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Dr Christiania Whitehead performs 'Angels'



'Angels' is inspired by an Italian 15th-century painting of the Annunciation. The Rainer Maria Rilke mentioned within the poem is an Austrian German-language poet who wrote extensively about angels in his 'Duino Elegies' and other poems.


Dr Christiania Whitehead

What Thomist conceit saw them flailing
for balance on the head of a pin? That’s
not right at all. The muscles in their
iridescent wings would be snagged
and their strong energies sapped by
such dry Latin games.

They’re better in a garden. Gaining in
height and beauty even as we look.
Keeping pace with Rilke’s comments
about radiance and terror, but full
also of a childlike reticence about
their errand, as they disappear behind
the topiary and re-emerge, their lips
obstinately tight,

passing the time of day anyhow.
Drumming their heels on
the tempera wattle as they loll back
and gaze abruptly into space, trying
to remember something, anything,
the suggestion of a quick task tossed
in passing over the shoulder
in that pre-picture whirl.

At last, lazily, while the girl – and we –
ache to know which flower it will be,
and which speck of soft visitation
within the womb, the miscreant
gives up his posture of absence
and attends to the task in hand. Hyacinth?
Auricula? No, it’s the lily to beat all lilies
that he dabs gently from the soil
and turns on the diagonal, mounting
the steps before that outdoor, non-
perspectival prie-dieu with
growing certitude and charm.

Dr Christiania Whitehead completed a doctorate in medieval English literature at Oxford before joining Warwick as a staff member in the Department of English in 1996. She teaches medieval literature and has published books on architectural allegory and devotional writing for women, as well as a poetry collection, The Garden of Slender Trust (Bloodaxe). Dr Whitehead is currently working on a book on northern medieval saints.