rereading rilke by Adam Zagajewski
We read Rilke for his poetry, for his prose, for his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and for hundreds if not thousands of the letters he left, but there seems to be another important motive too: in our eyes his life presents itself as a .awless example of a modern artist’s existence, an example purer perhaps than any other, perfect in its relentless pursuit of beauty.
In the German literary tradition it is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who enjoyed for a very long time the status not only of an immense poet, playwright, and novelist but also of a sublime role model, an ideal human being, highly successful yet knowing the price of resignation, standing in the middle of a bourgeois society that had just rediscovered the value of intellectual accomplishment; Goethe, who happily accepted the position of someone who represented more than just his own singular destiny, graciously allowing others—through the numerous windows of his letters, diaries, and conversations—to have a look at him in his different hours and moods; Goethe, the scion of a patrician Frankfurt family, who as a young man became a minister at the Weimar court and a scientist entertaining each night in his lovely house on Frauenplan visitors from every imaginable country, explaining to them secrets of geology, biology, and literature—someone Napoleon would wish to meet and, as we know, did meet. Goethe, who renewed the German imagination even as he remained skeptical of the newborn nationalism of his compatriots during the Napoleonic Wars; Goethe, who was proud of his long life and didn’t stop short of mocking others for dying too early; Goethe, a poet and thinker whose spiritual territory was so vast that it encompassed many elements of the Enlightenment but also involved vital ingredients of the Romantic era; and .nally, Goethe, who knew well the silence of the writer’s study but who also witnessed in 1792the misery of premodern warfare in the mud, hunger, and hopelessness of an unsuccessful military campaign—not as a soldier but as an observer sharing the misery of others.
And then, next to this giant, Rainer Maria Rilke—a dif.dent, homeless poet born on the periphery of the Habsburg Empire, an artist who had to invent his own pedigree, who claimed an aristocratic lineage—the claim seems rather doubtful—an introvert, a lover of solitude, someone who, especially in his later years, didn’t care much for publishing and remained until the end of his short life famous only among a rather small group of connoisseurs. Never a minister like Goethe, never a senator like Yeats, never an ambassador like Saint-John Perse. Yes, he enjoyed the company of aristocrats, but not at any court; he’d only see them as private persons, gladly when they were set against the background of their natural environment, their castles and palaces: they were for him colorful relics of a more or less imaginary medieval Europe. The fact that Duino Castle—its name is forever linked to Rilke’s poetry—which belonged to the Thurn und Taxis family, was destroyed in World War I (though later rebuilt) is symptomatic: the aristocrats Rilke knew were the shadows of once powerful magnates. None of the in.uential politicians of his time would have thought of meeting him. Clemenceau and Rilke? Lloyd George and Rilke? Lenin and Rilke? No, impossible, ridiculous: a joke. Paul Valéry? Yes, that makes sense; the two poets met and their meeting left a trace, a well-known photograph (but also and foremost Rilke’s translations of Valéry’s poetry).
What is so attractive for us in Rilke’s symbolic status has almost nothing to do with the external circumstances of the period. Unlike Goethe, Rilke was not a robust representative of his epoch; he seemed to be, rather, an elegant question mark on the margin of history. Within the spectrum of literary modernism he stood among the antimoderns (in the sense of being hostile to many characteristics of the newly born industrial civilization), though he didn’t care to develop his ideas in any coherent way. He was a poet, not a philosophical journalist, after all. He was like the Chopin of Gottfried Benn’s marvelous poem: “when Delacroix propounded theories / he grew restless, for his part he could not / explain the Nocturnes.”
It is his inner discipline, the discipline of his life, the sacri.ces he made, that appeal to us. We cherish a certain intriguing narrowness of his external existence, which we can see and contemplate like an arrow ferociously speeding to its ultimate target: Rilke ’s poetic work. We believe we can see his rich inner life through the veil of his writings. If anything, Rilke was the epoch’s secret voice, we think, the epoch’s whisper, as opposed to its of.cial expression. This, we think sometimes, is how his time should have been: not the absurd, terrifying killing .elds of Verdun but the tranquillity of the poet’s meditation in the midst of a great city or an Alpine meadow. His life spent in travels, his life as a search for the .nal illumination, fascinates us, but also his willingness to learn from Rodin and Cézanne and, later, to teach a young poet what poetry is about. We like to imagine lonely Rilke in Toledo or in Ronda in Spain, or think of him in Rome or in Cairo—and we always remember that from each of these travels he would bring with him a few pebbles we later .nd in the splendid mosaic of the Duino Elegies.
