It is said that the tradition of English poetry began with Caedmon–an illiterate seventh-century lay brother who, ashamed of his inability to versify when the harp was passed around at a feast, fell asleep in his stable among the animals and dreamed of an angel. This angel, too, bade him sing, and again Caedmon protested that he did not know any songs; but then, inexplicably, he found himself obeying the angel’s dictum: “Sing the beginning of the creatures!” Immediately on waking he wrote down the eulogy to the world and its maker that had been transmitted to him in his dream; today the nine-line Anglo-Saxon “Caedmon’s Hymn” is the earliest known English poem–a product of what poets now often call “dictation.” The gods (or God), the muses (or the Muse); afflatus, ecstasy, poetic madness: the lore of poetry worldwide attests to the claim that poetry at its best emerges from somewhere “other”–a source beyond the poet’s ego and conscious mind. Sometimes the poem appears in dreams, as with Caedmon; sometimes during autohypnosis, as with William Butler Yeats. James Merrill’s medium of choice was his Ouija board; Jack Spicer’s, his orphic radio. A key interchange in the transition from angels to radios is the visionary poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.
As an ambitious young poet, Rilke was chastised by his elder, Stefan George: “You’ve started to publish too early.” Damning words! Rilke had authored seven volumes of poetry before The Book of Hours, his 1905 breakthrough, and repudiated them later in life, by which time he had grown tired of the publishing marketplace altogether and taken to circulating his poems mainly among friends (Constantine Cavafy, another poet whose mature work spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was doing the same in Alexandria). Rilke turned from writing fashionable Jugendstil lyrics about maidens to producing inimitable meditations on the philosophical subjects of perceiving, knowing and being. For this he was rewarded with episodes of so-called dictation, culminating in February 1922, when he “received” a complement of Duino Elegies, which he had begun a decade before, and a new cycle, Sonnets to Orpheus.
By that point Rilke had traveled far from his origins. Born in Prague in 1875, he considered himself the product of a middling family, a middling education and a middling city. At a time when poets still honored, faithfully or fitfully, the Romantic ideal of depicting the sagas of the public world in epic terms, Rilke’s distaste for his family and his city propelled him onto a different aesthetic path, one of lifelong cosmopolitan itinerancy. He escaped first to Berlin, then to Russia, then to Paris; there were sojourns in Spain, Egypt, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland; he was rerouted by World War I, and by the penury that drove him from villa to castle as the houseguest of patronesses all over Europe. (Some say he was a freeloader–his sense of entitlement is legendary.) In his introduction to Edward Snow’s commanding and essential new volume of translations of Rilke’s major poetic works, the culmination of decades of labor, Adam Zagajewski says that Rilke’s “weak beginnings” placed him on the periphery of German culture in an era when Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin and Heine still awaited their successors. Rilke’s benefactors were on the periphery as well. Most of them were aristocrats, but unlike Goethe (who was an adviser to a duke) or Yeats (who was in the Irish Senate), Rilke didn’t meet them at court, and the ones he knew in private life were, as Zagajewski notes, “the shadows of once-powerful magnates.”
But most important, it was out of his experience of homelessness that Rilke fashioned a persona who speaks with an elegiac voice not for himself but for the world of consciousness, which migrated here into animals (often cats), there into objects (roses, sculptures). This consciousness, which belongs to no one and everyone, earns Rilke’s unending praise: it is the principle not only of biological life but ontological essence–whatever it is that causes something to arise from nothing, as in the lines carved on his tombstone:
Rose, O pure contradiction, delight
in being no one’s sleep under so many
Though Rilke was marginal in his own time, his lyrical waywardness is prized in our post-Romantic one; praised by only a small group of connoisseurs when he was writing, his poetry is now beloved. Sonnets to Orpheus, Duino Elegies, his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and perhaps most of all Letters to a Young Poet are touchstone works. Individual poems are famous: “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its last line, “You must change your life”; “The Panther,” pulsating with the energies of the caged cat. Rilke has even become something of a talisman in popular culture. He was the inspiration for the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, and recently the pop chart-topping disco queen Lady Gaga tattooed a quintessential Rilke passage on her upper arm: “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?” Zagajewski claims that Rilke is probably more widely read in the United States than in Germany, which implies something about Americans’ fascination with existential homelessness and self-invention and drift. I first cottoned to Rilke in Snow’s translations of New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part as a teenager in the mid-1980s: Snow’s version of “The Panther” staked itself in my young imagination, so I can’t pretend to be objective.
