Sunday, October 7, 2012



In the storm that rages round the strong cathedral
like a denier thinking through and through,
your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you.

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how from your always-full
sundial our hours slide off one by one –

that so impartial sundial, upon which
the day’s whole sum is balanced equally
as though all our hours were rich and ripe?

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, tr, J. B. Leishman
  (slightly modified by Oriana)


I fell in love with this poem at first reading, when I first discovered Rilke in my twenties -- so many years ago that it seems like another lifetime. Unpredictable, the words that may connect one stage of our life with another; timeless ripples in time.

There are so many great lines here, and the poem works so well in English (including the rhymes, often a translator’s downfall -- but here we see Leishman at his best) that I am surprised that this exquisite piece from The Book of Images is little known. You’d think that many Rilke lovers could recite the second stanza by heart:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how from your always-full
sundial our hours slide off one by one –


The poem flows by itself, each word inevitable, even in translation. But this sublime angel remains largely undiscovered, obscured by its larger, lethal kin perched in the Duino Elegies.

Let’s “take it from the top,” as a quirky (but aren’t they all?) professor of mine used to say. The first stanza is interesting in itself. What is this “storm that rages round the cathedral”? I no longer remember my source for this information, but one explanation may be biographical. When Rilke and Rodin visited Chartres together, Rilke, for whom it was his first visit, was surprised by the wind around the cathedral -- “the wind in which we stood like the damned.” Rodin replied that there is always a wind around the great cathedrals.

Before we go into the metaphorical meaning of the “storm around the strong cathedral,” let me dispose of a more literal interpretation. The stone walls of medieval cathedrals (which used to double as fortresses in wartime) are massive not only in height, but in thickness. That’s why it’s always cold inside, even on a hot summer day. But I never noticed much of a draft of coldness seeping out from the inside. The turbulence noted by Rilke may have been due to the complicated air currents as the wind pushes against and flows around the giant walls.

Also, Rilke might have known the legend of the wind around the Strasbourg cathedral: the wind there waits for the devil (trapped inside god’s fortress) to ride it again. Hence the “denier” might refer to the “spirit that always denies [or “always says No”), a line from Goethe’s Faust.

But let’s assume that the denier refers to an atheist who feels enraged against religion, but rather than express his hatred in a purely emotional outpouring, tries for rational arguments. Though Rilke was influenced by Lou Andreas-Salomé’s belief that all religions were human invention, like Lou he shared a longing for a “real god,” one who does not divide humanity into the saved and the damned.

Rilke felt that it’s possible to experience this kind of divine presence, with no need for doctrine or blind belief. Though outwardly hostile toward Catholicism (he forbade the presence of a priest at his funeral), he was drawn to the poetics of Catholicism, the tenderness embodied in Mary and, now and then, other figures, in this case an angel. In spite of the literal as well as emotional and intellectual storm around the cathedral, the angel greets us as a beautiful and loving being:

your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you


I especially love the lines that open the second stanza:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:

The sculptor made the angel in man’s image. It’s a collective image: “your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths.” An angel is a human self-portrait. But it’s a wishful self-portrait, with wings. That’s how beautiful and serene we’d look if we’d known nothing but affection in place of being screamed at and punished. This is how we’d smile if we knew nothing about abandonment or betrayal. This is how smooth and soft our faces would be if we never experienced stress and suffering.

The angel, a stone bird and a man-bird, cannot know that all our hours are not “rich and ripe.” It can know nothing of the human life, and yet

your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you

That happens thanks to the power of art and the power of a smile, whether on someone’s face or in a painting or on a statue. A smile expresses affection and trust. When we see a smile, we tend to relax and smile back, which automatically makes us feel better. 

And then the final irony:

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

The angel is blissful because he is blind and innocent -- innocent in the sense of “ignorant.” He doesn’t even know night from day.


When I recently re-read Rilke’s poem, I saw why its theme seemed so familiar to me: it echoes what Keats says in “Ode to a Nightingale.” I’ll quote only the relevant passages.

[that I might]
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
  What thou among the leaves hast never known.
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
     Where but to think is to be full of sorrows
          And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes
  Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

. . .

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
  No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
  In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
  The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, in faery lands forlorn.


Here it’s not the physical bird that is immortal, but the song, the pure powerful voice from the leafy throat of darkness, changeless over thousands of years (Jugians would probably speak of the “Nightingale Archetype”). Regardless, like Rilke’s smiling angel of the sundial, the nightingale cannot know anything of human sorrows. The speaker wishes to forget “What thou among the leaves hast never known.”

