By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poets have often considered the spiritual and religious, and angels are an important part of this. Although some poets have used angels to symbolise love, especially divine love, others have used the trope of angels and the angelic in more surprising ways: witness Milton’s great epic poem which heads our list. So, if you’re ready, let’s take a look at some of the greatest angel poems ever written.
1. John Milton, Paradise Lost.
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed, and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms …
Any pick of classic poems about angels should contain this poem. The protagonist (or antihero) of Milton’s great epic poem is Satan, a fallen angel cast out of Heaven, who vows to bring about the Fall of Man, setting up his capital city, Pandemonium, in Hell (this is incidentally where we get the word ‘pandemonium’ from).
Milton’s great epic poem, completed in 1667 long after he had gone blind, takes in the big questions of theology, concerning sin and temptation and salvation.
2. William Blake, ‘The Angel’.
I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!
And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart’s delight.
So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten-thousand shields and spears.
Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.
Blake (1757-1827) wrote several poems about angels, so this is the first of two appearances he makes in this list. In the above poem, reproduced in full here, Blake uses the angel motif to explore our attitude to life and the regrets we may end up carrying if we choose conflict over love, and choose not to fulfil our ambitions. The poem acts as a nice pendant to Blake’s more famous poem, ‘A Poison Tree’.
3. William Blake, ‘I Heard an Angel’.
I heard an Angel singing
When the day was springing,
‘Mercy, Pity, Peace
Is the world’s release.’
Thus he sung all day
Over the new mown hay,
Till the sun went down
And haycocks looked brown.
I heard a Devil curse
Over the heath and the furze,
‘Mercy could be no more,
If there was nobody poor,
And pity no more could be,
If all were as happy as we.’
At his curse the sun went down,
And the heavens gave a frown.
Down pour’d the heavy rain
Over the new reap’d grain …
And Miseries’ increase
Is Mercy, Pity, Peace.
Here’s another angel-poem from Blake, this time exploring the themes of mercy, pity, and peace, and pitting the angel against the Devil himself.
4. Leigh Hunt, ‘An Angel in the House’.
How sweet it were, if without feeble fright,
Or dying of the dreadful beauteous sight,
An angel came to us, and we could bear
To see him issue from the silent air
At evening in our room, and bend on ours
His divine eyes, and bring us from his bowers
News of dear friends, and children who have never
Been dead indeed, – as we shall know forever.
Alas! we think not what we daily see
About our hearths, – angels that are to be,
Or may be if they will, and we prepare
Their souls and ours to meet in happy air; –
A child, a friend, a wife whose soft heart sings
In unison with ours, breeding its future wings.
Before Coventry Patmore popularised the term ‘angel in the house’ in a hugely popular Victorian poem (see below), Leigh Hunt, a friend of both Keats and Dickens, used the expression as the title of this poem, which we quote in full here.
Curiously, Hunt imagines what it would be like if an angel visited us on earth, before concluding that a child, a friend, or a wife might indeed be viewed as an angel in the making.
5. Robert Browning, ‘The Boy and the Angel’.
And in his cell, when death drew near,
An angel in a dream brought cheer:
And rising from the sickness drear
He grew a priest, and now stood here.
To the East with praise he turned,
And on his sight the angel burned …
Here’s a little-known narrative poem from the prolific Victorian poet Robert Browning (1812-89) about a boy named Theocrite, who longs to praise God the way the Pope in Rome does.
6. Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House.
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone …
Here’s a Victorian poem included in this list because of its historical importance: its message is not one that many modern readers, especially feminists, would have much sympathy with! Patmore’s long Victorian narrative poem (1854; revised 1862) idealises the wife as an ‘angel in the house’, whose purpose is to make her husband happy.
The poem’s popularity was doubtless bolstered by Queen Victoria’s own close relationship with her husband, Prince Albert, and her long period of mourning for him when he died suddenly in 1861.
7. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Angel or Demon’.
You call me an angel of love and of light,
A being of goodness and heavenly fire,
Sent out from God’s kingdom to guide you aright,
In paths where your spirits may mount and aspire.
You say that I glow like a star on its course,
Like a ray from the altar, a spark from the source.
Now list to my answer; let all the world hear it;
I speak unafraid what I know to be true:
A pure, faithful love is the creative spirit
Which makes women angels! I live in but you.
We are bound soul to soul by life’s holiest laws;
If I am an angel – why, you are the cause.
As my ship skims the sea, I look up from the deck.
Fair, firm at the wheel shines Love’s beautiful form,
And shall I curse the barque that last night went to wreck,
By the Pilot abandoned to darkness and storm?
My craft is no stauncher, she too had been lost –
Had the wheelman deserted, or slept at his post.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is sometimes derided as one of the worst popular poets ever, but although her poetry may lack the polish or depth of many of her contemporaries, there’s something to be said for her simple, direct style, which she uses to good effect in this poem (reproduced in full here), which likens women to angels and, through this connection, uses the angel motif to symbolise Love.
8. Czesław Miłosz, ‘On Angels’.
Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish-American poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. In this poem, Miłosz reminds us that the word ‘angel’ literally means ‘messenger’ (from angelos). And here, the angel delivers a message of hope, inspiring the poem’s speaker to face another day.
9. Michael S. Harper, ‘The Black Angel’.
Harper (1938-2016) was an American poet and English professor at Brown University, who was born into a lower-middle-class black family and became the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island from 1988 to 1993. This 1968 poem was written at the height of the US civil rights movement.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Touched by an Angel’.
Here’s another angel poem with links to the American civil rights movement. This poem, which concludes our pick of the best angel poems, is a wonderful and empowering paean to love, using the angel to symbolise triumph over adversity. Those who have endured hardship and feel exiled from the world may not know courage or other emotions, but they have love: and the love is like an angel that guides the way.
Enjoyed your selection of angel poems, but where are Rilke’s Duino Elegies? Thanks for your perceptive comments on great literature. They are often a highlight of my day.