Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke

Sonnets to Orpheus,
Second Part, Sonnet 29

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how space dilates with each breath of yours.
Among the rafters of dark belfries peal
your own sweet tones. Your predators

will grow strong upon such fare.
Know transformation in its varied sign.
Which experience produces most despair?
If drinking offend, transform yourself to wine.

Be, in this immensity of night,
the magic force at your sense's crossroad;
the purpose of their mysterious plan.

And though you fade from earthly sight,
declare to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water say: I am.

(Translation by Robert Hunter, 1993)

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875, in Prague, to a mother who had recently lost her first child, a daughter, and desperately wanted another little girl. His mother often dressed him as a girl and called him "Miss." At age eleven, his parents decided to divorce and sent their dreamy, sensitive son to military school.

Rilke survived his childhood and teen years, but they clearly left a mark on his psyche. He had completed his first book of poems before going to university, but they were imitative and immature. He published as much as he could, but most of his early work has been justifiably forgotten.

Rilke found his poetic voice through a relationship with an older woman, fourteen years his senior. Lou Andreas-Salome was also a writer, university educated, and a friend of Nietzsche. The affair did not last long, but it was a turning point in the young author's life.

Rilke continued to publish increasingly important work. But nothing in his early output suggested the eruption that would eventually occur. In 1912, Rilke stayed at the home of his primary patroness, Marie von Thurn und Taxis, in Duino Castle. There he wrote the first two Duino Elegies. Following the war, Rilke found his way back to Duino Castle and hoped to complete the series of elegies he had begun.

In a single month, February, 1922, Rilke finished the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in one of the most amazing literary explosions known. These two collections are considered by many his finest work. This is how Rilke described the period to his patroness:

Everything in only a few days, it was an indescribable storm, a hurricane in my spirit (as before in Duino) everything that is fiber and tissue within me was strained to the breaking point. There could be no thought of eating, God knows who nourished me. (Cited in Hunter)
What distinguishes Rilke from many other poets is the method of his creation. He was not a craftsman working on a few lines each day until he had created the poem. Rather, Rilke was at the mercy of inspiration, possibly even revelation. He claimed he did not author poems--he received them.

His later work moved away from the influence of Christianity, which was always a fixture in his writing, toward a more Gnostic transformative vision. He began to define an "inner space" void of distinctions between life and death, with all time being one time. For Rilke, only his poetry could express this beauty--the mystic's vision.

Rilke died of leukemia in December of 1926. He is best remembered today for his small book, Letters to a Young Poet.

My personal favorite of Rilke's poems is the "Seventh Elegy," which begins:

Wooing no more, no more shall wooing,
voice grown beyond it, be the nature
of your cry--though the cry be pure,
as of a bird when lifted by the
spiraling season--nearly forgetting
that it is a simple fretful creature,
not a solitary heart tossed into
the brightness of intimate skies.
The Elegies are mournful, pensive, and grand, no doubt influenced by the atrocities of the recently ended WWI. Still, they are filled with beauty, a celebration of life and language that erupts full-blown in the Sonnets.

The Sonnets are clearly lesser poems, but they have an energy and joy in the music of language that elevates the spirit. Some of the poems are better than others, but as a whole they contain the soul of Orpheus, the God of music and poetry--the lyre player. Another key figure in the poems is the young dancer, Vera Ouckama, who died at age nineteen and to whom the Sonnets are dedicated.

The central theme in the sequence is Orpheus's ability to move back and forth between the lands of the living and the dead, just as Rilke's Angel does in the Elegies. It was Orpheus who sought to recover his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld (according to Virgil), and fails when he is unable to trust that she is behind him and looks back to check on her, thus violating the rules of her release.

Orpheus is also known as the revealer of magic arts, as well as founding or making available various cults, such as those of Apollo and Dionysus. Rilke uses these elements throughout the Sonnets. It is possible to read in the Sonnets a conflict between the rationality/light of Apollo and the intuition/darkness of Dionysus, a conflict Rilke would likely have read in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy.

The Sonnet posted above is the final poem in the sequence. As such, it sums up, in a sense, the meaning of the collection. He offers advice in leading a good life:

Know transformation in its varied sign.
Which experience produces most despair?
If drinking offend, transform yourself to wine.
He advocates self-knowledge, but he also wants us to embrace our weakness and fear. Through our weakness comes our strength, and that is why we must know transformation in all its variations. If we are offended by drinking and drunkenness, then we should become the wine--the only way to know ourselves fully is to know that which causes us discomfort.

If you have been reading my blog of late, you might see why this poem speaks to me. I am learning how to find the gifts inherent in pain. Rilke offers a path for such a journey for those willing to follow.

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