A lonely person he was, and yet not a stranger to social life. An incredibly proli.c letter writer, he once told Merline—the nickname of Baladine Klossowska, the mother of Balthus—that he had to write 115 letters to make up for a backlog in his correspondence! These letters are extremely interesting, mostly written with the brio of the major artist he was, and should be seen as an important part of his oeuvre (as, for example, in the case of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters).
The most mesmerizing part of this biography is Rilke’s iron-willed waiting for the Duino Elegies to arrive, to visit his poetic mind. This is perhaps a unique case in the history of literature: a major poet who expected a certain poem for a long time—not any “great poem” but a particular one—apprehending its very nature, just not receiving it yet. We, the latecomers, know that the .rst four of the ten elegies were written between 1912 and 1914 and that he had to wait eight years for the rest of them. In this perspective, World War I can be regarded as just a very unpleasant nuisance that kept the poems from coming—which, by the way, is how Rilke himself often felt about the Great War. He didn’t just wait—later, after the war was over and new possibilities opened up for him, he would, with some help from his friends, more or less actively look for a house, a tower, a quiet place on the planet in which to receive the Angel’s message. For this he eventually chose Switzerland, one of the very few European countries not dis.gured by the scars of trenches. The Duino Elegies, as we know, did eventually arrive and gave a glorious meaning to his entire pilgrimage, to his waiting, to his procrastinating, to his moving from one villa to another, to his patience. They gave Rilke’s life the shape of a work of art, made him into a twentieth-century emblem of poetry.
Nobody will admire Rilke as a father or husband; his phobia of being loved doesn’t necessarily convince us, but the form his life acquired through his poetic achievement is awe-inspiring. When Rilke dies in Val-Mont of leukemia (famously not willing to know the name of his illness), we weep, but perhaps a bit less than we would weep for other artists—didn’t he announce that with the Elegies his work had come to a close? How could he live after them? As a retiree? Collecting stamps? Touring exotic countries with other retirees? Writing more mediocre French poems? Is it possible to be a poet in a more perfect way?
Yes, Rilke, the pure artist. At the same time, for some he will be more of a problematic .gure, a freeloader, a half-ridiculous social climber, a snob who impressed a record number of princesses and countesses with his lofty comportment—but also with his writings. Few among the important modern poets have had so many admirers and so many detractors. Paul Claudel, for instance, noted once in his diary: “This R. M. Rilke almost started a .ght with me once he understood he meant nothing to me. He was bathed in sadness and mediocrity. Not really poor but a pauper. His poetry is unreadable.” Auguste Rodin had at .rst almost no idea who his secretary was, what his value was. Much later W. H. Auden accepted Rilke ’s greatness only reluctantly. The list of those unseduced or seduced only against their will is much longer.
Rilke has often been presented as an example of an outstanding poet and writer whose beginnings were extremely unassuming, especially when compared to the early work of his peers, Hugo von Hofmannsthal or Thomas Mann, whose .rst publications conquered the reading public right away. Hofmannsthal was well known while still a high school student in Vienna; Mann published his Buddenbrooks at the age of twenty-six (Rilke, an unknown author then, wrote a brilliant review of the novel). Rilke also published as a very young man, but the acclaim he received then was scanty. An anecdote tells of the young Rilke running into the Poet Stefan George in the gardens of Florence (they had brie.y met before in Berlin). George, who was seven years older and who then enjoyed a quiet reputation as someone who had breathed new life into German verse, supposedly told the future author of Malte: “You’ve started to publish too early.” And we know this from Rilke, not from the other poet! This opinion is widespread even now. Rilke’s .rst three poetry collections and his youthful naturalistic dramas are frequented by very few readers these days—probably only by the most conscientious scholars. Their author himself discarded them.
