The Angel of History and “Ribblesdale”

Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” that he discusses in the ninth section of “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is a mixture of violence, reluctance, and divinity (Benjamin, 251). The angel witness the growing “wreckage” of the past as it the moves through the present and towards the future, and though they want to help, the angel is being forcibly blown into the future and away from Paradise by a sort of unstoppable wind— slide 14 “The Angel Standing in the Sun” of the Turner’s paintings reminded me of this, if it is not actually what Benjamin or Turner were referring to. Benjamin explains at the end of the theses that the storm is a metaphor for “progress,” but leaves the symbol of the angel as an imagined witness to the whole of history. I thought to create one witness who, as angel, is divine and not part of the ongoing earthly history was an interesting tool to use to understand Benjamin’s understanding of the past. The angel of history witnesses the entirety of past events with an expression of horror; he is always looking backward, never forwards. Progress moves the angel forward, but progress is fueled by history which is always referring to past events and generations.

The same kind of sentiment of continual wreckage and history that Benjamin expresses with the “angel of history” I thought was also seen in Hopkins poetry. In “Ribblesdale” Hopkins talks about the earth almost like a person without agency in their environment, like how the angel could do nothing about the catastrophe before them. He says about Earth that “thou canst only be,” repeatedly and that “Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart”— basically its ability to do anything about what is happening— is “dogged man,” (Hopkins, 157). Again, the earth like the angel is forced to do nothing but watch though it is implied that intervention would be appreciated, and is yet unattainable given outside forces. While the angel was propelled away by “progress,” Earth is restrained by having “no tongue to plead” because man is “selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn” in his pursuit of progress. In his poetry and journal entries, Hopkins is very aware of nature and admires its intricacies and details, so it makes sense that here he also criticizes those that “reave both our rich round world bare.” The parallels of Earth and the angel of history in these two readings both argue for a broader perspective of the world around us and our environment, whether that be literally about nature or figuratively about the events of the past.

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