Here’s a spectacular catalogue describing “Angels” from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, as translated by Stephen Mitchell:
Early successes, Creation’s pampered favorites,
mountain-ranges, peaks growing red in the dawn
of all Beginning,—pollen of the flowering godhead,
joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones,
space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, storms
of emotion whirled into rapture, and suddenly, alone,
mirrors: which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their face
and gather it back, into themselves, entire.
Angels in the poem are biblical, but not religious. They represent a force beyond humanity, and insensible to humanity’s horror at loss, which is the essential topic of the poem. You can see that “biblical but not religious” distinction clearly in this passage, which begins centered on the angels themselves, rather than (as in Dante, for example) centering on their adoration of the Divine—and then this self-reference is made magnificently explicit in the amazing image of the infinite mirror of self-reflecting beauty.
Just for fun and/or Germans [Ed. note: so realistically just “or”], here’s the original passage:
Frühe Geglückte, ihr Verwohnten der Schöpfung,
Höhenzüge, morgenrötliche Grate
aller Erschaffung,—Pollen der blühenden Gottheit,
Gelenke desk Lichtes, Gänge, Treppen, Throne,
Räume aus Wesen, Schilde aus Wonne, Tumulte
stürmisch entzückten Gefühls und plötzlich, einzeln,
Spiegel: die die entströmte eigene Schönheit
wiederschöpften zurück in das eigene Antlitz.
There are a couple of elegant things to notice at the purely typographical level in the original, which a translator couldn’t hope to capture: the image “Mirror/Spiegel” is immediately followed by a literal reflection of the word die (the first and second versions mean “which” and “the” respectively), and the Creation/Schöpfung ending the first line is reflected in the verb wiederschöpften at the end—in the first line referring obliquely to the Divine as an external center for the angels, were they actually religious figures, but in the last referring to the angels’ own reflexive self-creation. (I also feel like epic catalogues carry more weight in German, since every noun gets capitalized, but that observation may be slightly less meaningful.)
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