‘Every Angel is Terrible’. So said the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his ‘Duino Elegies’, and indeed mention of Angels has always caused fear, confusion and even violence. The Headmaster of my prep school encouraged us to mock and sneer at the mediaeval scholastic philosophers who, he told us, would argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But then, he encouraged us to mock and sneer at any opinions other than his own narrow conservative ones, which were of course not opinions but facts.
As a boy William Blake used to go for long walks into the countryside not far from his home in London’s Soho. He would see angels in the trees and then tell his father, who would thrash him for it. That was in about 1780, when belief in angels was perfectly respectable, but presumably one wasn’t supposed to actually see them; to do so merited severe punishment.
We have advanced since then: we no longer thrash people who see angels but instead declare them schizophrenic and send them to the funny farm.
It seems now that the man who got into trouble at the addresses made before Nelson Mandela’s funeral for making wildly inaccurate sign-language interpretations has said that he was distracted by angels, and has ‘admitted’ that he was ‘suffering’ a ‘psychotic episode’. The possibility(?) that there were indeed angels present, visible to certain privileged people, has been officially ruled out.
Luckily for us, William Blake lived before schizophrenia had been invented. He continued to see, write about, engrave and paint angels all his life. Good for him.