Sleep, beneath the sidereal paces,
Conqueror, in slow disunity,
For the Hydra inherent in the hero
Is unfolded to infinity…
– Paul Valéry
Earlier this year, exactly one century ago, holed up in his tower at Muzot, Rainer Maria Rilke was besieged by an onrush of creativity that resulted in all fifty-five Sonnets to Orpheus as well as the long-sought-after completion of the Duino Elegies. An auspicious season for the poet, certainly, and one immortalized in poetic legendry – and I use that word on purpose, for while its historical occurrence is undeniable, Rilke’s constant invocation of the seemingly divine presence that inspired him (who first arrived to him in Duino Castle twelve years before, whispering that unforgettable opening line) wreaths this vital period in semi-mythic air.
Of the 20th century Great Poets, surely Rilke is one of, if not the most, beloved. His poetry is an outpouring of spiritual open-ness, rendering it generously receptive to believers of all creeds, although Rilke had rejected the religiosity of his childhood in favor of a mystical awareness or sensitivity to all things.
Is it true that he was, despite all this, somewhat of a cad? If we are to believe the reports of even his closest intimates, then yes, he was. Financially irresponsible, frequently enamored by young woman-admirers of his (and just as prone to abandonment whenever he’d extracted a sufficient amount of pleasure from their union), and paternally absent, Rainer Maria Rilke’s life vis-à-vis his verse was, to quote the man himself, “pure contradiction.”
I’m sure that if I were to travel back in time to meet Rilke, I’d be disappointed. His strange mixture of asceticism and moody impulsiveness would probably put me off, and the occasion might end up resembling the poet’s own first encounter with Tolstoy: awkward, tense, and straining for profundity, with the older artist likely wondering when the hell the younger would just buzz off and leave him be.
Luckily, however, Rilke is dead, and the harms he’d impinged upon those in his inner circle molder where they are interred. In his life, he was as flawed and fragile as any man, but his best poetry is what distinguished him from other men. I’m grateful that this is the Rilke I met, and continually return to, and continually keep, and not the philanderer who wandered Europe in doomed, relentless search of his Eurydice.
1922 was a great year for poetry, and, on its centennial, I wanted to respond to poems from that late winter which seem to me overshadowed by the Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies. While nowhere near as eminent as those masterpieces, they are vintage Rilke, and show that on the eve of his life (he was to die from leukemia only four years later) he had retained a capacity for vision, and re-vision, as these many works signal an important phase-shift in the oeuvre. Some might argue that the strain of Romanticism is old-fashioned, obsolete, even – but the sentimentalism that dogged his early verse is nigh-eradicated in the latter, although some of the impulse/superficial markers remain; is now metamorphosized into a deeper, mystical (i.e. ambiguous) perspective.
Here is a piece written on the evening before the Sonnets, in full, came to him:
…When will, when will, when will it have reached saturation,
this praising and lamentation? Has not all incantation
in human words been decanted by master-magicians? O vanity
of further experimentation! Is not humanity
battered by books as though by continual bells?
Perceiving, between two books, the silent heavens, or else,
a segment of simple earth in evening light, rejoice!
Louder than storms, than oceans, the human voice
has cried…What infinite overbalance of stillness
there must be in cosmic space, since the grasshopper’s shrillness
stayed audible over our cries, and the stars appear
silently there in the aether above our shrieking!
Would that our farthest, old and oldest fathers were speaking!
And we: hearers at last! The first of all men to hear.
(transl. J.B. Leishman)
Then, the day after, he heard.
Many poets strike the pose Rilke strikes – that of mystically-oriented lyricism – but miss the subtleties, the strange turn-of-phrase that invigorates even his smallest poems. Just the choice of “decanted” offers a number of interpretations: the traditional definition means gradually pouring a liquid from one vessel into another, but one could also read it as “de-cant” (as in hypocritical and sanctimonious talk) which casts these master-magicians in an odder light. “Is not humanity / battered by books as though by continual bells?” and its following lines are mysterious, as well as beautifully phrased, and “infinite overbalance” is majestically paradoxical.
In fourteen lines, Rilke is able to depict a sense of universal expansiveness (and humanity’s place in it) while not coming across as technically ungainly. Notice that there isn’t any definite bent pro or con anything in particular – there seems to be a call to rejoice, and the human voice is magnified in power above storms and oceans, but in the end of the fourth stanza seems denigrated to “shrieking.” Beyond that, there’s a description of connectivity across time/space, and the overabundance of stillness in the cosmos that might allow this connection to take place. We would hear, yes, but what would our fathers have to say to us, exactly? Wisely, Rilke goes no further than to let the matter resound in the reader’s mind.
Here’s a sonnet from the thematic material of the Sonnets to Orpheus, one that speaks as accurately to this era as it did to Rilke’s:
Newness, O my friends, has not begun
with the hand’s being ousted by machinery.
Don’t let us be confused by change of scenery:
those who praised the ‘New’ will soon have done.
For the Whole is infinitely newer
than a cable or a tall façade.
Look, the ancient stellar fires endure,
while the newer fires begin to fade.
Don’t suppose our longest power-transmissions
are generating for us what’s to be.