Keats creates quite a catalog of these sorrows. While nowadays not many young men die of disease (especially TB), old age is still a pathetic stage for most. The process of aging, in the sense of decline and deterioration, has never ceased to be a source of sadness, even dread. The young foolishly say, “I hope I never get to be old.” But they will, and no prayers, no crying for mercy to god or the universe will be answered. Anti-oxidants won’t save us, nor the promised but medical miracles. Our biological clock progressively activates the death switches that lead to less and less capacity for tissue repair. The debilitated elderly are in fact a much more common sight now than in Keats’s time -- one of the cruel ironies of modern medicines.

And yet, and yet . . .   In spite of all the sorrows still ahead, we can enjoy the song of the “immortal bird.” And by giving us delight, statues or paintings of smiling angels lift our mood -- regardless of our belief in angels. I don’t find it strange. After all, we can take pleasure in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus without the slightest belief in Aphrodite and the strange story of her sea-birth. (A shameless digression: the word “sea” is part of the etymology of “soul.”) It’s not about belief; it’s about beauty.

I certainly hope that colleges will continue offering classes called “the Bible as literature,” just as they offer classes in mythology. And no one, based on taking a class, will actually hurry into the woods to offer an animal sacrifice to Zeus or Wotan. Aesthetic pleasure can be entirely divorced from belief, without decreasing our ability to enjoy any form of art that used to be connected with worship.


These days even devout believers find it hard to imagine God as a man with a white beard floating in the sky, or seated on a throne amid clouds. New definitions have been attempted. There has also been a tremendous resurgence in the popularity of angels, but again people are beginning to see them differently – not necessarily with wings. “Angel” means “messenger” – and a messenger can take many forms. A bird beginning to sing while you are in despair might be understood as a messenger (and not only because a bird is a symbol of the Spirit).

In The Believing Brain, Michael Shirmer states that “we can’t help believing” for two main reasons: what he calls “patternicity” (seeking patterns) and “agenticity” (an agent must have caused this for a purpose). The human brain is wired to seek meaning, so anything perceived as meaningful, as conveying a relevant message, can serve as an angel/messenger. For instance, in Milosz’s poem “On Angels,” an angel (or a message) resides  in birdsong as well as in the smell of apples.

It could be argued that anything that makes life seem worth living falls into the angelic category. It was the literal belief in angels in America that astonished me completely. In Europe, its churches crowded with angels, its castles with plump-buttocked cherubs, it’s difficult to see angels as anything but art. And art means distance. It’s makers are undeniably human. It was cunning to forbid “graven images.” It is a danger to religion to allow humans to be such  obvious creators. As soon as it allowed images, dissident Christianity was already on its way to “secular humanism.”

But wishful thinking will never disappear. We want the universe to love us. Or, if not the whole universe, then some element of it, kind and protective. With luck, kindness and protectiveness is what we get from other human beings. What the universe gives us is beauty.

Yet even those of us who don’t believe in angels smile back at at the statue of a smiling angel. After reading Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, a book I cannot praise enough, I came to see how any theist religion is a matter of universal cognitive illusions that stem from teleological (purpose-oriented) bias (again, Michael Shirmer’s “patternicity” and “agenticity”).

And still, when I think that cathedrals were built in honor of a cognitive illusion, I’m stunned. And I’m willing to honor the deep delight that can be provided by “human, all too human” religious art.

(Shameless digression: I just remembered how teenage St. Thérèse of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”) allegedly looked at a dazzling meadow of wildflowers (before she entered Carmel, of course; no more meadows after the doors of the convent closed), and said, “So much beauty wasted on mere earth.” This, to me, is one of the horrors of old-time religion: the rejection of this world in expectation of the future one, the only one that mattered. “Mere earth”! How far we have traveled, in the space of one century, from that dismissal to Mary Oliver’s famous question: ““What is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”)


                      for Sutton Breiding

In San Francisco an angel
bears a fluted holy water conch –
a marble smile, celestial.
The Golden Gate opens into fog
on the gothic bones
of builders and suicides.

Cloud-eaten hills,
views of Alcatraz;
drunks grinning to themselves
in Victorian doorways . . .
Angel, you smile as if you knew
that beauty is the sole excuse.

The city rises and falls
here at the slippery
ledge of the continent.
Seagulls blur with white sails.
In the Palace of Fine Arts,
a bronze Perseus lifts

the head of the Medusa,
though he himself is headless.
But you, mild angel, bless
all who enter the dim vestibule.
Here at the tomb of god,
you change stone into hope.

