This is the second and final part of 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. As I mentioned last week, much of my time through lockdown has been taken up with translation. One of these projects is a commission by Pushkin Press to complete a new selection and translation of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, scheduled 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). This new project will contain selections from those sequences and a significant number of earlier poems – from the Book of Hours, the Book of Images and the New Poems. I am including a few of my new translations in these two posts (or at least these are reasonably progressed drafts – just as with original work, translations need to sit a drawer for a while before they can be more fairly judged)
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. These are the thoughts that preoccupied Rilke when he moved, in 1902, to Paris, in part to observe Rodin at work. Louth is right that the poet’s move towards a poetry that cultivated the “earthly”, the world of “things”, was already well under way. He then looked to Rodin’s methods for “dependability, concentration and craft” and in a poem like ‘The Panther’ the fruits of more compactness of diction, a more supple articulation of syntax, a lexis of more precise, everyday words and an increased emphasis on the visual are clearly seen.
Here is my translation of ‘The Panther’:
in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris
With this pacing the bars’ back and forth, his gaze
grows so weary there is nothing it can hold.
To him, there appears to be a thousand bars
and beyond the thousand bars, no world.
The lithe, smooth steps of his powerful gait
(in the narrowest of circles he spins round)
is like a dance of power around a point
at which an immense will stands, stunned.
In moments only does the pupil’s curtain
sway noiselessly open – an image enters
and drives through the mute tension of each limb
into the heart, where it disappears.
Under Rodin’s influence, Rilke became a more self-conscious labourer in language. These are the poems that are held up as examples of ‘Kunst-Ding’ (art-thing). In August 1903, Rilke wrote to Lou: “The thing is definite, the art-thing must be even more definite; taken out of the realm of chance, removed from every unclarity, relieved of time and given to space’.
Louth often draws comparisons between Rilke’s work and poets from the English language poetry sphere. Here he compares Hopkins’ ideas of ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ as “akin” to Rilke’s ideas of object/form and its impact on the observing individual. Certainly, with Hopkins, Rilke valorises the moment of perception, the process of looking. This, from a letter to Clara Rilke in 1907, is worth quoting at length: “Looking is such a wonderful thing, and we know so little about it; with it, we are turned completely outwards, but precisely, when we are most so turned, things seem to go on inside us that have been longingly waiting not to be observed, and while, intact and curiously anonymous, they take place inside us, without us, their meaning grows in the object outside [. . .] without ourselves getting anywhere near it, grasping it only very faintly, from a distance, under the sign of a thing that was foreign to us and the next moment is estranged once more”. These are little contacts with God, transient though they may be. The way we are to put our conscious self into our gaze and let it stream out of us, so enabling us to ‘receive’ the object without, recalls the idea of kenosis. Louth’s account of it is cool and clear: “the whole process can be thought of as two parabolas intersecting at their tips, the mind going out as the gaze summons the object into its focus”. He goes on to say that the details of the process may seem mystical, or indeed oddly physical, but the point is that the precise perception and discovery of things is also self-discovery, suggesting that the New Poems are not objective (as is often blithely observed) and not subjective either, but complicatedly both at once.
Another of Louth’s interesting contextualisations is the link he makes between Rilke’s practice and the Imagists in general and, in particular, T.E. Hulme’s essay from around 1911, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’. There, Hulme also associates poetry with “an extraordinary interest in a thing”, described with an accuracy that avoids “falling into the conventional curves of ingrained technique [. . .] from gliding through an abstract process”. For Hulme, the artist is one who simply can’t bear the idea of [. . .] ‘approximately’”; hence one who always struggles to get “the exact curve of the thing”. Rilke’s New Poems are on the same trail, though he complicated and extended it with what he learned about ‘surface’ from Rodin. Gazing at the sculptor’s work, Rilke began to understand that surface “consisted of infinitely many encounters of the light with the thing [. . .] There is no point on the surface of a statue that is dead, no point isolated from the others, not participating in the total effect and life of the whole”. In a Rodin sculpture – and this is what he wished for his poetry – Rilke saw that “[n]o part of the body was insignificant or slight: it lived”. Yet such an interconnected, encompassing vision is inevitably transient. Louth brilliantly concludes that the New Poems are “things which record moments that are over, at the very least strongly imply their loss”, hence revising the accepted reading of this work: “the collection is haunted by things rather than full of them”.
Here’s an example of close observation not a thing but an individual:
There she sat with the others, taking tea.
And beside the others, I felt, at first,
that she held out her cup differently.
At one point she smiled. It almost hurt.
And when at last they rose from their chairs
slowly, still talking, as it happened
(laughing and chatting), moving on elsewhere,
I noticed her again. She lagged behind,
reticent, more like a woman compelled
to sing in front of a crowd of people.
In her shining eyes, the light seemed to fall
as if from outside, reflected in a pool.
She followed on, slowly, biding her time,
as if something more had to be overcome,
and yet, as if following that translation,
she would never again walk, rather fly.
Louth’s chapters 7 and 8 are both titled ‘The Interim’, tracing Rilke’s life and work from 1914 to 1922. After the drafts of the first and second Duino Elegies in 1912, the following 10 years are often seen as a period of failure and difficulty, of writer’s block. Louth argues otherwise. Though Rilke felt it was a period of drought (and discussed it as such often in his letters), poems were being written (over 150 in 1913/4) and the poet seems to be deliberately marking a break in his writing career in order to spur himself on to greater experimentation. The interim is filled with reading and much translation work too. Also, the orientation toward the visual arts which was such an important aspect of the New Poems grows less strong and is replaced (in a poem like ‘Wendung’ in 1914) with ‘heart-work’ (‘Herz-Werk’). Louth explains, this “implies a stronger recognition that the qualities of things depend on being noticed, received and remembered and that these are processes which have to do with time”.
