On Angels

by Czeslaw Milosz


Original Language Polish

All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe in you,
messengers.

There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.

They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice -- no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightening.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draw near
another one
do what you can.

-- from Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Edited by Carolyn Forche

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This poem raises some interesting questions about the "modern" worldview as it wrestles with angels, and spiritual realities in general.

In the opening verse, although Milosz asserts that he believes in the "messengers" or angels, it's also thoroughly modern. First, he points out the very modern process of demythologizing, the stripping away of tangibility from the notion of angels in modern consciousness: "All was taken away from you: white dresses, / wings, even existence."

When Milosz proclaims "Yet I believe in you, messengers," he knows he is making a bold statement. Because of modern sensibilities, it is assumed that one does not believe in angels, at least not publicly among intellectuals. What would have been, in past centuries, a bland statement of belief, reads as startlingly sincere, maybe even intentionally naive in a modern poem.

The following verse is clearly influenced by 20th century notions of psychology and contemporary self-awareness:

They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.


In the modern worldview, angels have been relegated to neurotic Freudian projections. Or, more generously, they might be thought of as universal Jungian archetypes. But they are no longer allowed to live and breathe outside the human psyche.

And the line--

weightless and winged (after all, why not?)

--that's modern too. Questioning the literalness of wings on angels, playfully accepting the notion with the obvious assumption that most modern people would not. Even the parenthetic construction, the way it causes us as readers to stumble for a moment and pick our way through the line more carefully, that also reflects modern sensibility.

Yet, he offers us a subtler and, I think, more profound understanding of what angels are: not winged, robed titans of the sky and history who appear with trumpets blaring, but instead something ephemeral, delicate, all too easily missed, beings that ride in upon living moments and touch a hidden part of ourselves...

Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird...


Although Czeslaw Milosz is a modern poet writing for a modern audience, what isn't modern is his internal quiet. The modern mind is too often caught in staccato details, yet gently filling this entire poem is a sense of rest, self-acceptance, wholeness, even timelessness. This poem quietly glows.

When we adopt Milosz's stillness and learn to truly pay attention, we might just feel the brush of angel wings "in the smell of apples at close of day / when the light makes the orchards magic."



Recommended Books: Czeslaw Milosz

New and Collected Poems 1931 - 2001 The Collected Poems Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness To Begin Where I Am: The Selected Prose of Czeslaw Milosz A Treatise on Poetry
More Books >>





On Angels