The Poem

“The Angels” is a three-stanza poem of thirteen lines. In the original German version, the rhyme scheme, abab, cdcd, efeef, nearly resembles that of an irregular sonnet. The English translation does not seek to reproduce that rhyme scheme (with the exception of the “seam” and “dream” rhyme at the end of lines 2 and 4), but it does accurately reproduce Rainer Maria Rilke’s use of alliteration in the second line of each stanza, a use of alliteration that underlines poetically strategic images of the nature and function of angels as Rilke conceives them to be. The poem is a reflection on the nature of angels. One might well expect an emphasis on visual representation and detail in a collection of poems whose German title translates into English as the book of images or the book of pictures. In the poem “The Angels,” the emphasis is not on a visual image but rather on a mode of feeling and perceiving: Rilke’s meditation here is on that which has not been seen.

Rilke’s lyricism has resonance with European Romantic poetry—that of John Keats, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Wordsworth, and Novalis in particular. Unlike in the typical Romantic lyric poem, however, where the poet speaking in the first person focuses upon nature to present or resolve a problem, in Rilke’s poem the Romantic “I” of the poet gives way to the disembodied third-person speaker whose observations on angels are filtered through his own modern and...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Forms and Devices

There is an extraordinary tension in Rilke’s poetry arising from the nature of the charged imagery that he employs. In his representation of the angels, he alternates between what appear to be realistic details and metaphysical details. The first line of the poem attributes physicality, “mouths,” to angels, and their souls are declared to be “without seam.” The utilization of the words “mouths” and “seam” with their respective suggestions of the human and a physical division or demarcation contrasts with the word “soul,” which, by definition, is nonmaterial. These angelic beings reveal themselves to be the poet’s attempt at interpretation of a dimly perceived spiritual concept rather than direct physical description. In this poem, Sehnsucht or “yearning” implies a passionate and unquiet desire on the part of the angels, and the defective nature of this desire is confirmed by the fact that it is directed toward “sin.” This desire arises in the dreams of the angels as if to intimate that perfect beings (even God the Creator seems strangely cold and distant from his creations, the angels) do not exist in any sphere. In spite of the notion of otherness that angelic beings ordinarily suggest, these flawed creatures constitute a link with another creation, the flawed, spiritual/physical human species.

In representing and informing his own concept of angels, Rilke appears to be speaking about them, but in reality his...

(The entire section is 460 words.)