~ Oriana (c) 2012



Rilke’s angel poem is beautiful whether you believe in angels or not. I do believe in guardian angels. I've seen too may near misses to not believe there was an intervention. Maybe not in the Biblical sense but much more.


How interesting (and understandable) that you believe in guardian angels. That's called an “argument from personal experience” (or the experience of others whose veracity you trust). I, on the other hand, have experienced too many (or “just enough”) incidents when a guardian angel would have been extremely useful to protect me or a loved one, but alas, the bad thing just happened, the damage often irreversible.

So I find it 50/50 at best, with no objective evidence for special protection -- exactly as the case of prayers. Some say it's good enough that prayers are answered 50% of the time -- but that's a random result, like tossing a coin. Besides, every near miss can be explained by the laws of physics, provided we have enough knowledge. We don’t have that knowledge, so we call it “luck” or, because the human brain is wired for “agenticity” (the belief in a conscious agent who acted with a deliberate purpose), a “guardian angel.” But whatever happened did not violate the laws of physics. The same goes for every death or injury in a collision or anything else. In nature there is nothing supernatural.

And what about the young man in my past, who, feeling he was a failure, a loser, committed suicide? Was his guardian angel truly a loser? His mother, a devout Catholic, prayed for her only child every day -- were a mother’s prayers ignored?

When the news shows a survivor of a plane crash, say, I can't help thinking of the 200 others who were not saved, and not because they were sinners while the saved one was a saint. Or a mother of three small children killed by a drunken driver; a young man paralyzed, likewise because of a “stupid” accident. I know I don't have to multiply examples. There is simply no evidence: the negatives cancel out the positives. Sad, because it would be consoling to believe!

But truth wins out over emotional need, at least in my case, no matter how great my emotional need. I could never drown my sorrows in religion or alcohol. For me, what works is work. I love what Rilke said: “to work is to live without dying.” 


This post has made me want to investigate a poet I have long wanted to read about. Charles Peguy was a French writer who converted rather late in life to Catholicism after being a critic of it most of his life. When WWI began he joined the army and was killed in the first weeks of the war; he at least was spared the horrors of years in the trenches. He apparently was a classicist as he had this great quote:

"Homer is new and fresh this morning and nothing, perhaps, is as old and stale as this morning's paper."

Another late convert to Catholicism was the New Zealand poet James K Baxter. The son of a noted pacifist who would not serve in WWI and was brutally punished, he was educated in Quaker schools and after a converting first to Anglicanism he became an unorthodox mystical Catholic. Baxter's life would make a great movie, he led a most unusual life; his poetry is well worth checking out.


I've met two people who converted to Catholicism in adulthood. It must be a totally different experience than being indoctrinated as a child. I don't think an adult becomes as terrified of hell, for one thing.

I went to mass several times as an adult, but it seemed a poor ugly thing compared with the lovely Latin liturgy and the whole splendor before Vatican II. You can't go home again, but I didn't think my childhood would be stolen from me, so to speak. In Warsaw I was very eager to visit my old church: the statues of saints were gone, even St. Anthony who used to greet me when I'd walk in, and most of the paintings. Where the chapel of Mary used to be, bars blocking access. A barren ugliness.

And the priests uninspired, non-charismatic. The church used to attract good minds, but I think that's history. The poets you mention at least had the old beauty still available to them. The doctrines have always been absurd, the costumes and attitudes medieval -- but the ritual used to be lovely. And whatever loveliness remains from the “Ages of Faith” -- the Angel of the Sundial, for example -- let us feast on this beautiful work of man the creator.


  1. Rilke writes of the fallen angel, the angel who fails to know what we know, and Keats writes of the nightingale that fails to know our sorrows, but in writing of those failure they become the true angels and nightingales, the creatures of human hope, poets and truth singers.

  2. They fail to know our sorrows, and that's why they are blissful. I've come to see that Nietzsche was wrong when he wrote: What doesn't destroy me makes me stronger. This is so often quoted and assumed to be true. But most suffering damages us, physically and mentally. What makes us stronger is happiness: both the happiness of being loved and the happiness of work, of accomplishing something and loving the work we do.

  3. nice poems on oriena-poetry.....
    well appreciated and i am overwhelmed such great creation...need a great consideration and aapreciation.......heart touched

  4. Thank you so much. Comments from readers are a great source of joy. That my writing can touch other lives -- that's a great privilege.