A consistent theme appears in many of Rilke’s poems―his dire invisible longing (the reality of the human condition) and the connection to the angel characters represented in the Elegies as well as in other poems. His poem “Lament” ends with the lines “Loveliest in my invisible / landscape, you that made me more known / to the invisible angels” (137). Rilke’s angels are not only invisible, but they are the longing in and of themselves, while we (as humans) are only able to long; they are awareness, while we are only able to be aware; they are silence, while we are only able to be quiet; they are existence, while we are only able to exist. The angels are, while we can only be. Yet, they have their own Angel Condition―a realm of living in both the present and the past, in the real and the unreal, terrifyingly both life and death, and a condition which does not allow them to reciprocate or have a voice.
Rilke describes the angel of the Elegies’ perspective in a letter to Witold Hulewicz as “all the towers and palaces of the past are existent because they have long been invisible, and the still-standing towers and bridges of our reality are already invisible, although still (for us) physically lasting. . . . All the worlds in the universe are plunging into the invisible as into their next-deeper reality” (328). That is, they are everything that has existed and now is invisible or no longer exists; they represent human past, all thoughts and objects in human history. They exist to take notice, to watch, so that the world can also exist―one cannot exist without the other. They are our inner witness (the witness to our witnessing) our subconscious awareness.
A similar concept is presented by Buber in his book I and Thou, where he describes all relationships that have passed as objects, whether referring to the I-Thou or the I-It relationship, “In other words: insofar as a human being makes do with the things that he experiences and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no presence. He has nothing but objects; but objects consist in having been” (64). Once the present becomes the past, all encounters transform into objecthood and become “objects” or memories. Rilke’s angels live in the realm of observing our I-Thou/I-It relationships and the transformation of the essential present to a past of objects. The difference between the angel/human and human/object relationships is that the angels cannot reciprocate like the I-Thou. Therefore, an I-Angel word pair cannot exist within Buber’s analogy, since the angels are not only invisible, but do not have the ability to reciprocate in their one-sided, yet still whole, relationship.
That said, there are several binaries based on the differences between the human condition and the Angel Condition that appear in the Rilke’s Elegies. The angels appear to exist as the opposite of what is tangible, to be abstract so the rest of the world can be real. Some of the binaries between human and angel that arise from the Elegies include visibility/invisibility, tangibility/abstractness, noise/silence, real/unreal, and existing/non-existing. They never create cause and/or effect, but occur as binary opposites while still being the longing which connects them to or witnesses the human condition. Rilke refers to this connection as a “unity” in the same letter to Hulewicz, “there is neither a this-world nor an other-world, but the great unity, in which the ‘angels,’ those beings who surpass us, are at home” (317). In this letter Rilke mentions how the angels “surpass” us, which seems to indicate that the Angel Condition is less flawed than the human condition.
The Elegies angels are unlike the character of angels in other texts. Rilke seems to give them an air of superiority, while giving them their own longing. While the humans lack the ability to detach themselves from objects, angels long to be able to attach, even though that attachment is the primary human condition defect. The angels of Milton, Blake, and Rumi span from satanic followers to God’s servants with varying degrees of wisdom. For example, the angels represented in Milton’s paradise lost are mere followers, not thinking for themselves, and fall to Hell and become Satan’s Angels. Blake’s angels were quite different from Rilke’s in that they were vane and considered themselves wiser than Blake. To Blake, the angels operate under their own system which they then impose upon humans, as do humans impose upon them. He also saw them as flawed, one-sided religious creatures. Rumi’s angels appear to be based on his Muslim faith, in that they are represented as messengers or servants, similar to the modern Christian angels of today. He mentions that the angels pray for those less fortunate and also that the Sufi masters are wiser than the angels.
All of these angels from other poems have one thing in common―their main purpose is to serve as messengers. Unlike Rilke’s angels, which have no voice, they speak and interact with humans and with God. Rilke doesn’t necessarily present this lack of voice as a weakness, but rather a way to exist within their own silence, as listeners with an invisible response ability. Modern musician John Cage experimented with the idea of complete silence in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University and found it impossible to create due to the physicality of the human condition. He writes, “I . . . heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation” (8). This potential for silence is only possible in the realm of Rilke’s angels.
