On Angels

A post this past week over at Course of Mirrors prompted me to brush up on Angels. I have not read the book mentioned in the post, “The Wonderful Visit,” by H. G. Wells, but according to Ashen, it’s about an angel shot from the sky by a hunter all atwitter after a strange bird has been sighted in the area. Imagine shooting an angel. I’m going to have to read Wells’s “The Wonderful Visit.” Ashen says it followed “The Time Machine,” yet I don’t even recall ever hearing of it, let alone reading it. Well, Wells was a super-prolific writer, an angel of a higher order. Part of Ashen’s theme, I think, is that we have come to think of angels as cute, cuddly Cupids, innocuous Hallmark Card versions of a much more potent and potentially dangerous entity.

Was Rainer Maria Rilke a blogger? In “The First Elegy,” he wonders if any angel might hear him, “wenn ich schriee,” (“if I cried”). But various translators (perusing the Web) have given, “if I cried out” (but not William Gass, whose version I want to read). My copy of the “Duino Elegies” (The Norton Library, N155, 1963) shows the German next to the English, and was translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. They give, “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders,” and in their introduction they explain that Rilke was visiting a friend, a Princess Marie, at “Schloss Duino,” a castle near Trieste. He’d received a disturbing letter, a “business letter,” and went out onto a castle “bastion,” for a walk, and “a voice had called to him” with what became the first line of the Duino Elegies. According to the introduction, there was a “roaring wind” blowing around the castle. No one would hear him if he cried, or if he cried out. Yet surely an angel can hear through the noise.

Still, to “cry out” suggests some danger or risk at hand, some fear escaping in a scream of alarm. To simply “cry” does not necessarily suggest a yell, and might not mean a sound at all, but to cry tears, which can be done quietly. The German word Rilke used is “schriee,” which seems in German a form of yell, scream, and cry. Yet, it may not matter, for Rilke decides, in “The First Elegy,” to “keep down my heart.” He does not cry or cry out. For if he did, and an angel did hear him, and suddenly embraced him, he would disappear into the Angel’s super human existence. Yet, the angel “disdains to destroy us.” The angels ignore us, our cries, our crying, our predicament. Yet the “Elegies” might be Rilke’s cry, or his crying.

Here’s the opening of “The First Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Leishman and Spender:

“Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Each single angel is terrible.”

I posted my own version in a comment to Ashen’s post, thinking of updating the Rilke to a contemporary setting, keeping the irony. I’ve added to it just a bit here:

I rant in a memo to an Angel
perched high on a wire
of flow chart bureaucracy,
but her beauty ignores me;
it’s just as well,
for the beauty of her instant reply
would replace me.
Every memo from the angel is terrible.

Rilke seems to be suggesting that an angel, compared to the human, is like a light bulb to the moth. The moth is drawn to the heat and light by some desire to fly out of the shadows of its nightly existence, but is consumed by the giant bulb. And Rilke calls this being consumed by the object of one’s desire, “beauty,” which is why he says “terrible beauty,” which is why the angel is terrifying. Yet Rilke also says the angel “disdains to destroy us.” Apparently, we can only just bounce off the light bulb. We can’t penetrate it, and its light does not embrace or consume us. We cannot fully embrace beauty, which is a terrible predicament.

Joseph Campbell has an interesting discussion of angels, and of Satan. Satan was thrown into hell, Campbell reminds us in “The Power of Myth,” but why? What did he do wrong? Campbell suggests that God wanted the angels to serve his new creation, man, but that Satan so loved God that he refused to bow to any other. He was thrown into hell for not bowing to man. Thus man had bagged his first angel.

“The Second Elegy” begins with a line from the first. Rilke’s not giving up on his angels:

“Every Angel is terrible. Still, though, alas!
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing what you are.”


  1. Geannie Newell says:

    I cannot get my head wrapped around an angel as being terrible (except the obvious Satan). We are surrounded by angels (just not the Heavenly kind) daily, and when we are very lucky we provided with an opportunity to be an angel to someone in need.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, well, Geannie, there are other visions of angels, one that Ashen closed her post with, William Blake’s:
      You needn’t stick with Rilke, though I like the elegies.
      But I like Blake, too.
      Do you see the angels in this one? “…the stars…” maybe…

    2. Joe Linker says:

      There’s also the idea of the guardian angel, someone who watches out for…that being a lucky friend, indeed, or family. You’re suggesting we have opportunities to perform that role, and when we recognize and help we are lucky to be that angel. Yes, that’s at once metaphoric and literal.

  2. The thing with angels is that they appear to the individual in the outfit of their imagination, and are heard to speak his/her language – in other words, the spirit is coloured by the receptive capacity of the person. Seers, like Blake, and Rilke could hear the tongues of fire. The beauty of angelic qualities is powerfully convincing, we fear the light of truth inside.

    The angel in Well’s story comes to the vicar in a crisis of faith. I think his story represents Well’s own crisis of faith. It was a time when religious ideas were challenged by science. The Tyger, huh, such powerful poem.

    I really like your interpretation of Rilke’s poem, replacing the cry with a rant. You say it’s just as well that her beauty ignores you – yet you know it’s there, waiting in the heart …

    I rant in a memo to an Angel
    perched high on a wire
    of flow chart bureaucracy,
    but her beauty ignores me;
    it’s just as well,
    for the beauty of her instant reply
    would replace me.
    Every memo from the angel is terrible.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Yes, the Wells sounds like the crisis of faith, Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith” receding in “Dover Beach.” And, it’s possible the Angel takes on a lower form? I didn’t see this earlier. Turn the flow chart upside-down. Jack London in Martin Eden (1909 http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1056), for example. There’s a crisis of faith. He saves he thinks an Angel, she teaches him to read, but it turns out he’s the angel, but he can’t save her, after all, and there is a terrible ending, indeed, where everyone falls. It might have been called “The Bourgeois Angel.” Anyway, back to the Rilke, there is the idea of the Angelic order, or hierarchies, suggesting the class issues that go with the ebbing tide of faith? Industrialism forces the angels into factories. I don’t know. I suppose most of us are deaf to Rilke’s or Blake’s angels.

      I Heard an Angel BY WILLIAM BLAKE

      I heard an Angel singing
      When the day was springing,
      “Mercy, Pity, Peace
      Is the world’s release.”

      Thus he sung all day
      Over the new mown hay,
      Till the sun went down
      And haycocks looked brown.

      I heard a Devil curse
      Over the heath and the furze,
      “Mercy could be no more,
      If there was nobody poor,

      And pity no more could be,
      If all were as happy as we.”
      At his curse the sun went down,
      And the heavens gave a frown.

      Down pour’d the heavy rain
      Over the new reap’d grain …
      And Miseries’ increase
      Is Mercy, Pity, Peace.

      1. Thanks for the mention of Martin Eden, not a book by London I’ve read. I just downloaded it for free on my Kindle PC file.

    2. Joe Linker says:

      btw…I like that “outfit of the imagination.”

      1. :) In my novel Ana meets kind of an angel on a bridge.

        1. Joe Linker says:

          A good place to meet an angel.

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