My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Martin Heidegger’s philosophical glosses in Poetry, Language, Thought—explanations that only redoubled the poetic mystery—sent me back to Rilke, or maybe sent me to Rilke for the first time. A theme in these essays over the years (first announced here) has been the question of what it means to read lyric poetry, if its verbal density even can be read in the way that a novel or play (or epic poem) can, and whether, moreover, this permanent elusiveness raises it above or lowers it beneath modes like narrative and drama.
So have I read Rilke? I bought Stephen Mitchell’s translation and selection Ahead of All Parting when I was a teenager. (I was inspired to do so by a comic-book writer who observed in an interview that budding authors admire Hemingway because he makes serious literature look attainable, whereas, for example, Rilke—I’d never seen this name in print before or even knew how it was pronounced—sets an impossible standard.) I have been browsing in the book ever since, preferring the delicate and ironic early lyrics to the heavier philosophic masterworks, without ever quite feeling that I’d “read” it.
Compounding the problem of lyric poetry per se is my ignorance of German. Epic and dramatic poems, like novels, translate; lyric poems, living as they do on words alone, not as much. With poems in the Romance languages, I can look with some comprehension, if not fluency, to the original words on the facing pages, but whatever Rilke achieves through sonic texture or the specific connotative and allusive potentials of German is beyond me, as is the accuracy of Mitchell’s translation. Mitchell, however, does manage to convey a tone mixing wonder with authority, a perennial questioning with a handing down of wisdom—a sensibility that perhaps even in translation I can identify as Rilkean.
Over the last few days, I’ve read or reread (a mix of both) the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. I will at least gather below some impressions from the former, generally considered Rilke’s masterpiece, completed as it was, after two decade-separated compositional fits of blazing inspiration that also produced the Sonnets to Orpheus, in modernism’s annus mirabilis of 1922. The first line famously came to Rilke in 1912 on the battlements of Duino Castle— Dante was said to have written some lines of the Divine Comedy there—where he was a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis.
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
In Ahead of All Parting, Mitchell ingeniously annotates the poems with explications from Rilke’s voluminous correspondence—I’m reminded of a friend’s anecdote about a philosophy seminar whose method was to explain any given passage of Kant with another quotation from Kant—and Rilke duly elaborates in a 1925 letter to his Polish translator,
It is our task to imprint this temporary perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly,” inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible. […] The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, already appears in its completion…
The angel, then, is an image of future humanity, a humanity that has redeemed itself and its earth by transfiguring natural transience into the permanence of art—what Rilke’s fellow modernist occultist poet Yeats called “the artifice of eternity.” Many modern ideas draw together here. Concepts we tend to segregate as belonging to different domains and different ideologies show themselves intimate in the figure of Rilke’s angel: not only aestheticism’s severance of art from life, its insistence that the beautiful is in its essence “against nature,” but also the relocation of Platonic or Christian transcendence into the immanent, as we find it in Hegel and Marx, the consummation of the historical process in an apocalyptic final this-worldly birth of a “new man.” But Rilke’s angel, like Benjamin’s, is a somber modernist messenger, not so confident in 19th-century ideals of merely temporal and material progress, as the Seventh Elegy, with its intimations of Heidegger, discloses:
Nowhere, Beloved, will the world be but within us. Our life
passes in transformation. And the external shrinks into less and less. Where once an enduring house was,
now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely
belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain.
Our age has built itself vast reservoirs of power,
formless as the straining energy that it wrests from the earth.
Temples are no longer known. It is we who secretly save up
these extravagances of the heart. Where one of them still survives,
a Thing that was formerly prayed to, worshipped, knelt before—
just as it is, it passes into the invisible world.
Many no longer perceive it, yet miss the chance
to build it inside themselves now, with pillars and statues: greater.
Technology travesties art: it is a human artifice that battens on nature and drives out the material monuments of human culture. Yet technology serves art, too, by exiling culture deeper and deeper inside ourselves to be reborn as spirit. Cultural conservatives nowhere seem more persuasive to me than when they lament the decline of architecture, yet I’ve often thought that with the spread of literacy and mass communications, material public infrastructure has less need to be beautiful since we all carry a cathedral now in our heads. The Elegies’ “thesis” reaches its climax in the Ninth, where Rilke elaborates at length the “mission” to pay attention to the world enjoined in the First Elegy:
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.
Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness.
Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things.
Despite the magnificent command ringing in our ears (“Speak and bear witness”) we might notice some incongruities. (If it’s not ambiguous, is it really poetry?) First, if the angel, as we’ve already established, was once ourselves and therefore has himself already transformed the visible into the invisible, then what need has he to hear of our “Things”? Hasn’t he heard of them and, as it were, vaporized them already? Does our poet concede some fault in the invisible world, some angelic deficit, in the commissioning of the poet to work with worldly materials only?
But a tower was great, wasn’t it? Oh Angel, it was—
even when placed beside you? Chartres was great—, and music
reached still higher and passed far beyond us. But even
a woman in love—, oh alone at night by her window…
didn’t she reach your knee—?
Which brings us to our second incongruity, this one performative: hasn’t our poet spent almost the entirety of the Elegies at the verge of the unsayable, just as inspiration struck him on “the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea”? We’ve heard a great deal more about angels and other invisibilia than about the things of this world. The incongruities are incongruous, then, even with one another: the poet prefers earth to heaven in theory but sings of heaven and not earth in practice.
My point isn’t to catch Rilke in a contradiction, like a journalist hounding a politician, but rather to show where his poem is most insightful in demonstrating, in enacting, modern humanity’s contradictory desires—to revolutionize ourselves beyond recognition and to repose in the customs and enchantments of the everyday. Mitchell quotes a letter where Rilke refers to the Divine Comedy as Dante’s “gigantically evasive poem,” yet perhaps the pre-modern poet shows more wisdom than the modern one when it doesn’t even occur to him that the sacred and the profane could be synthesized without remainder. (I am modern too. Dante’s wisdom is as unavailable to me as it is to Rilke; like most moderns I can only read the Purgatorio with any comfort. But the possibility that someone before Hegel might have understood something, should, if we are not terminally arrogant, be borne in mind.)
The Duino Elegies, anyway, aren’t all thesis and theology. The central poem, written last, was inspired by Picasso’s great painting, Famille de saltimbanques. Rilke pressed another heiress to let him write it in her room where the painting was housed, and it was worth it, for he poignantly conjures Picasso’s acrobats (“wanderers, more transient than we ourselves”) as figures for all human exile over the mysterious earth, from tumbling boy to expiring elder.
As well as Picasso, the Fifth Elegy also draws on Kleist’s Platonic dialogue “On the Marionette Theater.” For Rilke as for his doomed Romantic precursor, in the inner theater of the psyche, the marionette performs more angelically than any human dancer or acrobat can because the puppet in its total thingliness is already wholly spirit, free of the human organism and its crippling self-consciousness. Better even than the puppets are the animals and other natural creatures (including children) of the Eighth Elegy. Unlike ourselves, they live within life instead of before it; they exist without the watching and objectification that characterizes world-conquering man who imprisons himself in his own frail creations:
with all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward and surround plant, animal, child
like traps as they emerge into their freedom.
And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down.
We rearrange it, then break down ourselves.
If the angel has transcended the visible to live in the invisible, the animal has no need to, since the animal was blessedly born before, not after, mundane human consciousness.
Rilke, finally, reflects on men and women. He often mentions lovers as potential secular examples of people who live transfigured lives, yet he is also skeptical of how lovers make idols of one another to evade the “mission”: “they keep on using each other,” he complains, “to hide their own fate.” Perhaps a primordial incompatibility between man and woman, a division that redounds to neither’s credit, compounds the problem. The Third Elegy is about mothers and sons. Rilke charges the mother with cosseting the boy in a fantasy of false comforts, even as the child himself wanders through his own interior to find the barbarian horde of his warrior forebears. Women represent feeble art, men ignorant courage, and the union of man and woman—whether in the maternal dyad or the conjugal embrace—can only therefore be a fallen version of the androgynous poetry Rilke composes to urge us on, artistically and heroically, toward the angelic eschaton. That’s if I understand him, and I wouldn’t swear that I do.
I understand the Sonnets to Orpheus even less, but there is one line that stands out to me in the fifth sonnet: “And it is in overstepping that he obeys.” Rilke’s God, like Goethe’s and Hegel’s, will save neither the good person nor the person who understands perfectly, but only the poet, “ahead of all parting,” “dead in Eurydice” and therefore a permanent voice immanent in unfolding nature—Orpheus, poet, considered as a name for anyone who dares.