As I mentioned in my last blog post, much of my time through lockdown and in the last few months has been taken up with translation. One of these projects is as daunting as it is exciting. Pushkin Press have commissioned me to complete a new selection and translation of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke to appear in 2023. Some of you will be aware of my earlier published versions of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (both available from Enitharmon Press). The new project will contain selections from those sequences and a good selection of earlier poems, including from the New Poems. As well as trying out a few of my new translations in this post (and the following one), the body of it is an uncut version of my recent review of Charlie Louth’s excellent book on Rilke, Rilke: the Life of the Work (OUP, 2020). A shorter version of this review appeared in the latest Agenda magazine, ‘Altered Distances’ (Vol 54, Nos. 1/2). Many thanks to the editor, Patricia McCarthy for asking me to write it.
Rilke has long suffered from two types of criticism. Among his enthusiasts, some declare his work close to sacred and therefore hardly open to ‘normal’ practices of critical analysis, at risk of spoiling the ‘bloom’ of mystery they find there. Others, of a more negative inclination, accuse him of an aloof aestheticism, a likely fatal distance from ‘real’ life. One such was Thomas Mann who can be found, Charlie Louth notes, “(rather richly) calling him an ‘arch aesthete’”. Both viewpoints risk downplaying the skilled crafting of Rilke’s work (he thought long and hard about poems as artefacts, things consciously and intricately made) but also risk mistaking the particular power of his poetry. Rilke: the Life of the Work is comprehensive, erudite, always clear and – most importantly – keeps returning us to the poetry to which Louth enthusiastically responds: “When we read Rilke, the poems do not feel aloof, and they do not feel merely aesthetic in their claims. They press upon us and make us examine ourselves, and they help us experience our life in the world with greater clarity and depth”. Most readers will recognise this as an allusion to the ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (from New Poems) which concludes “You must change your life”. Louth again: “It is unusual for Rilke to be so direct, but as I see it a similar spirit animates most if not all of his poems”.
This book aims to bridge the gulf between enthusiastic, non-specialist readers of poetry (Louth translates his foreign language quotations himself) and the German lang/lit academic and student. The balance between engaged readability and academic thoroughness is very well judged. I particularly value Louth’s close readings of ‘the work’, viewed as objectively as possible (Louth declares early on that he has no “overarching thesis”). There are other readily available biographical and critical works, but the strength of Rilke: the Life of the Work is that, with its discussion of the formal choices, wording and syntax of so many poems, it is a comprehensive attempt at ‘Reading Rilke’. The structure of the book’s 600 pages is primarily chronological, from the poet’s earliest publication, Lives and Songs (1894) through to Vergers (1926). Louth only departs from this chronological survey twice. Early on, he looks at several poems that open Rilke’s published books, then, in Chapter 6, he discusses the four poems Rilke wrote as requiems.
So Louth’s Rilke is a craftsman and moralist who urges us to live better. The kind of closed system of a purely aesthetic art was the poet’s abhorrence. In a lecture he gave early in his career, Rilke is already sure that “‘art is only a path, not a destination’. In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé in 1903 he confirms: ‘I do not want to tear art and life apart; I know that in the end they are one and the same’. As so often, Louth articulates his subject’s attitude with great clarity: “for Rilke, there can be no question of shutting oneself away from life, of retreating into the work, and the desk, if it is to be the place of necessary writing, must be a ‘vitale Mitte’, a site right in the middle of life and exposed to all its risks and promises. To write is not to withdraw but precisely to engage”.
Rilke’s poetry pays particular attention to the processes of change associated with being human. Poems record such moments of change but also act, in the process of being read and openly experienced, as opportunities where change in an individual might take place. For those with faith in literature, Louth articulates the exciting prospect: “to read at all is to pause, is to take your time in times when an anxious haste pervades much of what we do. In some sense it is to live better whether poetry makes anything happen or not”. Writing to Thankmar von Münchhausen in 1915, Rilke asks, “What is our job if not, purely and freely, to provide occasions for change?” Louth finds these ideas in ‘Eingang’ / ‘Entrance’, one of the poems Rilke placed at the start of The Book of Images (1902/06). The furniture of this poem – the self, a house, a tree – is a grouping that recurs throughout Rilke’s work and what interests him is the suggestion that, as we leave the familiarity of our house, “the house of our habits, we enter the imaginary space of another building [. . .] coming from life into the poem, and passing through the poem into life”. Here is my new translation of this poem:
Whoever you are: in the evening, step out
of your living room, from all that’s familiar;
in the distance, the last thing, your house:
no matter who you are.
And although your eyes have grown so weary
you can barely lift them from the worn threshold,
slowly, with them, you still raise a black tree
and set it before the sky: lean and alone.
And you have made a world. And it is immense,
like a word, in silence, it continues to grow.
And as your will grasps its significance,
so your eyes, tenderly, let it go . . .
For Rilke’s own life and work, the key meeting was with Lou Andreas-Salomé in May 1897. Lou changed his handwriting and his name (from René to Rainer), but it was the confidence and groundedness in the world that she brought to his life that pushed his art “closer to the details of lived experience”. Rilke himself wrote: “The world lost its cloudiness [. . .] I learnt a simplicity, learnt slowly and laboriously how simple everything is, and I gained the maturity to talk of simple things”. Lou’s influence can be seen in the lecture he gave in Prague in 1898, where he distances himself from Symbolism and aestheticism (the dominant strands of ‘modern poetry’ at the turn of the century) to argue that the artist must not be “shut out of the great channel of life”, but must evoke the constant dialogue between the individual and things, “the strange coincidences between inner and outer out of which experience is made”. As Louth says, this is an early statement of the theme which will occupy his whole life.
Here is a brief poem – actually naming Lou and indicating her influence in persuading Rilke of the sacredness of the ordinary. It went unpublished for years, but was part of Rilke’s sequence called To Celebrate You (Dir zur Feier):
The rain runs its chilly fingers
down our windows, unseeing;
we lean back in deep armchairs
and listen, as if the quiet hours
dripped from a weary mill all evening.
And then Lou speaks. Our souls incline
one to another. Even cut flowers
at the window nod their topmost bloom
and we are completely at home,
here in this tranquil, white house.
For Rilke, the successful poem is a space in which the mysteries of things and personal confession are both explored, or revealed, simultaneously. Louth argues that, from the outset, Rilke’s view of this was always positive: “there is no unnerving consciousness of the self ’s arbitrary dependence on chance encounters with the outside world”, but equally, there is “no doubt about the existence of an underlying unity to which the poet has access”. What he feared was ‘the interpreted world’ (‘der gedeuteten Welt’), a world view shorn of all mystery, a perspective that perhaps most of us inhabit, a view in which language has become dominantly instrumental, “narrowing our vision so that life appears cut and dried without any possibility of the unknown and the unknowable”. Louth explains what readers of Rilke value in his work: “poetic language, as he understands it, is precisely a way of talking that avoids directness and allows the mutability of experience and the mystery of the world to be expressed. It releases rather than limits possibility”. Beyond this stands what Rilke might have meant by the term ‘God’. ‘He’ is “an experience of totality, life felt as a whole, in which self and other are not distinct or momentarily lose their distinctness”.
Here is my new translation of an early poem from The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch) in which Rilke is developing these ideas:
You, the darkness from which I came,
I love you more than the flame
scoring the world’s edge
with a glimmer
upon some sphere,
beyond which no-one has more knowledge.
Yet the darkness binds everything into itself:
all forms, flames, creatures, myself,
it seizes on them,
all powers, everything human . . .
And it may be: there is an immense might
stirring nearby –
I believe in the night.
It is in part because the enemy of mystery is language (too casually used) that poetry (constructed from language more carefully used) has an advantage over other art forms like painting. There’s an irony here, of course, because Rilke learned so much from other workers in the fine arts. Most know about the debt he owed to Rodin and Cezanne, but Louth argues Rilke’s journey towards the poetics of the New Poems began in the period he resided in the artists’ community in Germany at Worpswede. A lot of his thinking there concerned images of man and landscape. For the majority of the time, humans and nature live “side-by-side with hardly any knowledge of one another” and it is in the ‘as if’ of the work of art that they can be brought closer, into a more conscious relation. But because a poem works through time, such a correspondence is acknowledged as “something one traverses and gains knowledge of but cannot hold onto”.
Part 2 of this review coming next week…..