I’ve been struck by the fact that the reception of Rilke ’s work in the United States tends sometimes to obfuscate the context of his oeuvre. Rilke’s poetry is often read without much attention to the historic moment in which it appeared—I mean both the history of literature and History as such. The second half of the nineteenth century is generally considered a low point in the ongoing saga of German poetry. After Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, and the outstanding Romantic poets (Platen, Eichendorff, Uhland, Mörike, Heine) came a time of severe drought. Paradoxically, it coincided with political success, with the uni.cation of Germany executed under Bismarck’s stern command; it seemed that the country of “Dichter und Denker” had to get rid of high culture (for which it was rightly famous) in order to establish an empire in this world, one not made out of dreams. And Bismarck most certainly was not a dreamer. There was almost nothing remarkable in German poetry at the time of Rilke’s birth (1875), which of course helps to explain his own anemic beginnings. This was the time when the heart of European poetry beat in Paris (who would believe it now!). And it was the same Stefan George who went to Paris and heard the word from the Master, from the very lips of Stéphane Mallarmé. The word was discipline, mystery, elegance, hatred of the bourgeois, rejection of mass production, art for art’s sake. Baudelaire was in.uential too, and later Rimbaud. Without George ’s mediation, but also without the grace of Hofmannsthal’s early poems, there would have been no Rilke masterpieces. They, George and Hofmannsthal, were the messengers of modernism in Germany; Rilke learned a lot from them—he stood on their shoulders.
Weak beginnings . . . Robert Musil, however, in his beautiful speech on Rilke pronounced after his death—a text that remains one of the best things ever written about the author of the Duino Elegies—saw a unity in the poet’s work and wittily claimed that the younger Rilke simply imitated the older one. What a wonderful paradox! Yet it’s quite clear that his early work simply re.ected the ornamental taste of the time, the taste of art nouveau, which has dated quite badly, and which gradually evaporated from the pages of Rilke’s books.
Compared to the other major poets, and not only in the German-speaking countries, Rilke embarked on the path that was supposed to lead him to the heights of poetry with a relatively poor knowledge of the German, or European, literary tradition. His formal education was rather thin. But he was lucky in other respects: he met in his youth several individuals who taught him a lot, who in.uenced him in the deepest possible way, though it’s not easy to say what exactly he learned from them—maybe some kind of human format of greatness. His professors had little to do with any institution, even if he spent some time—though not much—listening to university lectures. His love affair with Lou Andreas-Salomé, which started when he was twenty-one and she thirty-six and which later was transformed into a lifelong friendship, was certainly highly educational, worth more than any Ivy League school. For a young poet from the provinces, meeting this strikingly original, courageous, and brilliant lady was immensely meaningful. That she was the only woman Friedrich Nietzsche ever fell in love with (though apparently she never reciprocated and, as we know from Malraux’s memoirs, couldn’t even remember if she’d exchanged a kiss with him), and that she then wrote one of the earliest well-informed books on the thinker of the eternal return, were of course of great signi.cance. In the 1890s, when Lou Salomé and Rilke met, Nietzsche ’s fame was skyrocketing in Europe. He himself, as we know, never recovered from the breakdown in Turin; he was still alive but practically unconscious, nursed by his obnoxious sister Elisabeth, later a Nazi, in Weimar. By then Nietzsche was a numb, humble shadow of the once blissful peripatetic philosopher who used to spend hours climbing the hills that dominated Rapallo and the shining Mediterranean in search of Zarathustra. It was a blessing for Rilke: to skip several rungs of the intellectual ladder thanks to a gracious and wise lady, a modern Diotima.
Lou Salomé was certainly one of the most dazzling women of her time; when the two of them walked in the meadows in the suburbs of Berlin, barefoot, as the fashion of the day required, they certainly spoke about the most important things, not just about the weather. She helped him as well with other things: meeting her contributed to tempering his Exaltiertheit—as she called his extravagant temperament. For Lou he changed his name—from René to Rainer—and the shape of his handwriting. That’s easy to say, but what it amounts to is an identity transformation. Through her he also met many well-known Berlin intellectuals; thanks to her they noticed his literary existence.
