The Poem

“The Black Angel” is a distilled version of a longer poem by Henri Coulette about a memorial statue of a black angel that stands in the midst of an Iowa City cemetery. A number of Coulette’s contemporaries also wrote poems about this statue, though his contemporaries did not publish their poems. Coulette seems to have been uncertain about what he wanted to do with the figure; he wrote at least three versions of the poem, eventually condensing it so far as to make the reference of the title and the line “I will not meet her eye” somewhat obscure.

The metrical form of the stanza is the same in all the versions of the poem. It follows a pattern of beats that repeat 5-2-3-4-5-3 in each stanza—a metrical form invented, according to poet Robert Mezey, by Peter Everwine. The first version, of nine stanzas, was not published, but it was printed privately on a double folio that held nine pen-and-ink drawings of the figures invoked by the poem, done by a fellow student. The 1963 version published in The New Yorker consisted of the first eight stanzas of the poem, without the original ninth. It was published in The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems (1966) as the four-stanza poem that is discussed here.

The whole poem is in the first person, and while sometimes a poet uses first-person singular even when he or she is writing in the persona of an imaginary speaker, this poem gives no indication that the speaker...

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Forms and Devices

Coulette places his poem in a classical context by the use of allusion and conceit. He makes a reference to Thomas Gray, which tells the reader that he understood himself to be writing a poem that on one level was part of the long tradition of graveyard elegies. In those elegies, primarily written in the eighteenth century, the meditation on death stands for a contemplation of the sublime—that which is beyond human comprehension. The use of the Renaissance conceit of ubi sunt (Latin for “where are they now?”) in the first line (“Where are the people”) both reinforces this meditative tone and emphasizes the placement of the poem within a long poetic tradition.

Another connection to poetic tradition is made by the poem’s allusion to figures of mythology (if one sees the “idler whom reflection loved” as Narcissus and the “woman with the iridescent brow” as Psyche) and its proposal to “bring them flowers.” These references together introduce echoes of John Keats’s “Ode to Psyche” (1820). Like Keats’s poem, it proposes to do something it never actually begins to do. The speaker who “would” bring flowers, “thinks” of friends, and “will not” but someday “shall” meet the eye of the black angel is very much like the speaker of Keats’s poem promising to build a bower to a deity who never arrives.

This poem progresses from very metaphorical to very concrete imagery. The repetition of images of...

(The entire section is 448 words.)