Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

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 of power and harmony (“might and melody”).

It is to this ideal of divinity that the poet implicitly compares himself in “The Angels.” God is presented as an artist, a sculptor who through his own dispensations and actions gives life and meaning (though that meaning is difficult to discern, since it is hidden in the mystery of “the pages/ in the dark book of first beginning”) to his creations. The poet as creator brings into existence his own poem; like God’s control over his angels to the point of reducing them to mute and static figures in his garden, the poet’s control of the figures of his poem seems all but absolute. It is for the poet to decide whether the poem will come into being—that is to say, whether he will exercise his power to create and impose unity and harmony on his creation. This notion of the absolute quality of the power of God and of the poet is called into question by the poem itself. Just as the angels, in spite of their “bright souls,” manifest their inclination for “sin,” thus revealing their defective or flawed nature, so does the poem reveal its technically flawed nature through the highly irregular structure of the last stanza, a five-line stanza that destroys any hope of structural symmetry or harmony. The five lines disrupt the symmetry of the previous two four-line stanzas; by the choice of five rather than six lines the technical or formal perfection of the fourteen-line sonnet is forbidden.

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