Almost all the episodes in Rilke’s youth seem to have been instilled with huge didactic value. There were the two trips to Russia (in both of them his companion was Lou Salomé, herself born in St. Petersburg, and speaking Russian perfectly): a short meeting with Tolstoy and a much longer one with the country of his dreams could not replace studying Slavic philology but nonetheless left an important trace on Rilke’s entire life and on his poetic thinking. Then came Worpswede in northern Germany, a village that was just becoming famous for its artists’ colony. Worpswede opened for him new vistas in the domain of the visual arts. He lived there for a short while with his wife, Clara, and their young daughter, Ruth. It was in Worpswede also that he would have long conversations with Paula Modersohn Becker, the most talented painter among the local artists. Next came his collaboration with Auguste Rodin, one of the most fascinating stories in the annals of modern art. We say today “collaboration,” though for the famous elderly sculptor there was certainly very little symmetry in his dealings with “un jeune Allemand” who at the beginning of their acquaintance was merely a not very ef.cient secretary (a secretary who learned and improved his knowledge of French en route, probably sighing: Ah, all these accents!). Rodin not only could not read his “secretary’s” poems but also, as Rilke described it in one of his letters, had no aptitude for foreignness, for the foreign sounds of strange languages; all non-French names were unpleasantly unpalatable for him.
The tentativeness of Rilke’s beginnings also involved his standing outside any given set of traditions and myths. He was not German enough to wish to embrace—as a potential Wagner of poetry—German literary or mythical history (with the notable exception of his early prose work The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, the only book that brought him commercial success in his lifetime); neither was he Austrian enough to study—like Hofmannsthal—the glorious past of the Habsburgs who once reigned both in Vienna and in Madrid (and were portrayed by the best Spanish painters, including Velázquez). Prague, too provincial for him, was not signi.cant enough in his eyes and remained forever blemished by the memory of his own dif.cult childhood, by the presence there of his imperfect parents, who obviously didn’t .t into the legend of an old aristocratic family. Anyway, soon Paris—and not Berlin—would replace Prague in his heart and his poetic imagination. Early-twentieth-century Paris quickly became for Rilke the very embodiment of the glory and shame of modernity (he mostly saw the latter and didn’t care much for the former). Russia came in handy too as a mysterious land, providing the poet with some hope for the future but also with glorious examples of a sacred territory that he had already discovered in human souls and old churches. (Rilke never took the Bolshevik revolution seriously, considering it just a tiny ripple on an ocean of eternal Russianness and refusing to discuss the meaning of the political upheaval.)
Other great modernist poets didn’t need to borrow images from foreign sources: young W. B. Yeats could easily leaf through layers of Celtic memory and reverie and then dream of a revitalization of Irish culture; Lorca had rich mythical material around him right there in Andalusia; T. S. Eliot could rely on the suspension bridge that the migration of his ancestors had built between England and the United States; Mandelstam had at his disposal the domes of the Orthodox churches, Mozart’s music, and Schubert’s lieder. Rilke’s detachment from any “organic” tradition resembled to some extent Pound’s stance, but of course he would have never embarked on a hubristic perusal of a dozen different world cultures. Certainly pedantry (even a pedantry with the panache of Pound’s fantasy) was not Rilke’s forte. Russia was his China; the great modern city was his usury. The distance he kept from national traditions (didn’t he publish a collection of poems in French, Vergers?) may have contributed to a certain “globalization” of his reputation in our day; today he is probably more read in the United States than in Germany.
Rilke’s gift, one of many, was an uncanny capacity to approach the subject of his poems in the most direct way; his poem “The Panther” (New Poems) seems to pierce the animal, to X-ray it in one bold gesture:
His gaze has from the passing of the bars
become so tired that it holds nothing anymore.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.
The supple pace of powerful soft strides,
turning in the very smallest circle,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a mighty will stands numbed.
Only at times the curtain of the pupils
soundlessly slides open—. Then an image enters,
glides through the limbs’ taut stillness—
dives into the heart and dies.*
“Buddha in Glory” does something similar; in this poem there’s again a fascination with the center of things and persons, an almost Aristotelian quest for the entelechy:
Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond, that closes tightly in and sweetens, —
all this world out to the farthest stars
is the .esh around your seed: we greet you.
The directness of the attack seems to announce to the reader: this poet needs no mythological system, he will tackle his subjects in a way that circumvents the mist of old myths. And certainly he will not remain with Buddha for long, he’ll move on to other images and creeds. He will use the classical Greek myths at times, and how beautifully: in “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,” for instance. But in another of his great poems, “Corpse-Washing,” the extreme situation doesn’t require any preexisting system of myths of belief; this is a poem of radical bareness.
*I’m quoting this and all other poems of Rilke from Edward Snow’s translations, whose power and brilliance I deeply admire.
