphorically as arriving on a train, which is likely to say that it is impossible to mistake its arrival. When love shows up, it thunderously roars into town, announcing its arrival to anyone who is nearby. Furthering the metaphor is the idea that the train is carrying cargo; the ecstasies, as they are described here, in the form of memories of both pleasure and pain. While love itself is generally accepted as a very good thing, it is true that its arrival can signal both pain and happiness in the coming future. Just as a train can carry cargo that is both good and bad, so too can love. The memories of pain are described as “ancient histories,” but that does not make those memories any less real, or important. As the often-told saying reminds us, history is repeated by those who do not learn from it.

The final three lines speak to this idea, suggesting that those who are brave — keeping in mind that the individuals described in the previous verse are “unaccustomed to courage” — can be freed by the arrival of love. The chains of fear so-described are likely connected to the idea of being an exile from delight, as well as the very idea of love carrying with it ancient histories of pain. Against all of these factors, a person certainly would have to be brave to embrace the arrival of love, but this verse suggests that those who do are rewarded with freedom.


Stanza 3

In the concluding verse of the work, the narrators of the poem attempt to embrace the arrival of love, “daring” to be brave and feeling as though there is a light illuminating the things that they have feared or stayed away from throughout their lives. There is a moment of realization, an idea that love is not easy, nor is it a divine solution to the problems and woes of life, but is instead a challenge. It is something that requires, as the last five lines suggest, everything a person can give, but that rewards them with something more. The idea of freedom through love is repeated; only love can set a person who is exiled from delight free, but there is a steep cost to that submission that only the bravest of individuals will be willing to pay. For them, love is freeing and rewarding — and yet it once took everything they had to enter that flush of light.


Love in Poetry

Love is not an uncommon theme in popular poetry. Similar to hate, love brings out an extreme emotion that many find is most easily expressed through their desired art form — poetry, in this case. For Maya Angelou, love must have seemed like a fairly fickle creature at times, and maybe even as an unreachable divinity — it is known that she was married twice and divorced both times, but it is commonly theorized that those were not her only two husbands, and she certainly had a number of other strong relationships with men before, between, and after those marriages. Love was probably a significant aspect of Angelou’s life, but not a simple one to describe or understand; it would have brought on, as described in the poem, memories of both joy and of pain.

Ultimately, the main theme of Touched By An Angel seems to be that love is a difficult thing to understand, and a difficult thing to find, but once it’s found, it is not a divine solution to life’s problems. It requires work, sacrifice, and devotion, and this is something that keeps many people away in a number of regards. When Angelou passed away in 2014, she was honoured by writers, artists, world leaders, and uncountable fans. How she felt this love, or how she felt the love of her husbands and family may be a somewhat abstract concept, but her feelings towards it all are very clear and made very lovely by her work of poetry here — that she felt touched as by an angel.

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