It was also his reading of Hölderlin that spurred Rilke forwards, both the poems and the novel Hyperion (1797/99). The New Poems are haunted by transience (as is the great ‘Requiem’ to Paula Modersohn-Becker (1909)), but Rilke comes to see poetry’s temporal nature not as something to be lamented and combated, but as its strength, what “allows it to enter into and elucidate the movement of life”. Years later, the unfolding of the Duino Elegies is just this: an initial lamentation at the transience of life, turning slowly towards celebration of that fact. Rilke learned from Hölderlin’s abrupt style, his winding, fractured or abbreviated syntax. The poem ‘To Hölderlin’ (1914) praises him and sets out a programme for Rilke himself. This is Louth’s translation:
To linger, even on what we know best,
is not for us; out of the fulfilled
pictures the spirit pitches to ones now to be filled; lakes
are only in eternity. Here falling is
the best we can do. Out of a feeling we’ve learnt,
falling onwards into one we divine, further.
Louth argues, “What Rilke apprehends in Hölderlin and works into the form of his poem to him, is movement itself, the poem as a passage ‘felt in departures’. It is ‘Herz-Werk’ in that it traces the flexion of time”.
The long-nurtured fruits of these lessons in poetic diction, syntax and a vision of life are what burst from Rilke years later at Muzot. Much has been written about the inspired “hurricane of the heart and mind” that resulted in the completion of both the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in February 1922. Some may find Louth’s 100 pages on the Elegies – a systematic ‘going through’ each poem in detail – to be at risk of losing the uplift and often dizzying experience that readers can have with this text which Rilke called a “great white sail”. But Louth’s forensic approach is not a dismantling of the poems, rather “a way of inhabiting them”. The poems are not elegies in any formal or traditional sense but about the kind of loss that had always been Rilke’s subject: the necessary loss of our necessary preconceptions about the world so that we can (if only passingly) experience its ultimate nature as a wholeness of being. The angels who make brief appearances stand for all that we are not (but might briefly glimpse). The lack of self-consciousness Rilke perceives in animals – their capacity to see the Open (“das Offene”) without reflection – proves an alternative way of critiquing the way we live. The acrobats in the fifth poem (the last to be completed) serve to suggest that life itself is “a questionable kind of performance, a contrivance, endlessly failing and having to be begun again”. Once this is felt in the blood and we distance ourselves from a world view in which “theories, the conception of things, have come to dominate over the things themselves”, then (as the seventh Elegy proclaims) “Just being here is glorious” (‘Hiersein ist herrlich’).
The only chance of preserving such glory is (following Hölderlin) to ensure no particular interpretation of experience becomes “the fixed and solely valid one”. The language of poetry becomes a way of “hooking ourselves to things, tangling ourselves in them” while retaining a sense of inevitable provisionality. So poetry reflects the nature of a life “improvised into a makeshift whole which acknowledges the complexity of life while also showing how it can still be experienced as a rich, meaningful practice”. Louth’s methodical tracking through the poems is an effective approach because the work itself is “extensive, various, not linear in progression, and often hard to construe, to read it is also to live in it, and the kind of reading required—to be willing to take things on trust, to allow rhythms to inform arguments, to carry unresolved moments, to connect disparate images into promising patterns—is akin to the ways we have of getting through life itself”.
Likewise, the Orphic song of the Sonnets also “comes and goes” and the self-contained, episodic, yet intricately interconnected form Rilke chooses (over 55 sonnets) yields what is Rilke’s greatest work. Louth takes a thematic approach, looking at Poetry and Technology, Sense and the Senses as well as Vera Oukama Knoop (the putative addressee of the Sonnets) and the marvellously inventive use Rilke makes of the sonnet form. This works less well because these poems are far more light-footed, less “hard to construe” than the Elegies. They require less explication and dance away from the forensic. But Louth knows as much: “The language of the [Sonnets] has two particularly striking aspects. One is its allusiveness and elusiveness, a curious looseness and lightness of reference, as if the words have become detached from their normal task of signifying and approach pure form [. . .] The other is the way the language grows out of itself, unfolding genetically and responding to its own promptings, as if it were listening to itself”.
Interesting though it is to see Louth complete his grand project with a discussion of the many French poems that Rilke turned to after 1922, there is once more a sense of trying to pin down the ineffable. Many poems were responses to the Vallais countryside, a place where the restless poet at last felt more rooted. But the lightness and playfulness of the poetry makes it hard to evaluate. Brief poems often aspire to the condition of haiku, or in Louth’s words, “almost avoid being writing at all”. Philippe Jaccottet in 1970, found in them a delicacy, preciosity, even a kind of soppiness. Many poems do have the Sonnets’ light-footedness and grace, yet often without their intensity and reach. Louth’s final judgement is suitably delicate: “There is a definite sense of Rilke taking his foot off the pedal in his last phase, productive though it was, but not as mere relaxation: as a deliberate exploring of unburdened existence”. So there is a dwelling in simple things, through simple language which can hardly be begrudged a man approaching his death from leukaemia in December 1926. His last published poem listens to and ventures out with the hunters in the Vallais, envying them their energy and vitality, as the dying poet (still fascinated by paradox) describes them as “pressing up close to what’s living”. This last phrase is a fine formulation for precisely what Rilke tries and succeeds in doing in so many of his poems.