“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 is anyone but the poet himself. While he is thus speaking of his own thoughts and experiences, the use of the pronoun “I” invites the reader to see through the “eye” of the speaker, to see and experience vicariously what he does.
The stanzas that Coulette excised describe the graveyard statue and muse about those who lie buried about it. He then shifts the focus of his musing from the historical past of prosaic pioneers to ask about others who are gone, or will be gone one day, whose lives were of a different scope. These are the stanzas that make up the poem.
The first stanza begins with a query that, by asking about people of great beauty and longings, draws one’s attention to the inevitability and obscurity of their end. The second stanza is more specific, in that it refers to particular friends of Coulette: The “friend too much moved by music” is Donald Justice; “that one too much moved by faces,” Robert Mezey; and “that marvelous liar,” Philip Levine. All these friends were living, and in fact fairly young men, when this poem was written, so their fates were unknown then.
The third stanza has more to say about these friends: their activity as poets, what it is like to be them, how their lives may end. In the last line of this stanza, the reference to “her eye” signals a return to the contemplation of the figure of the black angel.
The fourth stanza describes some very immediate images, things that are found around the speaker as he is standing in the grassy cemetery—“but here’s a butterfly,/ And a white flower.” He even describes a bit of himself as one of those immediate things: “the moon rising on my nail” refers to the small, crescent-shaped, white cuticle at the base of the fingernail.
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 reflection in the first stanza (“mirrors,” “oceanic,” “reflection,” “iridescent”) creates a sense of something not plainly visible, but rather something that shimmers and wavers. At the same time, such things as “oceanic longings” and an “iridescent brow” are purely imaginative: While one can have a sense of what is meant, one cannot picture it in the mind’s eye.
The image of the “old streetcars buried at sea” is very strong but strange; the intended oddity is plain. Such things are possible, but incongruous. At the same time, to be “buried at sea” is to be beneath the level of shimmer and reflection of the surface of the water. With this image, the poem progresses; it moves from the elusive to the more tangible.
The objects in the fourth stanza are concrete almost to the point of being prosaic but also seem to represent something more than themselves. Their whiteness is an opacity that is the opposite of a reflecting surface. Yet none of these variations—mirroring, murky, or opaque “elements”—implies clear, direct vision, so the impression one gets through the poem is of something not quite comprehended. This sense is made even stronger by the final image, which pairs two seemingly opposite senses of motion.