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I'm trying to understand the sense of the image of divine footsteps used in Henry Longfellow's religious poem "Footsteps of Angels":

With a slow and noiseless footstep
Comes that messenger divine,
Takes the vacant chair beside me,
Lays her gentle hand in mine

First, why are the footsteps slow and noiseless - is the poet suggesting that these are attributes of divinity? Does the Divine never manifest in a loud or flamboyant way at all? it seems that "slow", "noiseless" and "gentle" are essential to the manifest presence of the Divine. Can anyone help me see why this is important? For example, there are Pagan gods who are far more feisty. What is the importance of these specific set of qualities?

Secondly, why focus on the footsteps rather than for example, saying, "With a calm visage and outstretched blessings, approached slowly the divine messengers"? Why highlight the footsteps rather than something else - does this have special significance in Western mythology or Christianity or is there something else not related to religious iconography?
How am I to understand the image that this stanza tries to convey?

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    Thanks for editing! The new question is well within the scope of the site.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 30, 2022 at 6:56

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While the Divine may manifest in many forms, this poem is about one form and one manifestation. The words evoke a nurse and a mother. Nurses (especially in the time of Longfellow) wore soft shoes and walked softly. Mothers, for someone who was home sick, would be in slippers. The contrast to a big stompy labourer in hobnailed boots, or a fancy lady in slick high heels, is what you are supposed to think of.

The previous verse introduced her:

the Being Beauteous,

Who unto my youth was given,

More than all things else to love me,

And is now a saint in heaven.

This is most likely a mother, but could be a grandmother, a nanny or someone else who loved the narrator in his youth, and has since died.

The next few lines you quoted build on the "quiet footsteps" imagery. This isn't a grand entrance: bustling in, taking charge, being bossy, moving people around. She (it's not official till the last line you quote, but all these lines describe feminine supportive helpful behaviours) slides in quietly, takes a chair no-one's using, offers her gentle hand - but not to push anyone or pull anyone, just to say "let's hold hands" in a soft and helpful way.

Everything is soft, quiet, not pushy. Is this the only kind of angel there can be? Of course not. But it's the kind of angel this poem is about.

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  • thank you @Kate Gregory. I am Indian and did not know how to read this verse. I kept thinking even thieves have noiseless footsteps? But given the context, it looks like the poet is writing about a female supportive presence. Nov 1, 2022 at 16:24

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