LITERATURE, ANGELS IN
The angel has been an almost indispensable literary symbol for many poets and writers. In particular, one class of them, the Devil and his legions, has provided a vast source of inspiration. Of all Christian characters, Satan has appealed most strongly to the poets of all ages and languages, and it may be said that the Devil, from his minor place in the Holy Scriptures, has dominated most literary forms to the present day. Although writers such as Pedro Calderon, John Milton, Johann Goethe, and Lord Byron were fascinated by this character, the most distinguished poet to dedicate a considerable part of his body of work to the court of Satan was no doubt Dante Alighieri. At the core of Dante’s Divina Commedia is Satan, who dwells in the apex of hell and a multitude of angels who reside in his Paradiso.
Belief in the Devil was traditionally accompanied by belief in witchcraft, widely considered a manifestation of diabolical activity, especially during the Middle Ages. Many allusions to good angels assisting in human warfare against demonic powers can be found in the secular literature of the period. An example appears in scene IV of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet when the young prince of Denmark, upon seeing his father’s ghost, exclaims, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Angels are again called upon in the final scene of Hamlet when Horatio, holding the dead prince, offers this farewell: “Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
Angels all but disappeared from literature with the passing of the Middle Ages, but one can witness their resurrection from the humanistic Renaissance, and their persistence from the sixteenth century down to the present day. However, Satan is not a character that dominates the literature of the Renaissance, in part due to the period’s reaction against medieval thought.
One of the most significant post-medieval angelogogies can be found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who devoted himself to studies arising out of what he claimed to be persistent communications from angels and other agencies in a spiritual world. He used the concept of angels to make the nature and vitalities of the spiritual world come alive to a society that had lost sight of the reality of the spiritual realm. According to Swedenborg, angels are realities far superior to humankind, and are able to communicate wisdom because they are capable of receiving it. In his writings about the angelic world, he asserts that angelic writing is very different from human writing. They express affections with vowels, whereas with consonants they express the ideas springing from the affections. In angelic language a few words can express what it takes pages of human writing to say. He also asserts that angels have no personal power since they are only agents of God, and if an angel doubted the source of his power he would instantly become so weak that he could not resist a single evil spirit.
The works of Swedenborg had a significant impact on the mystical poet William Blake (1757-1827). Angels literally abound in Blake’s writings and drawings. Blake, who was probably more familiar with reincarnation and the karmic principal than most Englishmen of his day, regarded angels as the real forces behind the lives of mortal men and women. He was preoccupied with angels, both celestial and infernal, and the struggle between spirits of light and dark took on a vivid reality.
Other poets similarly regarded angels as very real forces and called upon them frequently in a number of literary works. Robert Browning, for example, in the poem The Guardian Angel, implores his angel to take charge of the creative process; Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, affirms the bit of folklore that each individual has a good and a bad angel; and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often espoused on the language spoken by the angels.
The romantic poet Lord Byron was inspired to write this bit of whimsy: “The angels all were singing out of tune, / And hoarse from having little else to do, / Excepting to wind up the sun and moon, / Or curb a runaway young star or two.”
In Victorian literature it was very common to find the use of angels as intermediaries between God and man. An example is a poem by Leigh Hunt called Abou ben Adhem, in which the main character wakens one night to find an angel writing in a book of gold the names of all those who love God.
The twentieth century found the German poet Ranier Maria Rilke embracing angels in his Duinesian Elegies, particularly in the first and second of them. According to Rilke, these celestial creatures represented the most sublime expression of beings who are able to ascend to God. He describes angels as:
Successful first creatures, favorites of creation, high mountain ranges, dawn-reddened peaks of all creation, pollen of the flowering Godhead, junctures of light, avenues, stairways, thrones, spaces of essence, shields of ecstasy, storms of tumultuously enraptured emotion and suddenly, singly, mirrors which reconcentrate once again in their countenances their own outflowing beauty.
Angels also worked their way into longer literary works. Many stories about angels, Paradise, and divine intervention have been written by some of the major writers of this century and the turn of the last. Most of these stories are characterized by the intellectual skepti cism and sense of spiritual dislocation typical of the modern Western point of view. However, the majority of great modern writers have been fascinated with the possibility that a moral order and intelligence lies hidden in the mysterious confusion around them.
G. B. Shaw (Aerial Football: The New Game), creates a chaotic Church of England Heaven where the playing fields of the Lord and of Eton can hardly be distinguished; John Steinbeck, in his Saint Katy the Virgin, canonizes an erstwhile, very bad pig; the hero of O. Henry’s The Cop and the Anthem is arrested just at the moment he has resolved to go straight, and Mark Twain’s good little boy comes to a loud, bad end in the The Story of the Good Little Boy.
In science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s astronaut missionary asks what will constitute sin in other galaxies (The Fire Balloons) and Isaac Asimov in The Last Trump foresees some knotty problems when the Day of Resurrection arrives.
In other stories, E. M. Forster (Mr. Andrews) depicts a Christian and a Muslim unhappy with their respective Heavens; Edgar Allan Poe in The Angel of the Odd presents a hilarious angel in the shape of an angry cask with a thick German accent; in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, angels play the traditional role of messengers who bring, however, very contemporary messages. In Bernard Malamud’s Angel Levine, a devout Jew is sent a young black angel who hangs out in Harlem until the Jew can overcome his racism.
The archetypical figure of the angel represented as the mysterious stranger who arrives to effect a change of heart is utilized by Robert Louis Stevenson (Markheim), and Philip Van Doren Stern (The Greatest Gift), while Arthur Machen’s The Bowmen represents the genesis of all rumors and legends of the Angels of Mons in World War II.
Leo Tolstoy’s (The Three Hermits) three ragged holy men cannot remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but they can run on water in pursuit of the Bishop’s ship. Franz Kafka, in his The City Coat of Arms, summing up his agnostic position, tells how humanity’s plans to build a tower to heaven are put off from one generation to another until finally the idea becomes senseless.
Among other modem stories about angels and divine intervention are Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, H. G. Wells’s The Man Who Could World Miracles, Paul Gallico’s The Small Miracle, Wilbur Daniel Steele’s The Man Who Saw Through Heaven, and Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation.