There can be few poets in the whole of European literature whose lives were so single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of poetry as was the life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Poetry was the centre and margin, ‘the field and hedgerows’, of his existence. The men whose friendships he cherished, the host of women admirers and aristocratic protectors he met and corresponded with, the women who were or may have been his mistresses, even the children he enchanted with his stories – all these form a network of intimate relationships stretching across almost the entire Continent and centred on the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy, whose decay, collapse and aftermath he witnessed. This network – the 115 women mentioned in some detail in Wolfgang Leppmann’s biography by no means exhaust those listed in Rilke’s own address-book – made his life and poetry possible when, for the last time in the history of Europe, social and economic circumstances permitted the freedom from routine, institution and permanent attachment which he needed, without his having to pay the price of squalor and anarchy in return. What gives meaning to the volumes of notes and letters, dedications, memoirs and inscriptions in which all these relationships are preserved is Rilke’s preoccupation, not with himself, but with his poetry. His immense correspondence, J.F. Hendry writes, was ‘vital to his poetry in the way that reviews, essays and lectures are to other poets’ (though the essays, reviews and lectures that he did write fill a sizeable volume). Despairing confessions of failure, self-exhortations to patience, the jubilant acknowledgment of gifts of poems – all set down in the poet’s exquisite round hand (the hand he adopted at the same time as he Germanised his name from René to Rainer, in 1897): these form the substance of poems and letters alike. Here is an example from a letter to ‘Benvenuta’ (15 February 1914), recalling his encounter with Eleonora Duse: ‘but there was so much that was doomed in each of us – piling it up together we ended by standing on top of it as on a pyre that has been raised night and day, in air that was pure but lifeless, and though we did not say so to each other, yet neither of us could imagine any future except perhaps that God might finally set light to this foundation that crackled with misery and destroy us and himself in the flames’. More than fifteen years later the pyre on which the self is destroyed became the central image of the last poem Rilke ever wrote.
Yet Rilke’s letters don’t make for easy reading, and trying to say why is one way of coming close to the core of his poetry. The letters are colourful, varied, rich in metaphor, and full of surprising turns: yet they lack the spontaneity and informality for which we treasure the letters of great poets. At their most characteristic, they guide their readers from the event described to the poetry occasioned by the event. At the same time, they are informed by an uncanny empathy – Rilke hyphens the word, ‘Ein-Fühlung’, as he does so many others, to slow down one’s reading of it – even with correspondents whom he didn’t personally know. Addressed so often to men and women in their ardent privacy, the letters, paraphrasing or enlarging on the poetry, give public authority to the poet’s interpretation of it: they are least personal where they are most intense; and yet, like the poems themselves, they display the writer’s eerie ability to enter another life, to appropriate a distant, apparently unknown landscape. Such letters make us revise our notions of the boundary between the known and the unknown, between poetry and life; merging that landscape’s natural, cultural and emotional features into one, the letter-writer gives it a meaning for his distant reader by relating it to what prompted the correspondence in the first place – his own poetic undertaking. But Rilke’s epistolary disclosures not only introduce, explain and comment on the poetry – they are almost a part of it: hence our embarrassment as readers of statements couched, after all, in prose, the prose of a poetics conveyed through ornate, occasionally extravagant metaphor.
Some of the letters commend a ‘prophetic’ reading of the poetry. They ask us to accept certain poems as religious, or metaphysical, or, a hostile critic is bound to say, ideological precepts. Yet we know that the poetry challenges and contradicts such a reading – if only because any normative statements the poems may contain (such as the famous line, from ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: ‘Du musst dein Leben ändern’, ‘You must change your life’) are absorbed by the figurative context which gave birth to them. The poems contain no substitutes for religious belief. On the contrary: they challenge and interpret – make a literary issue of – such belief, or the lack of it, as only the greatest works of modern literature do. For where they invite belief they simultaneously undermine it, saying ‘What would it be like, what would it mean, to believe in ... ?’
The objects of such belief are open to view in the poetry. Like several of his contemporaries, including Valéry, Yeats and Eliot, Rilke is a modern poet in search of a myth, while aware that the ancient myths have been reduced to potsherds and that new ones look like ersatz (what he was not aware of was that contemporary politicians, too, would be interested in the revival of mythology, for different reasons). Any reader who is not prepared to follow him into this paradox is likely to wonder at the urgency of the poetic voice engaged on this mythopoeic task: in rejecting its urgency, he will be rejecting the poetry itself.
The high style of Rilke’s correspondence has sometimes been taken as proof that the poetic oeuvre won’t survive translation into prose, and that it is therefore inauthentic. On the contrary: what it proves is that for Rilke the poetry alone matters, and that he merely fails to develop a critical idiom consistently different from his poetry. His refusal to read any criticism of his own writings, which Leppmann likens to his refusal to have himself psychoanalysed, is not to be seen as a categorical rejection of all rational-analytical procedures, but as a sign of his determination to choose for himself the appropriate kind of analytical and explanatory vocabulary and the right occasions for using it. Unlike most modern writers on aesthetic subjects, Rilke feels no need to place a critical distance between his chosen topic and himself. His essays on the art of the Worpswede colony of painters and sculptors (of which his wife, Clara Westhoff, was a member), on Rodin and on Cézanne are ways of presenting ‘the things’ seen by these artists, and of showing how their vision is transformed into art. What the essays make clear is that there were in his mind no breaks between analysis, description and creation – or rather, that only that kind of analytical and descriptive procedure was acceptable which leads directly to the art itself. His essays are a progress toward his own poetic achievement, and this is also true of the only novel he completed, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), often regarded as the first novel of ‘the Modern Movement’. It is really a collection of astonishingly vivid prose sketches, held together, not by the traditional novelist’s continuities of character development and action, let alone by anything resembling a plot, but by a pattern of moods extending over a variety of scenes, encounters and anecdotes – in short, sketches for as yet unwritten poems.
J.F. Hendry, himself a poet, has written a short biography Rilke would have liked. Perhaps because he is intent on avoiding that air of exaltation which surrounds even some of Rilke’s prosy statements (as when he complains to a correspondent that four or five public readings in a year have culpably expended and externalised the poetic treasure within), Hendry avoids all that is ornate or speculative, indeed all suspicion of ‘style’. In the course of giving a sympathetic account of the main events of Rilke’s life, he emphasises the conscious, ‘punctilious’ way in which Rilke planned and contrived his exits and entrances: yet for all its sobriety, Hendry’s book manages to convey something of that aura of mystery which Rilke liked to preserve even in contacts with his closest friends and family.
Several biographies (including that of Wolfgang Leppmann, who takes his cue in this respect from Peter Demetz’s study of 1953) have made much of the young René Rilke’s Pre-Raphaelite affectations, his appearances in an abbé’s black habit on the Prague corso, giving away ‘to the poor’ copies of his first collection of poems; and it is a commonplace of this part of his biography that he was determined to write poetry and to be a poet long before he had anything to say. But this is only another way of acknowledging that from early on he had an uncommonly clear idea of what it was that would validate the sufferings of his childhood and early adolescence, which included several false starts and a grotesquely misguided maternal influence, as well as traumatic periods in military academies. And if, as has often been said, these deprivations may well have been greater in literary retrospect than while he underwent them, then in this redaction, too, we must see a sign of the conscious and purposeful way he fashioned the details of his life into the image of the poet, for the sake of the poetry.
If such unabating consciousness and obsession with ‘the task’ give him the appearance of a strenuous companion, his gentleness of manner and immense charm, attested by every friend and acquaintance, soften the outlines of the portrait; and again, both the strenuousness and the charm of the poet whom Erich Heller called ‘the St Francis of the Will to Power’ are reflected in his poetry. No contemporary names occur in it, yet the people he met make up a name-dropper’s paradise. To one side of the inhabitants of the Almanach de Gotha, they included Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and the Pasternak family, Ellen Key and Klara Liebknecht, Paula Modersohn-Becker, the young Balthus and his mother, Baladine Klossowska (with whom, though she came from Breslau, he corresponded in French), Lord Kitchener and Walther Rathenau, Alexander Zaharov and Marianne Mitford, Gerhart Hauptmann, Hofmannsthal and Heinrich Mann, the philosopher Georg Simmel and the philosophical essayist Rudolf Kassner, as well as Gide and Valéry (both of whom he translated into German), Claudel, Cocteau and George Bernard Shaw. Of his contacts with the public figures of his age Leppmann writes: ‘In their ambience he was one of the few people who represented no personal or party interests; who sought no diplomatic, military or economic information and no stock-exchange tips, but confined himself to the role of a good listener whose discretion and integrity were undoubted.’