Aeons have determined our conditions.
Much has happened that we could not see.
And the future will be nothing less
than the flowering of our inwardness.
(transl. J.B. Leishman)
In this age of technocratic revolution, with humanity, some say, in the preliminary stages of inevitable incorporation into some Singularity, there is much talk about how the species will evolve (or has already evolved) into a higher stage of being, influenced as we are by the dominance of AI and algorithm-driven processing. The hyper-efficiencies generated by these strings of data will, supposedly, chip away at human ills, while whatever we have become luxuriates in the pragmatically Protopian state it has, more or less, successfully automated.
Neat. Or horrifying, depending on your principles. But for all the hubbub, where’s the human, really? Specifically, what will all this technological innovation mean for how human beings understand themselves – and the art human beings create? Rainer Maria Rilke, from the early 20th century, perceived the limitations of “machinery” (although he could not predict the digital morass we’re subsumed in now) and knew that no matter how efficient/convenient/easier these new gadgets and algorithms make life for us, what truly jumpstarts creation, and awareness, is the metamorphoses of the interior self – or the soul, as Rilke might call it.
But this isn’t a process we are in total control of, nor are we necessarily conscious of our deepest motives. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the last two stanzas sheds additional light on this:
Not even the longest, strongest of transmissions
can turn the wheels of what will be.
Across the moment, aeons speak with aeons.
More than what we experienced has gone by.
And the future holds the most remote event
in union with what we most deeply want.
Something else (perhaps what allows those “ancient stellar fires” to perdure, and the aeons to communicate with each other) seems to be arranging things in concert with our wishes – unbeknownst to us. Destiny, or a semblance of it, for Rilke, still plays a central role in our affairs, and its major concern is with the human self, not the tools that humans devise for themselves.
The core of this poem reminds me of an essay Alex Sheremet wrote in 2014, about obsoletion and progress (through the lens of learning Latin), and his claim that as civilization moves forward, “there will be no more place to go but inward – truly, the ‘final frontier’, for while outer space is uniform, predictable, and rote, art isn’t, for it’s deeper, and far more nuanced communication is now at a geometric ascent because of such.”
As our territories, and pleasures, expand, inwardness must flower, or there can be no real insight into the growing gallery of experience. Rilke understood the primacy of this and instilled that understanding into his art.
This last one, where Rilke writes around the “it” of the poem and barely specifies, allowing the reader to spin their own connections:
Some find it like wine, assuming the gleam of glasses
glowingly into its own interior light;
others inhale it like scent of flowering grasses,
or it vanishes from them in startled, uncatchable flight.
For many it purges their hearing, intensifying
every response a clarified earth can arouse.
Let no one slight it, in spite of apparent denying,
who has caught no more than a glimpse of the house;
or the door, perhaps, or the suddenly decorated
porch, or only that final bend where a sign
points straight on to the ever-illuminated
welcoming house, where, with food and wine,
hearts grow strong and sure, and are what they really intended,
when they longed for day and for some receipt,
upbeating from slowly, wakefully, weepingly ended
nights at last with a terrifying beat.
For even those that have only longed have related
Themselves to the whole with webs too fine to observe;
round their refulgent hearts have rotated
worlds of night in a consummate curve.
(transl. J.B. Leishman)
The subject matter, here, dares cliché, what with all the “flowering grasses” and “weepingly ended / nights” and “refulgent hearts.” Perhaps these more saccharine qualities drag the poem back from unmistakable greatness, but the ending rounds out in, again, mystery: the wholeness Rilke describes is left for the reader to imbue into, and the final line lends an ambiguity to everything that’s come before. “Worlds of night” darkens the penultimate line’s luminosity, and actually complements the idea of wholeness, as there must be some counterbalance to the heart’s refulgence – in the same way that the fourth stanza’s daytime solace, and confirmation that one has paid the price (some “receipt”), is necessitated by the previous evening’s agon. What connects these events/emotions to each other is given no other label save for “consummate” – perfectly designed, as it should be, etc.
Even in one of Rilke’s merely solid/good poems, the range is impressive: the opening/closing of mystic evasiveness bookend straightforward, somewhat prosaic narration, but the lyrical flow never really lags. And this is the Rilke – not the deadbeat dad, the lackluster employee – that survived the century, Hydras bedamned, and lingers still, offering bounties to the reader, if only they would simply comport themselves to what’s being said, how it’s being said, for there is much to be gained in such acceptance:
Meaningful word, ‘inclination’! Would we were aware of
it everywhere, not just in hearts where we think it’s concealed!
That of a hill, when it slowly, with gathering share of
growth, inclines to the welcoming field:
let what we are by increasing of that be exceeded;
let but the small bird’s liberal flight
gift us with heart-space, making a future unneeded!
All is abundance. Oh, there was quite
enough even then when Childhood was almost defeated
with endless existence. Life had poured
more than sufficient. How could we ever be cheated,
ever betrayed, we with every reward
(transl. J.B. Leishman)
* * *
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More from Ezekiel Yu: Gathering Storm: On John Sayles’s “Matewan” (1987), All Sweet Things: On Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” (1990), The Spirits Drawn Down: On Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading”