Angels to Radios: On Rainer Maria Rilke
Having made these breakthroughs, both formal and imaginative, Rilke was primed to receive the dictation of his two major works, Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. There are reasons to be skeptical of the supernatural elements of the story, but it goes like this: Duino Elegies, a series of meditations so named because they came to him at Castle Duino on the Adriatic Sea (where Dante allegedly wrote parts of The Divine Comedy), seemed to emerge from the sounds of a storm in the winter of 1911-12. Rilke's confidante, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, had installed him in the castle so that he could work. (Her nickname for him was Dottore Serafico.) But his days passed in melancholic idleness until, as she wrote in her memoir,
all at once, in the midst of his brooding, he halted suddenly, for it seemed to him that in the raging of the storm a voice had called to him: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels' orders?" He stood still, listening. "What is that?" he half whispered. "What is it, what is coming?"
He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed without his intervention. Who had come? And then he knew the answer: the god...
Rilke wrote two full elegies and parts of four more. But then the dictation stopped. Ten years later, in the Château de Muzot in Switzerland, he received another transmission of poetry: this time twenty-five sonnets materialized in the space of three days, beginning on February 2, 1922. These were Sonnets to Orpheus. A few days later more elegies came to him. ("The Elegies are here!" he excitedly wrote to his publisher.) He drafted the final elegy on February 14. Then he resumed a second cycle of Sonnets to Orpheus, which spanned February 15-23: twenty-nine poems came to him during this time. He was 46 years old.
In his notes to Sonnets to Orpheus, Snow gives some idea of what precipitated this creative storm. (Rilke himself repudiated the idea of footnotes to his dictated poems: "I believe that no poem in the Sonnets to Orpheus means anything that is not fully written out there, often, it is true, with its most secret name.") His lover Baladine Klossowska (the painter Balthus's mother) had given him a new copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which features the story of Orpheus. He had been reading Michelangelo's Sonnets (no doubt piquing the memory of his education at Rodin's hands) and Paul Valéry, who had stopped writing for twenty years--though whether that would console or terrify Rilke in his own creative drought is hard to say. Then on January 1, 1922, Rilke received a journal written by Gertrud Knoop, detailing the final days of her 19-year-old daughter Vera's battle with leukemia. Vera, a dancer, had been a playmate of Rilke's daughter. The delivery of this agonizing testimony into Rilke's hands was catalytic.
Orpheus, like Caedmon, is a myth of poetry's origins. In Ovid's telling, Orpheus is a gifted musician; he descends into Hades to beg for the return of his beloved wife, Eurydice, who has died prematurely. The god of the underworld, moved to tears by his song, grants Orpheus his wish under one small condition: that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice while they are exiting Hades. Orpheus looks back, and Eurydice vanishes from his sight forever. From then on he wanders, shunning society, and sings songs so beautiful that trees spring up in his wake; finally, he is set upon by vengeful maenads and ripped limb from limb.
This is a myth of poetry's origins much different from that of Caedmon: where the latter is the praise of Creation, with the poet as an illiterate messenger of the divine, the Orpheus myth elegizes the lost, with the gifted, flawed poet ultimately given up for ritual sacrifice. Orpheus is the more powerful myth for us, who have lost Caedmon's Christian optimism and confer the greatest fame on poets who take on the ancient role of the victim. Rilke wrote praise poems like Caedmon--what are his Dinggedichte if not praise poems?--but he was always drawn to the figure of Orpheus, and his frenzy in 1922 was triggered by the untimely loss of Vera, a Eurydice figure.
A tree arose. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree within the ear!v And all was silent. Yet in that silencev pulsed new genesis, new signaling, new change.
Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
disentangled forest, from nest and lair;
and it wasn't cunning, wasn't heed or fright
that put such softness in their step,
but listening. Bellow, shriek, and roar
seemed small inside their hearts. And where once
there'd scarcely been a hut to take this in,
a hidden refuge made of darkest longing
with an entranceway whose braces shook,--
you built temples for them in their hearing.
This is the first sonnet as translated by Edward Snow. Like Caedmon lying down among the animals, Orpheus tamed wild creatures with his music. Caedmon's hymn identified God, the maker, as an architect who first built heaven's roof; in Rilke's poem Orpheus is also an architect. Where there had been only the barest of shelters, Orpheus creates--out of music, no less--the safest of havens for the creatures that listen. Likewise the itinerant Rilke finds the haven in his poetry in myth, not homeland.
In the second sonnet, the figure of Vera enters:
And almost a girl it was and came forth
from this glad unity of song and lyre
and shone brightly through her springtime veils
and made herself a bed within my ear.
And slept in me. And all things were her sleep.
The trees I'd always marveled at, these
palpable distances, the deep-felt meadows,
and an entire life's astonishments.