Even now, with some twenty volumes of letters published, the documentation of Rilke’s restless life remains incomplete, and Leppmann’s detailed and painstaking biography leaves us in the dark about several encounters, journeys and love affairs. (Over Rilke’s relationship with Karl Kraus as his rival in love the author draws a veil.) It is unlikely, though, that further publications from the archives will change the general picture of one who, like Nietzsche, was for ever on the move, for ever in search of the right conditions – again, like Nietzsche, the right kind of solitude – in which to accomplish what he knew to be his task. What made these moves possible, was neither sheer luck nor expediency, but his faith in a sort of Nietzschean amor fati; and this faith, which made him entrust his vulnerable existence to whatever chance encounter came his way, led him, in the close-knit upperclass society of Europe before the Great War and in Switzerland – a miniature Europe for a few years after that war – to accept invitations and patronage (which included a large anonymous gift from Wittgenstein), with no other resources to fall back on. Given the catastrophic state of the Reichsmark in the early Twenties, when Rilke was in Switzerland, the royalties he received from Kippenberg’s Insel Verlag were not enough to live on, even though a permanent home, the tiny 13th-century ‘castle’ of Muzot in the Rhone valley, was purchased for him by a friend, a Swiss India merchant. But he bestowed gifts as well as receiving them. Conversations (preferably in French), fair copies of old poems and dedications of new ones (many of them built round a few words from a poem sent to him or from a conversation remembered), letters and yet more letters – these were the currency in which he repaid the many invitations and acts of assistance, unobtrusive and unasked for.
Yet there were times in Rilke’s life when all those contacts failed him and he experienced the desolation of his self-chosen exile. He never met Franz Kafka, his contemporary and fellow-countryman, who is often seen as the patron saint of modern alienation. But even Kafka can hardly have felt more solitary than Rilke, the stateless ‘German’, the contents of his pre-war Paris flat sold at auction, a man without passport or money, trying to secure Czechoslovak citizenship and a residence permit in the xenophobic Switzerland of the early Twenties. But the exuberant, triumphant moments of achievement which Rilke experienced were something Kafka never knew.
His willingness to break the closest of ties – of family, friendship and love – for the sake of his idea of work and ‘achievement’ is commented on without censoriousness by both Hendry and Leppmann, even though they acknowledge that it involved much suffering all around. Clearly the poet was better at describing and commending to his wife and daughter ‘a house of the heart’, ‘a real house without visible signs’, than at taking out a mortgage on a piece of rateable property. Hendry admires the poetic project too much to worry about the sacrifices its pursuit entailed, while Leppmann’s main concern is to distinguish between the ‘authentic’ Rilke and the poetic pose. It is not their abstention from moral judgment that is at fault here, but the fact that neither seems sufficiently aware of the extent to which deprivation and suffering – seen most clearly in his search for and fear of solitude – are made thematic in the work: but then neither book is illuminating as a critical introduction to the poetry or as a systematic interpretation of it. Both contain remarks, some good, some indifferent, about individual poems, but the ‘contour’ of the poetry, the ‘line’ Rilke sought to trace, is not set out.
Mr Hendry serves the poetry by evoking something of Rilke’s world of private relations, its celebration of ardent feeling and inwardness, and identification of this ardour with creativeness. This world is largely alien to us, yet Mr Hendry proceeds, uncontentiously and mainly by way of extensive quotations, as though it were wholly familiar. This works reasonably well throughout those sections of the book in which his discussion of the poetry is subordinated to the story of Rilke’s life: but the method breaks down in the concluding chapter, ‘Affirmations’, which contains Hendry’s observations on the Duino Elegies – observations which occasionally read as mere paraphrases of the cycle’s main scenes and images. His translations are no advance on the work of his predecessors, and here especially one misses Leishman and Spender’s. How different this world is from ours may be seen in the comprehensive collection of photographs assembled by Ingeborg Schnack. Some of the faces portrayed have a gravitas and spirituality that would be difficult to match today, though the melancholy haze that lies on many of the landscapes is due to poor printing.
