Angels are a fascinating concept. The idea of the angel is common within the Abrahamic religions — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and the Bahá’í — as well as being mentioned in Sikh and Zoroastrian texts. The idea of having a guardian angel is one that is thousands of years old, and in each form of the phrase, there are core similarities — that an angel is a spiritual, otherworldly being charged with the benevolent task of fulfilling the will of the divine on Earth. And it is this concept that guides William Blake’s The Angel, told through the frame of an angel that appears in a dream to the narrator throughout the course of their life. What follows here is an analysis of the poem from my own perspective. Although the poem is quoted in full below, you can also read The Angel at poets.org.
The Angel Analysis
Verse by Verse
“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!”
‘What can it mean?’ Blake begins a journey into the subconscious mind, the one that makes you dream all kinds of odd and unusual things. In this one, the dream is of an innocent queen, protected by a guardian angel. The inclusion of “what can it mean?” is interesting; it enforces the image of a subconscious idea that the narrator itself is unaware of. What does it mean to be visited in your sleep by an angel? It’s a good question.
The word “maiden” is another interesting addition, because it is a word that typically refers to an unmarried girl, particularly one who is a virgin. At the time this poem was written — the volume it appears in was first published in 1794 — the theme of innocence would have strongly correlated with this word. The narrator dreamed they were in a state of perfect innocence, and that innocence was guarded by an angel that would not be deceived or beguiled by stupidity or sorrow, but would defend the innocence of its Queen.
“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.”
And like any good angel, the narrator’s guardian was there for him, day and night, night and day. Whenever there was any kind of weeping, the angel would be there. “Weeping,” of course, does not have to mean literally crying. As I’m sure everyone reading this page can attest to, growing up is a long, difficult journey, filled with its fair share of struggle. And when experiencing hardship, what can compare to the simple joy of being held by another being, and told sincerely that we are going to be fine?
Unfortunately, this comes back to hurt the dreamer, who begins to hide their happiness from the angel. They wept day and night, yes, but this was regardless of whether or not they actually felt sad or hurt. True tears don’t fall from happy hearts, but who could say no to the comforts of an angel? So the dreamer cries, whenever they can, wherever they can, for the simple joy of having their angel nearby.
“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.”
The angel, however, is not fooled, and understands that he is being used for something beyond his true purpose — so he leaves. This marks the final transition of the dreamer into “growing up;” the morning rose, a new day, and the dreamer is alone now. There is no longer any need to cry over falsehoods, but there are still reasons to cry, still fears out there in the world — so without an angel nearby, the dreamer arms their fears, and is armed as well.
There’s a popular saying — one that borders on cliché, really — that states that the best way to overcome a fear is to embrace it. If you’re afraid of heights, this saying would argue, then maybe it’s time to try skydiving. If you’re afraid of the dark, maybe cut back on your electricity bill a little. It is evident, however, that no one has told the dreamer this saying, because their new response is to fight the world. Whenever anything comes up that they don’t like, they choose to fight it, rather than cry about it. For me, a person who chooses to fight the world, and takes up arms against it, is simply a poetic way of describing a cynic — and ten thousand spears and shields makes you a formidable cynic indeed.
“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.”
The angel, to his credit, returns to the dreamer, but it’s too late — they’ve grown up, chosen their approach to life, and it is too late to change. The maiden Queen has become an independent ruler, and is armed against its childhood friend. The fact that the dreamer is entering old enough age to be finding grey hairs suggests that a lot of time has passed, despite the use of the word “soon” — this is, after all, a dream, where time is relative.
The Angel is a poem that strongly contrasts elements of innocence and corruption. In a way, we all have our own angels, in the form of things we believed as children that we no longer do. We all had a different way of reacting to the world as children than we do as adults (and if you don’t, I’d suggest working on that). The angel declining to comfort the narrator’s false fears is reminiscent of when we as children believe or say something illogical, and are rebuked by some element from “the real world;” because Santa, as it turns out is not real, nor is there an Easter Bunny, and unfortunately, it is our parents that sneak money beneath our pillows in return for small teeth. These are, of course, extremely simplistic examples, but they still depict noticeable similarity to The Angel. Each belief is slowly crumbled away, to be replaced by an element of reality that hardens our resolve, and makes us believe less in the rest — it’s one more spear and one more shield to our arsenal of logic, stubbornness, and adulthood.
William Blake published The Angel in the second part of his two-part volume, Songs of Innocence and Experience, which were published by Blake himself in 1789 (Songs of Innocence) and 1794 (Songs of Experience). They were later republished as a single volume — Songs of Innocence and Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, a concept which is strongly embodied in The Angel. Within these volumes, Blake wrote much about the disillusionment of childhood, the loss of innocence, and the corruption of the human condition.
It is important to note that these poems align with the beginning of the French Revolution, which Blake, an Englishman, supported. He had strongly hoped that it would bring about important change, a hope that quickly shifted to despair at the start of The Reign of Terror, a violent outbreak of political rivalry that was responsible for the deaths of over thirty thousand people. The occurrence of these events, followed by his own reported disillusionment with contemporary social practices — including the Enlightenment, institutionalized religion, and marital tradition — gave his poetry a deep, introspective, and often dark meaning to reflect his own state of being for the time.
Indeed, the meaning of The Angel is broad enough that it could be used to describe a man off to war, believing themselves to be fighting for a noble and true cause, and hardening their own defences to protect themselves from the harsh reality of war, or indeed, revolution. There is a definite sense of sadness to The Angel, and a strong sense of longing, even after the angel departs for the final time, a fleeting symbol of something that might have been.