Title: The Angel of Tears
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]
Date: September 1842
Whitman Archive ID: per.00326
Source: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 11 (September 1842): 282–284. Transcribed from digital images of an original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Kirsten Clawson
THE ANGEL OF TEARS.1
BY WALTER WHITMAN.
HIGH, high in space floated the angel Alza.2 Of the spirits who minister in heaven Alza is not the chief; neither is he employed in deeds of great import, or in the destinies of worlds and generations. Yet if it were possible for envy to enter among the Creatures Beautiful, many would have pined for the station of Alza. There are a million million invisible eyes which keep constant watch over the earth—each Child of Light having his separate duty. Alza is one of the Angels of Tears.
Why waited he, as for commands from above?
There was a man upon whose brow rested the stamp of the guilt of Cain. The man had slain his brother. Now he lay in chains awaiting the terrible day when the doom he himself had inflicted should be meted to his own person.
People of the Black Souls!—beings whom the world shrinks from, and whose abode, through the needed severity of the law, is in the dark cell and massy prison—it may not be but that ye have, at times, thoughts of the beauty of virtue, and the blessing of a spotless mind.3 For if we look abroad in the world, and examine what is to be seen there, we will know, that in every human heart resides a mysterious prompting which leads it to love goodness for its own sake. All that is rational has this prompting. It never dies.4 It can never be entirely stifled. It may be darkened by the tempests and storms of guilt, but ever and anon the clouds roll away, and it shines out again. Murderers and thieves, and the most abandoned criminals, have been unable to deaden this faculty.
It came to be, that an hour arrived when the heart of the imprisoned fratricide held strange imagining. Old lessons and long forgotten hints, about heaven, and purity, and love, and gentle kindness, floated into his memory—vacillating, as it were, like delicate sea-flowers on the bosom of the turgid ocean.5 He remembered him of his brother as a boy—how they played together of the summer afternoons—and how, wearied out at evening, they slept pleasantly in each other's arms. O, Master of the Great Laws! couldst thou but roll back the years, and place that guilty creature a child again by the side of that brother! Such were the futile wishes of the criminal. And as repentance and prayer worked forth from his soul, he sank on the floor drowsily, and a tear stood beneath his eyelids.
Repentance and prayer from him! What hope could there be for aspirations having birth in a source so polluted? Yet the Sense which is never sleepless heard that tainted soul's desire, and willed that an answering mission should be sent straightway.
When Alza felt the mind of the Almighty in his heart—for it was rendered conscious to him in the moment—he cleaved the air with his swift pinions, and made haste to perform the cheerful duty.
Along and earthward he flew—seeing far, far below him, mountains, and towns, and seas, and stretching forests. At distance, in the immeasurable field wherein he travelled, was the eternal glitter of countless
worlds—wheeling and whirling, and motionless never. After a brief while the Spirit beheld the city of his destination; and, drawing nigh, he hovered over it—that great city, shrouded in
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the depths of night, and its many thousands slumbering.
Just as his presence, obedient to his desire, was transferring itself to the place where the murderer lay, he met one of his own kindred spreading his wings to rise from the ground.
"O Spirit," said Alza, "what a sad scene is here!"
"I grow faint," the other answered, "at looking abroad through these guilty places. Behold that street to the right."
He pointed, and Alza, turning, saw rooms of people, some with their minds maddened by intoxication, some uttering horrid blasphemies—sensual creatures, and wicked, and mockers of all holiness.
"O, brother," said the Tear-Angel, "let us not darken our eyes with the sight. Let us on to our appointed missions. What is yours, my brother?"
"Behold!" answered the Spirit.
And then Alza knew for the first time that there was a third living thing near by. With meek and abashed gesture, the soul of a girl just dead stood forth before them. Alza, without asking his companion, saw that the Spirit had been sent to guide and accompany the stranger through the Dark Windings.
So he kissed the brow of the re-born, and said,
"Be of good heart! Farewell, both!"
And the soul and its monitor departed upward, and Alza went into the dungeon.
