The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

“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.

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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 wounded sensitivity. The details the speaking voice of the poet provides are unsettling because they suggest that angels with their “weary mouths” and their “yearning (as toward sin)” participate in the same cosmic melodrama as humankind, even if their existence is on a higher plane of reality.

In the poem, the angels do no heroic deeds. They are silent statues or decorations “in God’s gardens,” monuments without monumentality. There is little suggestion of power, authority, or joy on the part of these creatures who are traditionally depicted as superior to man and next to God in the hierarchy of being. Indeed, these twentieth century angels are lacking in the grandeur usually encountered in literature and the visual arts when angels are represented. Rilke’s presentation will not allow any traditional exaltation of their unique individual status, since he tells us that they “Almostare all alike.”

Rather than denying the existence of God, angels, or spiritual reality, Rilke reinterprets these concepts for his own age and that devastating reinterpretation reveals the spiritual desolation of the individual in the modern age, in which the sensitive human being seeks to make relevant received structures of value and belief. The angels and, by implication, man, have been created by divinity as carefully wrought works of art, but that creation appears to be surrounded in mystery. There is in Rilke’s poem no hint of transcendence, of a special fate or bliss for God’s creations.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

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 discourse points to the complexity of his own interior life; he is actually revealing more about the quality of spiritual energies and anxieties that animate the poem. The poem provides few specific details about the angels’ appearance. One might venture to say that these are not physical, but symbolic details.

The silent angels, compared to “intervals” in God’s “might and melody,” raise more questions than they answer. How are they like intervals? Intervals are the spaces that mark off one thing from another or that differentiate one segment from another of the same entity. The interval, as such, has no substance and can only be conceptualized and recognized in view of its relation to what it differentiates. The “bright souls” and “wings” point to a sphere associated with divinity, with God, yet the angels’ “weary mouths” and “yearning” point back to the finite, physical world. One sees that structurally the angels differentiate the realms of the divine and the human. If they are intervals, gaps that mark off while they indicate God’s power and harmony (“might and melody”), then in the poem they ultimately have no substance, and one might say that within this poetic frame of reference their position between God and man in no way enables them to function as intermediaries. In this poetic universe, God does not speak to or with his creations.

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