Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

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“Angel” is a poem about the artistic process and the relation of the artist to the world of art, on the one hand, and the wonders of God’s creation, on the other. Lighthearted and wry, it imagines the moment when the work of art is not going well, that moment when the artist is most likely to lose heart and give up, particularly if the overwhelming beauty and power of nature, even in its severest winter garb, is brought to the artist’s attention. The temptation to quit is even more powerful when an example of the admired, finished, discrete art form (in this case, the charming Satie Sarabande No. 1) is thrust upon him, particularly since he cannot even play it. Not only is he being mocked as a producer of art, but also as an interpreter thereof.

The angel is an appropriate commentator on the writer’s ability to make art, given the theological belief that one of the functions of angels is to sing the praises of God, the greatest Creator and, as such, the first and greatest artist. How can the poet sit there, fussing with his literary chaos, when he is surrounded by the power of God’s example of making form out of confusion, and when the angel has pointed out to him the success of Satie, one of God’s creatures who has proved his Godlike talents by producing the composition which the artist obviously much admired? If the poet cannot make art, he should give up trying and be content to adore those who can.

Merrill seems to be accepting the not uncommon idea that there is something divine about the artistic act. The angel seems to be denying the writer in the poem this gift, at least for the moment. The poem might be read, if not too exclusively or dogmatically, as a metaphor for the split personality of the artist, part human, part spiritual; the angel might stand for the artistic part of his own personality, discouraged by the failure to get the lines of poetry right, urging the writer to give up the attempt as presumptuous in the face of God’s obvious creative force, on the one hand, and Satie’s creative success on the human level, on the other. It is perhaps helpful to remember that this poem was originally called “Another Angel,” which seems to suggest that this is not the first time the author has had this experience of artistic failure.

The poet, however, has the last laugh. The poem may be about not being able to write a poem, and how the artist’s failure is deepened by lost confidence and by confrontation with creations, artistic, human, and spiritual, that suggest his efforts are not only futile, as in his attempt at piano playing, but inconsistent with his real role as a consumer of art rather than a producer. He rejects that argument, however. What is more to the point is the “fact” of the poem on the page. In the very act of rejecting the angel’s hints and getting back to work on his inchoate lines, confused and aimless as they are, he creates the poem “Angel,” which is, cheekily, about the very experience of being assailed by the suggestion of his unworthiness as an artist. He proves the contrary in making the aesthetic object, the poem, in the very act of fighting for the right to do so.