“Every angel is terrifying,” wrote Rilke in “The First Elegy” (151). These dire angels terrify humanity because of their astounding beauty, their complete detachment, and their relationship with death. The angels represent what is most beautiful and in the presence of such beauty, change is forced upon us, so there is never any stability. The only thing stable is the present, which is fleeting and turns invisible instantly as soon as it has passed. The angels encompass all that has previously existed and is no longer tangible, turned invisible. Therefore, they are terrifying because everything they are not is less beautiful, including human beings. They represent a non-existence without anything tangible, their invisible existence with nothing to attach to, no physicality, and a complete detachment from any and all objects. The human condition finds it impossible to imagine a life without attached or with an unattached love or “objectless love” (153). Further, this lack of a physical being and the importance of detachment from the tangible, might mean that we may discover there is no such thing as resurrection, no need for a physical representation of our bodies once we are dead.
Rilke’s angels are particularly horrifying in their association with death. Later in “The First Elegy” Rilke writes “Angels (they say) don't know whether it is the living they are moving among, or the dead” (155). They appear to exist in both life and death, and death itself is terrifying. Since death is misunderstood (by humans), the angels are misunderstood, because a part of them is death. What is misunderstood is often feared―again the Angel Condition contrasts the human condition. Death means to “no longer desire one’s desires” (155). Thus, relates detachment to death, a concept which causes anxiety and fear in the minds of humans who tie the purpose of life to the attachment of other people and objects (I-Thou, I-It), whether those objects are tangible items, memories, or art forms, such as poetry.
Rilke’s angels can be related directly a detachment from objects such as words as an art form, or perhaps as the opposite of poetry; they seem to symbolize the unsayable words as described in “The Ninth Elegy.”
. . . But later, among the stars,
what good is it–they are better as they are: unsayable.
For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. (199-201)
Poetry doesn’t exist without a human to think the words―the meaning of words is invisible like the angels and the angels need the humans in order to witness the poetry, in order to listen. The words or thoughts create the perception of the reality the angels create for themselves via observation. The angels then become the meaning of the words; they consume human thoughts in order to exist, since they cannot create their own.
The angels are the longing for which we cannot let go. They long to be tangible in the way we long to live forever. They are both our opposite and the same as us. They are the emotions created by the feelings described in poetry. T.S. Eliot described poetry as “an escape from emotion” and “[t]he business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all” (17). To Eliot, the poem is tangible, like an object or a sculpture and has the ability to stand on its own without being tied to the poet or creator. Perhaps this comparison provides an additional binary, in that Rilke’s angels are the meaning of the poems in contrast to the poem itself as a tangible object. The idea that words or poetry transcend or elevate to the realm of Rilke’s angels correlates with Longinus’ Sublime―that language can elevate above emotions and create a moment of transport or ecstasy that is above the mundane. He relates sublime writing to a spiritual experience that takes us beyond material world, “When a writer uses any other resource he shows himself to be a man; but the Sublime lifts him near to the great spirit of the Diety” (XXXVI). And as explained by Matthew Arnold in his essay “The Study of Poetry,” poetry “interpret[s] life for us,” as it does for Rilke’s angels (2). The following diagram visualizes the relationships between Rilke’s angels and humans, poetry and poets, and the concrete versus the abstract.
The diagram also indicates that connections can be drawn between the concrete akin to the human condition versus the abstract akin to the Angel Condition.
Rilke’s profound longing is the key element Rilke uses to tie the angel/human relationship together and is carefully articulated in the Elegies. In turn, he has created an Angel Condition which greatly differs from the angel characters and purposes created by other poets. This condition is an existence, which not only lacks the ability to reciprocate, but acts as a binary for all that is human and all that is less beautiful. To Rilke, it seems, this longing is the perfect condition for both humans and angels.
Arnold, Matthew. “The Study of Poetry.” Essays: English and American. Vol. XXVIII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001.Web. 13 Oct. 2012.
Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday, 33-45, 1988. Print.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Waterman Kaufman. New York: Scribners and Sons, 45-69, 1970. Print.
Cage, John. Silence. 50th anniversary ed. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 3-17, 2011. Print.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. Bartleby.com, 1996. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.
Longinus. On the Sublime. Trans. H. L. Havell. The Project Gutenberg. gutenberg.org, 2006. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Dover Publications, 3-4, 2005. Print.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. and ed. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Random House, 1982. Print.
Rumi. The Essential Rumi. Trans. Coleman Barks. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
The following users say thank you to tlhopkinson for this useful post:craigb12
@Forgewright I decided to post it here in case anyone else was interested. And I'm pretty proud of this one . It was a labor of love and scored me the first 100% on an essay ever given by a professor and published author that I respect and admire very much.
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The Angel Condition: The Poetry and Meaning of Rilke’s Angels in the Elegies
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Thanks @craigb12 !
Brilliant stuff @tlhopkinson
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