“Metaphor Is Our Only Hope”

Drew Calvert explores the idea of the angelic in Rilke’s poetry:

What kind of metaphor are Rilke’s angels? At first, they sound like a Christian believer’s answer to modernity, and it’s true that Rilke was on a quest for an antidote to his anxious times. He sought out Russian spiritualism, the prophecies of Islam, the legacy of Orpheus, and various modes of aestheticism, but nothing satisfied him completely. … Rilke’s angels aren’t reducible to those flitting through the Christian tradition. In 1921, he wrote in a letter that he was becoming anti-Christian—in fact, he was studying the Koran:

Surely the best alternative was Muhammad, breaking like a river through prehistoric mountains toward the one god with whom one may communicate so magnificently each morning without this telephone we call “Christ” into which people repeatedly call “Hello, who’s there?” although there is no answer.

Are Rilke’s angels Islamic, then? Maybe, but that’s obscuring the point. They seem instead to stand for a higher order of reality, and they offer Rilke a chance to imagine the world from beyond the ranks of humans. W. H. Auden saw this clearly: “While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge).” Language, of course, is a human thing we use to express the more-than-human. Metaphor is our only hope. As Stephen Mitchell puts it, Rilke’s angels are “embodied in the invisible elements of words.”