Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the twentieth century, such diverse poets as Wallace Stevens in America, Diego Valeri in Italy, and Dannie Abse in England, to name only a few, utilized the figure of the angel in their poetry as a way of drawing together into one symbol their concerns about the nature and quality of the spiritual dimension of human life. In Rilke’s “The Angels,” this concern with the spiritual should not be seen as the conventionally religious concern of the orthodox believer, as Rilke had rejected, largely in reaction to his mother’s superficial and narrow Catholicism, Christianity and its belief system. Precisely because Rilke’s poetry is so committed to the sensuous aspects of nature, precisely because in much of his major poetry Rilke reveals the painter’s eye for the contours and depths of physical reality, one comes to understand the spiritual as not opposed to or beyond the real, but as the usually unperceived extension of the real. “The Angels” seeks to explore, even illuminate, the basic texture of the spiritual dimension of human existence as the poet’s vision of the angels tells of what the impoverished, post-Romantic imagination can still see even after the historical loss of traditional religious belief. These Rilkean angels are not the angels of Judeo-Christian tradition, but instead, complex symbols of the difficult relationships of the human to the divine when divinity itself is conceived of by the poet as an essentially aesthetic and moral ideal...

(The entire section is 499 words.)