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SPOTLIGHT: The Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, January 03, 2016


I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when a friend gave me a copy of LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET when I was in my early twenties. It spoke to me very powerfully, and some lines were deeply engraved into my soul:

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”

I read LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET many times, and moved on to reading all of Rilke’s poems and letters. My favourite collection was called RILKE’S BOOK OF HOURS, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Their version of Rilke was simple, yet profoundly powerful. It was a book I often picked up to browse through, then would not look at again for years …until I needed it again. 

I also read a number of biographies of his life, which was one long struggle to live deeply and intensely, to write truthfully, and to understand love.

Born in Prague, in what was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, in 1875, and christened Rene Maria Rilke, he spent much of his childhood dressed as a girl, as his mother grieved for a daughter who had died after only a week of life some time before his birth. 

Unsurprisingly Rilke had a difficult adolescence, was sent to a military school that he hated, and then on to various universities (though he never graduated with a degree). He had a long and intense relationship with a married woman, Lou Andreas-Salomé, who later studied with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Rilke travelled with Lou and her husband to Russia and met Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak, and later lived in Paris where he worked for the sculptor Auguste Rodin (and was sacked by him for taking poetic license with the letters he wrote on the sculptor’s behalf). 

At the age of twenty-five, he married another sculptor, Clara Westhoff, but they had an unconventional marriage, each pursuing their own careers and leaving their daughter Ruth to be raised by Clara’s parents. I have often wondered what their daughter felt about this, and what impact it had upon her. Rilke and his wife then had what he called an ‘interior’ marriage – a relationship conducted mainly through intense, passionate, and often self-justifying letters. 

Rainer Maria Rilke & his wife, Clara Westhoff

Clara & their daughter Ruth

His experiences in World War I – which saw him unable to escape from Germany - lead to a long battle with writer’s block. He found refuge in Switzerland, and there wrote many of his most intense and lyrical poems during a high pitch of creativity in February 1922 – a "boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit". Of these, perhaps the First Elegy is the most famous (and one of my own personal favourites): 

A long struggle with his health followed, and Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926, at a sanatorium in Switzerland, from leukemia. 

It is said he died after pricking his finger on a rose thorn … 

Given his obsession with roses, this seems fitting. He wrote as his epitaph for his grave: 

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch,
niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern

This is usually translated as: 

Rose, oh pure contradiction, 
of being no-one's sleep under so many lids.

What the English translation does not convey is the punning similarity between the German for eyelids (Lidern) and songs (Liedern) – so that there may be a covert reference to music and perhaps poetry in this strange and enigmatic set of lines. 
I have wondered about this epigraph a lot, trying to understand it. Reading a number of different academic articles about it, I find that no-one really seems to know what it means. 

The comparison between rose petals and eyelids may refer to something Rilke wrote in his diary in 1900: 
‘I’ve invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt; only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.’ 

Or perhaps it has more to do with another favourite poem of mine, from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

Erect no gravestone. Just let the rose
bloom every year for him.
For this is Orpheus: metamorphosis
into one thing, then another.
We need not search for other names.
It is Orpheus in the singing, once and for all time.
He comes and goes. Is it not enough
that sometimes he outlasts a bowl of roses?
Oh, if you could understand -- he has no choice but to disappear,
even should he long to stay. As his song
exceeds the present moment,
so he is already gone where we cannot follow.
The lyre's strings do not constrain his hands.
It is in moving farther on that he obeys.

(This translation comes from Joanne Macy. The translation by Edward Snow begin ‘Erect no monument. Allow the rose/to unfurl each year on his behalf ..’ and finishes ‘The lyre’s snare doesn’t trap his hands. And he obeys, even as he overreaches.’ One of the problems with reading Rilke in translation is that there are so many different versions! I tend to have favourites that I return to. Of my personal collections, I tend to find Joanne Macy’s translations simpler and more spiritual, Edward Snow’s more literal, and Stephen Cohn’s the most intensely poetic. His translation begins ‘Build no memorial but let the rose/blossom each year according to his pleasure; for this is Orpheus …’ ) 

I read Rilke in depth again when I was writing my latest novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN, which is a retelling of the Grimm brother’s version of Beauty & the Beast set in Nazi Germany. 
I was initially drawn to rediscover his work because of Rilke’s obsession with roses, (a potent motif in the French version of the fairy tale).

He has many poems that feature roses as their subject, or as a symbol or metaphor. I’ve always loved these lines, about rose petals falling:

‘And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy,
a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask — it just depends —
and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.’

The same poem ends:

“And aren't they all doing the same: only containing themselves,
if to contain oneself means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and disguised fate
and darkness of earth at evening
all the way to the errancy, flight, and coming on of clouds
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars
into a handful of inwardness.
Now it lies free of cares in the open roses.’

Rilke, "A Bowl of Roses." Trans. Galway Kinell & Hannah Liebman. American Poetry Review 1999 28(3):61 

As I was researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN, I read many of my favourite Rilke poems again, and discovered many other key motifs in his work that resonated strongly with the book I was writing – images of birds and angels, flying and falling, stars and dark spaces, and – most importantly - a heartfelt grappling with the meaning of love and death. 

I read again a passage that had moved me strongly as a young woman:

‘Love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.’ 
(from the Seventh Letter in Letters to a Young Poet, New World Library edition). 

Here are some of the poems that I reference in my novel.

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened.
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.
Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praying as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.
Be. And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.
The non-being inside you allows you to vibrate
in full resonance with your world. Use it for once.
To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

(from Sonnets to Orpheus, No 13, trans. Joanne Macy )

(A hand-written manuscript page from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus

and another:

I love you, gentlest of Ways
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
you, the forest that always surrounded us,
you, the song we sang in every silence,
you dark net threading through us,
on the day you made us you created yourself,
and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…
Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

(from "The Book of Hours, I, 25" – trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)

Dying is strange and hard
if it is not our death, but a death
that takes us by storm, 
when we've ripened none within us.

(from "The Book of Hours III; 8" – trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

From "The Book of Hours II, 16" - trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)

And from the same book (which is one of my favourites):

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”

Rediscovering the work of this intense, lyrical, and mystical poet has been one of the greatest joys of my journey in writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN – I hope you will discover some of his work too. 

Do you have a favourite Rilke quote or poem? Please share with me! 

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