A would-be poet with a thin education could do worse than enter into an affair with an intellectual fifteen years his elder. If that woman were Lou Andreas-Salomé, the love of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life and a friend of Sigmund Freud and Richard Wagner, and she took him on extensive journeys to Russia (where he met Leo Tolstoy) and made him learn Russian so he could read Pushkin, then he might find himself so sharply aware of his changing consciousness that registering this shift would become his most intimate poetic theme.
Now the hour bends down and touches me
with its clear, metallic ring:
my senses tremble. The feeling forms: I can—
and I grasp the malleable day.
Nothing was complete before I saw it,
all becoming stood still.
My eyes are ripe, and whatever they desire
approaches like a bride.
Nothing is too small: against a gold background
I paint it large and lovingly
and hold it high, and I will never know
whose soul it may release…
This opening poem from The Book of Hours announces itself as the speech of a maker contemplating his materials. The book as a whole was conceived, Snow tells us in his notes, as the monologues of an “unnamed monk and icon painter in the Russian Orthodox Church.” The Book of Hours was begun after Rilke’s trip to Russia with Andreas-Salomé in 1899, and was continued at Worpswede, the German artists’ colony, in 1901. It was at Worpswede that he met and married the sculptor Clara Westhoff, with whom he had his only child, Ruth. Clara’s close friend Paula Modersohn-Becker also served as muse to Rilke; her death after the birth of her child would inspire his devastating “Requiem for a Friend.” Surrounded by women, galvanized by them, he also fled them when they capitulated too easily to his charms. (Writes Zagajewski: “Nobody will admire Rilke as a father or husband.”)
The Book of Hours, Snow argues, attempted things that had never been done before in German poetry: “It opened up whole new lyric possibilities for saying ‘I’ and ‘You.'” A literal reading would map “I” onto the persona of the monk, “You” onto God. But “I” doesn’t really know what he is (“am I a falcon, a storm/or a sovereign song?”), and “You” may also (sometimes) be Andreas-Salomé. If “the day” in the artist’s hands is “malleable,” so is identity itself. When “I” swaps places with the unresponsive Creator (“What will you do, God, when I die?”), the reader still feels the shock of the unexpected. Snow remarks that The Book of Hours is defined by its voice, “untethered from both the person writing it and the person speaking it,” and locates the creation of this voice at the moment when Rilke decided to cut a series of narrative glosses (much like those of Dante’s Vita nuova) that accompanied the original draft. Stripped of that prose scaffold, wherein the monk had a name (“Apostol”), the poems became what we think of as Rilkean: “untethered” from any particular person. And in the fictive character, Apostol the monk/maker, one can hear intimations of the poet’s mature oracular voice.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses–a sacred text for Rilke–persons become objects or animals. In Rilke’s transformations, objects become animated, not with human consciousness but with a mutable transpersonal consciousness that is amazed at sheer existence; the amazement is frequently mingled with terror. In “The Rose Window,” from New Poems (1907), a signature feature of cathedral architecture is imagined as a dilating eye, sucking one’s gaze upward into divine belief, in a total loss of will. The same action, a dilating pupil, also draws in the observer of a panther in the zoo. That famous poem offers circle inside circle capturing contradictory qualia: enclosure and endlessness, perpetual motion and paralysis:
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.
The panther, one Rilke actually observed in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, is incapable of attack, but the observer is consumed by its gaze–and vanishes into the heart of mystery.
Radiating outward and being closed in: to oscillate between these antipodes is a recurring state in New Poems, where Rilke envisions “heavens that closed nowhere” (“Tombs of the Hetaerae”) and takes us, frame by frame, through the process of roses opening (“The Bowl of Roses”). Two longer poems, “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” and “Birth of Venus,” are the apotheosis of these contradictory movements: in the former, a woman cannot escape the enclosure of the underworld, and in the latter a woman bursts from a cloven sea into the open. The paradoxical trope continues in New Poems: The Other Part (1908), where existence is so naked that “there is no place/that does not see you” (“Archaic Torso of Apollo”) and yet where, in “Buddha in Glory,” “all this world out to the farthest stars/is the flesh around your seed.”
Rilke had been fascinated by the formal conundrum of enclosure and freedom at least since his tenure as Auguste Rodin’s assistant. In 1902 the poet was commissioned to write a monograph on the great sculptor. Exhilarated by his visit to Rodin’s studio, where fragments of the massive Gates of Hell met him in the courtyard, he entered into the older man’s employ and observed the rules of genius–the first of which was not to wait for inspiration. Rilke, whose fame thrives on the legend of his creative outbursts and angelic dictation, learned from Rodin that daily labor is necessary preparation for the moment of insight. He also learned that art is about the struggle with materials. Yet how does one make an analogy between sculpture and poetry? Sculpture has mass; language is mere air. As William Gass, a devotee of Rilke, remarks in his essay “Rilke’s Rodin,” “All of us have emotions urgently seeking release, and many of us have opinions we think would do the world some good, however the poet must also be a maker, as the Greeks maintained, and, like the sculptor, like every other artist, should aim at adding real beings to the world, beings fully realized.”
