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Maya Angelou's "Touched by an Angel"

Poetasters, dirty politicians, and other liars soil the cosmos. Exposing them remains in my toolkit. I read charlatans so you don't have to!

Introduction and Text of "Touched by an Angel"

Maya Angelou's "Touched by an Angel" features three movements displayed in versagraphs; the first movement consists of six lines rendering it a sestet, while the second is a septet and the final an octave. Interestingly, the philosophical piece grows by a line as it proceeds through its three movements. The title remains problematic. Obviously, love is the metaphoric angel, but the poem seems to focus more on human love than Divine Love, which calls into question the use of a heavenly entity to metaphorically describe that emotion. That divide need not necessarily set up a dichotomy, but the several flaws that hamper the poem's execution reinforce the doubt that there is enough unity in the poem to elide human and Divine love.

Maya Angelou was by no means a master poet; instead she does quality as a poetaster, and her insistence on being called "Dr. Maya Angelou" reinforces her penchant for the absurdly fraudulent; she did not earn a doctorate—her "doctorate" was honorary, a status that does earn the bearer the right to the title "Dr."

While Ms. Angelou’s works at times can offer some kind and inspiring ideas, they remain a superficial, rather bland in manner, and they never rise to the universal sphere where truth, beauty, and love combine to present a poetic unity.

Genesis of the Poem

The TV fantasy drama, Touched by an Angel, appeared on the CBS network from September 1994 until April 2003. It was created by John Masius and produced by Martha Williamson. Over its nine year run, it featured many famous names, including Maya Angelou, who penned her eponymous poem for the episode in which she appeared.

Touched by an Angel

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Reading of "Touched by an Angel"

Commentary

Ms Angelou gave lovely, comforting soliloquies, but her poems never employed the actual language of poetry. Typical of Maya Angelou's pieces, this work remains nothing more than a philosophical statement, without the power of crystalline, poetic expression to turn it into a poem.

First Movement: The Drama of Human Love

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

The speaker is striking a philosophical pose as she attempts to dramatize the importance of love in a human life. Until the human being experiences love, which has the ability to liberate us into life, s/he remains without courage and behaves as "exiles from delight," according to this speaker’s way of thinking. The uninitiated in love curl up in the fetal position and hide themselves in "shells of loneliness." Then after love descends from its "high holy temple" and makes itself visible to our sight, the human being's heart and mind are liberated from the shell and truly begin to live—a rather mundane thought, expressed rather blandly, despite the invocation of the temple of holiness.

That this metaphorical angel of love without motivation simply leaves its abode resembles actors on a stage who move in a direction for no apparent purpose other than just to provide motion. The idea that love simply coming into "our sight" could liberate us remains a simplistic claim also without motivation or agency and leads to the question, how exactly does that love liberate by merely appearing before our sight?

Second Movement: Love Calms Fear

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

In an attempt to give to this "love" qualities that would, in fact, bring about liberation, the speaker then claims that love brings with it certain things that are following love in a train. Some of these things that love brings are "ecstasies," "memories of pleasures," but also "histories of pain." All of these things remain vague and still do not approach an answer to the question of how love liberates?

The speaker then says, "if we are bold," love will cast away fear "from our soul." The soul being perfect, made in the image of God, and an eternal entity has no fear; the speaker means the "mind"—as an ego substitute for the soul—which does experience fear and others agents of change. Thus far, the speaker has remained vague as well as inaccurate in her use of the terms love and soul. That she had indicated that this "angel" of love had descended from a "holy temple" further reveals her clumsy use of terminology.

The speaker is awkwardly and vaguely hinting that as love enters the life of the individual, it brings with it "ecstasies / old memories of pleasure / ancient histories of pain." But because human love is not perfect, it will not always afford the lover perfect bliss. The lovers will have to accept the positives with the negatives. However, if each human being can be bold, love will deliver him/her from the "chains of fear." Love will lighten the burden placed on the mind by that binding fear.

Third Movement: Untethered Paradox

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

The speaker then claims in her philosophical demeanor that the light of love causes our bashfulness to wane. The sudden burst of light from love slowly allows the individual to behave less furtively than before his/her experiencing a loving relationship. The juxtaposition of speediness and slowness is jarring. The light of love encourages bravery, but it also unveils a paradox: love costs everything yet it sets us free. The human must pay for love with his/her entire being; yet without love s/he will remain forever bound by those chains of fear. Unfortunately, nothing is offered to clarify that attempted paradox.

Limiting Flaws

This piece, like many of Angelou's over-hyped pieces, does not quite work well. The version circulating on the Web looks like a draft instead of a final version. It needs some editing to correct punctuation and capitalization flaws. For example, the final versagraph places capital letters beginning lines that cause them to stand outside the prevailing capitalization system for the rest of the piece. Note lines 2 and 4 in the following versagraph:

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love's light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.

The piece had been capping only letters that begin a sentence, but in the above lines, it caps two letters "In" and "And," which begin a line but not a sentence.

The opening lines—"We, unaccustomed to courage / exiles from delight / live coiled in shells of loneliness"—are missing a second comma which should be placed after "delight" to complete the parenthetical phrase following "we." Also adding to the second line, "exiles from delight," an "and" at its opening would iron out the wrinkle of awkwardness that plagues that line.

In addition to the technical problems, the poem lacks the specificity that turns mere philosophical declarations into poems. The first versagraph declares that love "liberates us into life," which is a lovely thought but remains vague without further elucidation. The second versagraph claims that love removes fear from our souls but then that revelation comes after claiming, "Yet if we are bold." If we are already bold, it is likely that that fear had already been stricken from our souls, that is, minds.

The third versagraph asserts that love "sets us free." Yet it has set up a paradox that cannot be resolved from the paucity of elucidation offered. How is it that love can set us free if it "costs all we are / and will ever be"? The claim remains a prose assertion broken into lines to look like poetry. The final attempted paradox lacks a resolution and thus simply remains a contradictory statement.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes