“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The quote above comes to me at a time perhaps unusually appropriate. For youths in general it is timely advice. It is also a terrible cliché, one most recently heard going by a four-letter acronym which shall not be repeated here. Certain things seem so difficult to learn that we repeat them to ourselves, make mnemonic devices, sing songs, tattoo a reminder across our bodies, disperse the result across social media, wake in a pool of bodily fluids and shame and forget what we were even trying to remember. And a hand—ours—reaches forth. . . for a bottle of water.
Rainer Maria Rilke. He was a German writer whom we’ve decided was Modernist. Rilke was born in Prague, like Kafka, but wrote much happier stuff (like most writers when put beside the big K). Both could be womanizers in some sense of the word, but Rilke’s style runs leagues beyond most men’s: the inspiration for his two best known works came to him in two different castles, lent to him by two different women, one of whom was a veritable princess and twenty years Rilke’s senior. Men and women were so glad to lend money to Rilke that he barely worked throughout his life. When he worked, it was on such tasks: a year to write a commissioned monograph on the work of Auguste Rodin, then half a year serving as Rodin’s secretary—meanwhile writing essays and giving lectures on the sculptor. Rodin’s work and also Paul Cézanne’s would immediately inform Rilke’s vision for “thing-poems” in his 1907-1908 collection New Poems.
Rilke wanted to emulate the dynamic quality of Rodin’s sculpture and the objectivity of a Cézanne painting (Cézanne is famous for painting, among other subjects, fruit). The resulting poems form a museum/menagerie, with titles such as “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and “Buddha in Glory,” but also “The Panther” and “The Swan.” The latter is reproduced here in a translation by Edward Snow:
This toil and struggle, passing on, heavy
and as if bound, through things still undone,
is like the makeshift walking of the swan.
And dying – this no longer grasping
of that ground on which we daily stand –
like his nervous settling himself –:
into the waters, which receive him gently
and which, so happy in their passing,
draw back under him, wave after wave;
while he, infinitely still and sure,
ever more confidently and majestically
and serenely deigns to glide.
In these New Poems, Rilke seeks to still the fleeting moment and, if not to conquer mortality and solipsism, to at least dignify it through the apprehensive power of consciousness. Such dignity, always in short supply, is nonetheless greatly demanded.
Written in two creative rushes in the years 1912 and 1922, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, like many post-WWI works, are parching for transcendence. Their inception is a literary fable. Rilke was in the borrowed castle, pacing the bastion on a cliff-edge above the sea and mulling over a day so far wasted in figures and legal arguments. (Rilke, who himself wrote over 17, 000 letters, that day had received a business letter). The suffocating mundanity was turned inspiration when the poet heard a voice on the Bora cry: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Because I can’t imagine how that sounds in the wind or at all, the translation: Who, if I cried out, would even hear me among the order of angels?
The Elegies progress through subjects in varying states of transcendence. These include, here in no particular order: children, lovers, heroes, angels, and poets, with the omni-consciousness of angels being at the outset the height of attainment, helplessly distant. Eventually the poet finds other perfections and takes needed solace in them. So far all this sounds like the celebration of transcendence so often effusive (and ineffectual) in our own second-generation Romantics, but fear not, reader! Whether by virtue of the German language, his country just losing a war, or simply by not being an affluent English 20-something in the first half of the 19th century, Rilke has actually composed consummately beautiful, thoughtful, and philosophical poetry in his Duino Elegies. Reading them in any language will be time well spent—again, something too rare, even when reading.
The Sonnets to Orpheus is Rilke’s last major work. At first viewed by the author as a byproduct of the Duino impetus, Rilke did eventually see the merits of these poems on their own. (Here, as a reminder: Orpheus, mythic lyricist, was cut to ribbons by a mob of Ciconians, for he would take no woman again as a lover after the death of his wife, Eurydice.) Instead of saying any more about it, here are the second and third sonnets, translated by Stephen Mitchell:
And it was almost a girl and came to be
out of this single joy of song and lyre
and through her green veils shone forth radiantly
and made herself a bed inside my ear.
And slept there. And here sleep was everything:
the awesome trees, the distances I had felt
so deeply that I could touch them, meadows in spring:
all wonders that had ever seized my heart.
She slept the world. Singing god, how was that first
sleep so perfect that she had no desire
ever to wake? See: she arose and slept.
Where is her death now? Ah, will you discover
this theme before your song consumes itself?
Where is she vanishing? . . . A girl almost . . .
A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can enter through the lyre’s strings?
Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing
of heart-roads, there is no temple for Apollo.
Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,
not wooing any grace that can be achieved;
song is reality. Simple, for a god.
But when can we be real? When does he pour
the earth, the stars, into us? Young man,
it is not your loving, even if your mouth
was forced wide open by your own voice–—learn
to forget that passionate music. It will end.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.