"The Angel" is the last poem in a book of poetry by Ted Hughes called Remains of Elmet. The book is dedicated to Hughes's mother and is set in the region of the West Riding of Yorkshire (once known as Elmet), where Hughes was born, in England.
"The Angel" recounts a recurring dream that Hughes apparently had as a child and young man. The places mentioned in the poem are located in Yorkshire. The poem is about a disaster which the narrator witnesses in his dream.
This disaster is symbolic of a lot of things. One thing the disaster symbolizes is the many deaths of people close to him that plagued Hughes in the 1960s, including the deaths of his mother, wife, mistress, and child.
Hughes was married to Sylvia Plath, also a poet. Plath committed suicide in 1963, after separating from Hughes in 1962. He was having an affair with a woman named Assia Wevill at the time. Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old child in 1969. His mother, Edith, died shortly after when she found out about the deaths. The Remains of Elmet collection was published in 1979, so it is safe to say the deaths of Hughes's loved ones influenced him in the writing of "The Angel."
The poem also symbolizes the environmental disaster affecting Hughes's beloved homeland. Phrases like "Black Halifax boiled in phosphorus," "smoking snow," and "burning metal" seem to refer to environmental disasters that plagued the moors of Yorkshire due to industrialization.
The swan/angel figure seems to symbolize a horrifying spiritual being such as a rider of the apocalypse from the Bible as well as Mother Nature. The apocalyptic messengers from the Bible appear in fire to bring a warning, as does the angel in Hughes's poem. This tells that the poem's angel brings a warning of destruction but is also a harbinger of regeneration and spiritual salvation.
The angel in the poem wears a halo of fluttering satin fabric. Satin is often used to line coffins, so this satin halo symbolizes funerary ritual. The angel sinks under the moor (Yorkshire), which is where Hughes's mother and Sylvia Plath are buried, and "left my darkness empty." This seems to say that the darkness Hughes felt in his life became emptier when he lost his loved ones.
The end of the poem says that the narrator looked down and saw the words of his mother "Joined with earth and engraved in rock" under his feet. This makes the reader think of a graveyard, reaffirming the theme of death in the poem. Hughes's mother's headstone does not have any epitaph; just her names and dates, but there is a rock at the place where she is buried engraved with significant words. On Plath's headstone are the words, "EVEN AMIDST FIERCE FLAMES / THE GOLDEN LOTUS CAN BE PLANTED." Plath was the mother of Hughes's two surviving children. The words on her headstone echo the sentiment of the poem, about fiery destruction and promises of rebirth or regeneration.
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