To read Rilke is to reach into emptiness: W.H. Auden, who was greatly influenced by Rilke in his earlier poetry, went so far to describe him as “the Santa Claus of loneliness”. One of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, Rilke’s writing dealt with the sublime, our constant inability to reach it, and the solitary nature of human existence. Yet his musings on death and existence resonate peculiarly with the reader – or, perhaps more accurately, within the reader, as though reverberating in some unknown depths of the soul.
Life – chaotic, frustrating and paradoxical – washes over us endlessly. As Rilke puts it in the First Elegy, we have found ourselves in a world which we struggle to interpret, where the night-wind, “full of infinite space, gnaws at our faces”, and where the animals are more at home than we are. In “the surging wave of the next moment”, how do we find a place for ourselves in this incomprehensible world?
It is this question, this aching sense of loss, that echoes throughout his poetry. Even his love poetry is tinged with sorrow and longing. “How shall I hold my soul, so that it may not touch yours?” he writes. And in another poem, “We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.”
Perhaps it is because of this inward-searching focus that his poems, while hardly religious in the traditional sense, are so acutely spiritual. Addressing the reader directly, Rilke draws us along with him in his questioning. A sense of urgency seems to impel his words. “You must change your life,” he exhorts. “Don’t you know yet? Fling the emptiness out of your arms / into the spaces we breathe…”
The intense beauty and lyricism of his poetry shine through even when rendered in English. Stephen Mitchell’s translations, in particular, strike a fine balance between capturing Rilke’s elusive poignancy and remaining true to poetic form. (The same cannot be said of many others, who belong to that same class of translators responsible for the misuse of Rumi in so many self-help books).
It is a poetry full of symbols and metaphor. Certain images recur again and again in Rilke’s writing. Angels, of course; roses, gardens, and the far-off call of birds. Figures from classical mythology wander through Rilke’s poetry as well, often with startling reinterpretations. In his “Orpheus and Eurydice”, Eurydice, called from the Underworld, no longer recognises her husband; in “Alcestis”, Rilke (perhaps influenced by his close friend Paula Becker’s experience) makes the startling assertion that in giving herself in marriage, Alcestis has essentially given herself to death.
An early change in Rilke’s writing style arose from his two years spent as secretary to the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin. His 1907 collection “New Poems” was an effort to, as Rodin did with his marble sculptures, immortalise objects from daily life by simply describing them in poetry – “as they are”, quasi-objectively. These he called Dinggedichte, or thing-poems. Some of the most arresting images in his work arise from this period. In poems such as “Black Panther” and “The Rose-Bowl”, Rilke writes of everyday objects, but they are transformed into pure image, invested with a significance larger than life.
The masterpiece of Rilke’s oeuvre, however, is his visionary cycle of 10 poems known as the Duino Elegies. The story of their creation is itself almost prophetic. First conceived while Rilke was resident at Duino Castle in 1912, they languished incomplete until a decade later when, struck by a bout of inspiration – in his own words “a hurricane of the spirit” – he finished the last five Elegies, together with all fifty-five poems of the Sonnets to Orpheus, in just three weeks.
Described by Colin Wilson as perhaps “the greatest set of poems of modern times”, the Elegies are strangely, hauntingly beautiful. Half lament, half question, they explore life and death, the transience of being, and human loneliness and suffering. Rilke confronts such questions unflinchingly. Even lovers, he says, “only use each other to hide from their own fate”… And the angels, “beautiful and terrible”, look serenely on.
Just 4 years after completing the Elegies, Rilke died of leukemia at the age of 51. His self-composed epitaph pays homage to the roses he loved so much: “Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy / of being no one’s sleep under so many lids.”
This epitaph is as paradoxical as his poetry. One peels back layers upon layers of Rilke’s poetry, only to find nothingness, emptiness. Or perhaps, with a shock of recognition, the reader comes face to face with himself, “exposed on the cliffs of the heart”.
Image: Pixabay via Pexels.