But how can “beings fully realized” be fashioned from language? It was this question that provoked Rilke to delve more deeply into his subjects, to release the invisible being in them the way Michelangelo “freed” the angel in the stone by carving. Though they are known as his “thing-poems,” what is original about them is that their still lifes are dynamic; it’s as if Rilke translates the seemingly random movement of their atoms. In “Archaic Torso of Apollo” the torso “burns,” the gaze “holds fast and shines,” the breast is a “surge,” the slightly twisting loins make a “smile.” And if still lifes are dynamic, conversely, living beings are captured in states of arrest, or extracted from the general buzz of life and held up like rare objects, apotheoses of inwardness, by the connoisseur-poet. In straining against naturalism and creating crossings between the animate and inanimate, Rilke demonstrated that language can appear to free a hidden being in an object that has acquired its own freestanding splendor, separate from authorial ego and what Gass calls “a message in a bottle” or “feelings raised like a flag.” These crossings are not descriptions but enactments of form coming to enclose as the chisel comes to liberate–two motions that are essentially one in the imagination.
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.
Rilke transforms lament into praise. Death becomes sleep; the world becomes dream. Perfection is sleeping; sleeping is arising. A round of paradoxes animates this mythical world, much as Wallace Stevens sustains the thirty-three stanzas of “The Man With the Blue Guitar” with variations on a central paradox:
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
Two poems, seemingly worlds apart, but both oracular. Rilke’s lament sounds like effusive praise; Stevens’s praise like singsong lament. Either way, they shed light on each other as made things: a poem about death is really a praise poem about making, and a poem about making is really a lament for diminished reality.
Rilke’s fashioning of lament and praise into a contradictory unity was presaged by other contradictions in his work: the vast realms that enclose, the forms that open, still lifes that become animate or animals that become still lifes. Like the “tree in the ear” (which may or may not appeal to readers who think of it as “surreal”), they are part and parcel of that poetic logic.
In a review of William Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999), Marjorie Perloff listed eight versions of the first line of Duino Elegies, including Edward Snow’s, and concluded that none of them “give the reader who knows no German any real sense of Rilke’s peculiar power.” Perloff dangled the possibility of another Rilke, one whose language is knottier and more nuanced than we could possibly imagine. For corroboration, one might turn to Christopher Middleton, a poet and professor of Germanic languages; his essay on Rilke’s “Birth of Venus” details the sound patterns that are the warp and weft of the poem.
Having little German myself (and duly red-faced admitting it, especially after Perloff’s rebuke), I am certain that there is an unknown Rilke in back of the symbols and paradoxes by which we obtain that little thing lost in translation, the “poetry.” I am confronted by this unknown Rilke not when I reread the Dinggedichte but when I turn to the fierce, rhetorical, vatic Duino Elegies: suddenly I am at sea or, worse, the doldrums. (I imagine a similar problem faces translators of, say, John Ashbery’s longer meditative poems.) There is controversy as to whether the grandeur of the Elegies and the myth surrounding them obfuscate the fact that Rilke’s short poems are really his best achievement; there is controversy as to which translation is best, for one preserves the density of the language while another unravels the connotative meanings better, and bashing Rilke translations seems to be a sport among connoisseurs.
But one must be careful not to let the controversy obscure something important: if English translations of Duino Elegies remain contested, it’s because Rilke has become indispensable. We read Rilke for the figures: “And all things were her sleep,” he says of the girl who makes a bed in his ear; that would also be the same sleep from his epitaph: “no one’s sleep under so many/eyelids.” We read Rilke for a vocabulary that transcends our little, individual languages to a universal (and premodern) figural vocabulary of the lyric. If it is an illusion, it is an optimistically American one–and still generative.
After Duino Elegies was completed, Rilke conspired with his myth to pretend that his gift was spent. Snow demonstrates that this was a feint and offers a hefty collection of the short, beautiful lyrics Rilke wrote, and declined to publish, until his death. Rilke was the poet of angelic dictation, but he labored like a craftsman to the end. He died, like Vera Knoop, of leukemia, but he didn’t want to know the name of his disease. He thought that anything worth knowing was in the poems.