Then, like a swinging vapor, the form of the Tear-Angel was by and over the body of the sleeping man. To his vision, night was as day, and day as night.
At first, something like a shudder went through him, for when one from the Pure Country approaches the wickedness of evil, the presence thereof is made known to him by an instinctive pain. Yet a moment, and the gentle Spirit cast glances of pity on the unconscious fratricide. In the great Mystery of Life, Alza remembered, though even he understood it not, it had been settled by the Unfathomable that Sin and Wrong should be. And the angel knew too, that Man, with all the darkness and the clouds about him, might not be condemnedcontemned, even by the Princes of the Nighest Circle to the White Throne.6
He slept. His hair, coarse and tangly through neglect, lay in masses about his head, and clustered over his neck. One arm was doubled under his cheek, and the other stretched straight forward. Long steady breaths, with a kind of hissing sound, came from his lips.
So he slumbered calmly. So the fires of a furnace, at night, though not extinguished, slumber calmly, when its swarthy ministers impel it not. Haply, he dreamed some innocent dream. Sleep on, dream on, outcast! There will soon be for you a reality harsh enough to make you wish those visions had continued alway, and you never awakened.
Oh, it is not well to look coldly and mercilessly on the bad done by our fellows. That convict—that being of the bloody hand—who could know what palliations there were for his guilt? Who might say there was no premature seducing aside from the walks of honesty—no seed of evil planted by others in his soul during the early years? Who should tell he was not so bred, that had he at manhood possessed aught but propensities for evil it would have been miraculous indeed? Who might dare cast the first stone?
The heart of man is a glorious temple; yet its Builder has seen fit to let it become, to a degree, like the Jewish structure of old, a mart for gross traffic, and the presence of unchaste things. In the Shrouded Volume, doubtless, it might be perceived how this is a part of the mighty and beautiful Harmony; but our eyes are mortal, and the film is over them.
The Angel of Tears bent him by the side of the prisoner's head. An instant more, and he rose, and seemed about to depart, as one whose desire had been attained. Wherefore does that pleasant look spread like a smile over the features of the slumberer?
In the darkness overhead yet linger the soft wings of Alza. Swaying above the prostrate mortal, the Spirit bends his white neck, and his face is shaded by the curls of his hair, which hang about him like a golden cloud. Shaking the beautiful tresses back, he stretches forth his hands, and raises his large eyes upward, and speaks murmuringly in the language used among the Creatures Beautiful:
"I come. Spirits of Pity and Love, favored children of the Loftiest—whose
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pleasant task it is with your pens of adamant to make record upon the Silver Leaves of those things which, when computed together at the Day of the End, are to outcancel the weight of the sum of evil—your chambers I seek!"7
And the Angel of Tears glided away.
While a thousand air-forms, far and near, responded in the same tongue wherewith Alza had spoken:
"Beautiful, to the Eye of the Centre, is the sigh which ushers repentance!"8
1. This tale is the last of nine short stories by Whitman that were published for the first time in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. "The Angel of Tears" was reprinted in the Brooklyn Evening Star on February 28, 1846, while Whitman was working for that newspaper. For a complete list of revisions to the original language likely made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Evening Star, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 120–123. For the publication history of the story, see "About 'The Angel of Tears.'" [back]
2. Whitman evidently coined the name Alza for the sake of this story. It is possible that the word may be related to the Spanish verb alzar, meaning to lift, or the Italian alzare, to raise or to lift up. [back]
3. "Massy" refers to the large or massive size of the prison. [back]
4. In The Evening Star, this sentence has been cut. [back]
5. A "sea-flower" is another name for a sea-anemone. [back]
6. In the Evening Star, the clause at the end of this sentence reads as follows: "even by the archangels of the Nighest Circle to God." [back]
7. The phrases "with your pens of adamant" and "upon the Silver Leaves" have been removed from this sentence in the Evening Star. [back]
8. In the Evening Star, the phrase "Beautiful, to the Eye of the Centre" has been changed to "Beautiful, to the Ear of God." [back]