The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)