Interestingly, this rootless poet, whenever he dwelled in manor houses or castles—in Denmark, in Sweden, in Switzerland, in Italy, in what is today the Czech Republic—he studied with great fervor biographical books and articles having to do with the local notables. Suddenly he would passionately try to reconstruct the roots of others, as if his free, homeless spirit liked the idea of playing with endless genealogies, as if, while moving from one place to another, he was always rehearsing the possibility of being a Swiss patrician, a Spanish hidalgo, a Danish aristocrat (like Malte, the hero of his eponymous novel), of becoming somebody real—as if he craved a .nal incarnation denied to him in his itinerant life. The topography of his last address, the now legendary Muzot tower, is very telling: it stands, as we know, in the canton of Valais in Switzerland, in the majestic valley carved by the young, serene Rhône. Rilke loved the place when he saw it for the .rst time. The valley, he said, combined the sweetness of Provence with the rougher character of the Spanish landscape, two of his favorite places. His last house was situated only a few kilometers from the linguistic frontier between French- and German-speaking towns. In Sierre, where the Muzot tower still rises in the same garden as it did seventy-.ve years ago—though dwarfed now by dozens of houses that didn’t exist in the poet’s time—you can hear light, clear French vowels .uttering like butter.ies in the Alpine air, whereas in the medieval town of Leuk, just next to Sierre, your ear will receive the heavy blows of Germanic consonants. How perfect for our poet! To be nowhere would have been even better, but that is very dif.cult; to settle between languages and traditions, on a kind of San Andreas Fault of cultures, was just right for him. And then his grave, to which many poetry lovers make a pilgrimage, can be found outside the church in Raron, some twenty minutes by car from Sierre, in German-speaking territory. A few years in the French atmosphere, an eternity in German-soaked soil. On a modest tombstone we .nd these three lines every Rilke admirer knows by heart:
Rose, O pure contradiction, delight
in being no one ’s sleep under so many
Whoever visits the grave, contemplates it, and then turns away must be struck by the majesty of the deep and large Rhône Valley, which became the last landscape for the poet.
Rilke lived in imagination. When we look at his photographs, and there are many, we see a slender man with a narrow face that seems to expect something to happen more than to express any de.nable mood, a receiver more than a sender. We always see in them a very conventionally dressed gentleman; we guess that the quality of his suit is quite exceptional (never anything bohemian about his attire, never anything .ashy). He is not handsome, but he always appears kind and quiet, peaceful and passive in these pictures, as only extremely polite people can be—but in fact we know that Rainer Maria Rilke could not be photographed at all. A good, accurate photograph of Rilke was impossible; it would have had to capture the invisible, to register the angel’s wings, to represent shadows of medieval knights, to re.ect long valleys where human souls were transformed, to include dawns in Italy and nights in Morocco. It’s paradoxical that he was actually photographed, his face open like a full moon.
What’s most interesting in the artistic biography of our hero is the fact that Rilke had been able, through all the years of his incessant traveling, through years of work and discipline, but also through months of silence, through the many spiritual deserts he patiently crossed, to transform the weakness of his beginnings into the most admirable strength: the universality of his middle and late poetry proves it triumphantly. His nonbelonging, non-clinging to what was given to him by his parents, his city, his biography, his Austrianness, his Germanness, crippled his writing early on to some extent, made him vulnerable to the fads of the day, yet later turned out to be one of his major assets, one of the sources of his enormous artistic force. If we attempt to elucidate the nature of this growing, the notion of an increasing degree of abstraction within the optics of his poetry may prove helpful, but an abstraction that never loses touch with the sensual, the concrete. When we think of Rilke and his connection to the world of visual arts, the name of Cézanne (next to Rodin) comes almost automatically to mind—and rightly so. We don’t remember so well his signi.cant interest in the work of Paul Klee; he talks about it, for instance, in his letter to Baladine Klossowska on February 23, 1921, late in his writing life, only one year before the explosion of his greatest poems. Klee’s imagination was able to combine the abolition of a recognizable space governed by the laws of perspective with the preservation of the shapes and outlines of people, animals, and objects. Something parallel happens in Rilke’s poems: in his early work we locate the poetic situations in different settings, be it Chartres, Bruges, or Paris. We also feel in them the age—the youngness—of the speaker’s voice. It changes in the course of Rilke’s maturing: objects never lose their vivid individuality, but
Excerpted from The Poetry of Rilke by Edward Snow.
Copyright © 20109 by Edward Snow.
Published in 2010 by FSG.
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