Angels among us

Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterpiece extends the dimensions of poetic discourse and offers a fresh view of humanity.

Seven Angels Pouring Vials of the Wrath of God upon the Earth.
Seven Angels Pouring Vials of the Wrath of God upon the Earth. By a British School Painter influenced by William Blake. Credit: Burstein Collection/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Rainer Maria Rilke is regularly ranked as the greatest lyrical German-language poet since Friedrich Hölderlin. His Book of Hours and Sonnets for Orpheus revealed his extraordinary ability to mellifluously express abstract notions and romantic yearnings, but the aesthetic achievement of his final major work, the Duino Elegies, established his status as a consummate and seminal artist.

Despite the Prague-born poet writing exclusively in German, he spent little of his adult life living in the country of his chosen language, saying he preferred to be surrounded by non-German speakers because he couldn’t bear to hear a frivolous use of his poetic speech. He travelled across Europe, staying at numerous residences, often owned by generous patrons who recognised his inherent talent. He began the iconic elegy cycle while residing at Duino Castle in 1912, a property retained by his munificent patroness, Princess Marie Von Thurn und Taxis, on the Adriatic Sea. For ten years, the ten-part poem remained unfinished, until in 1923, when Rilke was lodging at the Chateau de Muzot in Switzerland, ‘a boundless storm, a hurricane of spirit’ coursed through him, and he discovered the necessary inspiration to finish the monumental work that would seal his illustrious poetic legacy. The questions he poses in the elegies establishes an initial allure, but it is his strange and unique use of angels that distinguishes this poem from lesser mystical verses.

Completed in the same year as TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, Rilke’s Duino Elegies are equally ambitious in apprehending, analysing and articulating the human experience of earthly existence, its pitfalls and apexes. It seeks to explain the special relationship we enjoy and endure with the world, a world Rilke believed we have failed to adequately interpret. Like The Wasteland, there is no single line or phrase in the elegies that unlocks an ultimate and succinct meaning to the poems. The cycle has been described as an ‘enchanted forest’, a linguistic space where readers can appraise Rilke’s quest to offer answers to ostensibly unanswerable questions. In order to sufficiently expatiate a new world vision, one where we don’t simply live between love and indifference, one where the usual undulations of emotions break and a higher and stronger way of being emerges, Rilke furnished his verses with newly forged symbols. He had experience using poetic symbols skillfully, like roses and swans, but in the elegies he deployed a large cache of potent representatives for precise yet elusive themes.

A myriad of archetypes emerge, but his most enticing and rewarding symbol, disclosed at the commencement of the poem, are his angels.

It is traditional in the West to launch a poetic venture with an invocation of a heavenly muse. Homer does so in the Iliad when he declaimed ‘Sing Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, who brought anguish a thousand-fold upon the Aacheans.’ Rilke instead starts the Duino Elegies with the famous question ‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks of angels?’ His authoritative and original appreciation of Christian symbolism (he once declared that the crucifix was not an altar for faith but a signpost pointing us in the right direction of redemption) allowed Rilke to refresh the significance of classical allegories, emblems and signs. A casual reader would be mistaken however in thinking the Duino angels were inherited from the Christian tradition. They are in fact inspired by the Islamic conception of that divine species. Rilke understood the secular influence organised religions exert over culture and sought to beget a modernist breed of conventional metaphors, signifying a pristine point of view. The Muslim ideation of angels is distinct from other postulations. They are sinless, luminous and pure, unable to commit crimes against God. Whereas the competing realm of hell against heaven in Christianity is solely captained by an angelic class of fallen spirits, in Islam, the Jinn, and not the angels, represent that regrettable tendency of divine inventions to become evil adversaries of humanity and their creator.

The resplendence and exaltation of the Islamic angels was used by Rilke to define humanity in contrast to a higher genesis of creatures. As in Islam, Rilke’s angels are timeless beings, ciphers of transcendental beauty, and embodiments of higher sensory and spiritual experiences. They are crucified by the tugging tides of time, the opposing pressures of past, present and the inescapable future, which to them occur all at once. They inhabit a story of actuality totally detached from the terrestrial, an ethereal province that encompasses the intense extremes of ecstasy and misery.

Among the many artistic responsibilities great poets undertake is the regeneration of tawdry or dormant metaphors, the discovery of evasive meaning and the deepening of customary definitions. This provides subsequent eras with a revitalised phraseology. Rilke’s exhumation of orthodox devices and importation of foreign conceits extends the dimensions of our poetic discourse and broadens our ability to describe abstract notions more accurately. His angels are artistic ideas that warrant attention, for a reflection on their subtle significance enriches a reader’s regard for the aims of poetry and the execution of art.


Harry Cluff