Wolfgang Leppmann – a genial German-American professor from Oregon – works on an altogether larger canvas. He is deeply familiar with the historical and cultural background, the fashions, proprieties and social attitudes, as well as the state of German poetry and European literature around 1900, the time when Rilke at last entered the literary scene with work which he would not eventually wish to repudiate. The fine detail of the biographical reconstruction, the energetic way in which past scenes are evoked, hosts of ladies patiently exhumed, subtle psychological continuities pursued, is all the more remarkable since Leppmann hasn’t much by way of antecedents to draw on: the art of biography has few outstanding examples in German. There are some flaws in his telling of the story. Sputniks, beatniks and the firing-order of pistons are intended to drive home the up-to-date relevance of a poem; occasional clichés and crudities of phrase disrupt passages rich in historical and psychological insight – the author, it becomes clear, is not always at ease in the presence of his subject. For what these turns suggest are moments of authorial embarrassment at having to put before us, in our day and age, a world so alien, so full of feeling, ardour, inwardness ... Yet this is a richly grounded human portrait.
Instead of repeating the conventional tale of the unworldly poet who lived wholly in the realm of his private imagination, he emphasises all the occasions when Rilke concerned himself with some public event of the day. We are given full accounts of Rilke’s articles and letters to the newspapers on behalf of such causes as homosexuality, women’s rights, and the rights of the poor before cynical judges. Leppmann discusses his anti-Austrian sentiments before and after 1914, and his sympathies for the abortive revolution of 1918-19: but he also gives full weight to the poet’s deep ‘Austrian’ distaste for everything ‘typically German’, especially for public life in the early days of the Weimar Republic. We read of Rilke’s admiration for T.G. Masaryk, the founder-president of Czechoslovakia, whose citizen he eventually became; of the forebodings he felt at the murder of Rathenau in June 1922; and, a year before his death, of his belief (shared by Sigmund Freud) that Mussolini, and strong leaders generally, offered the remedy for Europe’s ailments. Lepmann’s main sources here, especially for the period after 1918, are Joachim Storck’s valiant efforts to present the image of a poet with a social and political conscience. One sympathises with Storck’s intention, only to find Rilke at the end of his life writing, in the spirit of his Catholic childhood, that no man’s material circumstances should be changed or ‘improved’ since ‘no man’s condition in the world is such that it might not be of peculiar benefit to his soul.’
None of Rilke’s political responses to that feverish, agitated era, including his exaltation at the outbreak of war, is in itself remarkable; except that, as Leppmann observes, in contrast with the effusions of almost all his literary contemporaries, Rilke’s Five Odes: August 1914 are free from the least taint of nationalistic or xenophobic sentiment. But Rilke’s intermittent concern with political and social issues is important, in the same way as are his journeys to places as far apart as Moscow, Stockholm, Toledo and the upper reaches of the Nile, including every major city in between, and all those contacts with countless contemporaries, humble and eminent alike. He came to an understanding of the age he lived in, and re-created it in his poetry – an understanding which was not merely ‘sensitive’ but acute and accurate, and one with which critics don’t often credit him. Leppmann’s skill and enterprise in assembling and setting out all the material that went into this understanding are not matched by what he has to say about the poetry that reflects and occasionally belies it. Having adopted the role of the bluff and philosophically incurious Anglo-Saxon biographer, he is hardly in a position to throw much light on Rilke the metaphysical and – after all – German poet.
For there is, if not a Weltanschauung, yet a Rilkean world-picture of considerable consistency. The various critical studies in which it has been set out, from Romano Guardini to Eudo Mason, Erich Heller, Jacob Steiner and Ulrich Fülleborn, differ widely in the aspects of the poetry they discuss and in their evaluations, yet they show a good deal of agreement in their overall interpretation. Ignoring all these studies, Leppmann refuses to enter the lists with a comprehensive interpretation of his own: and so, like Hendry’s, his observations on the Elegies, as opposed to his illuminating descriptions of their genealogy, are disappointing. He gives us a day-by-day account of that mensis mirabilis of February 1922 at Muzot, when the Elegies were completed and the Sonnets to Orpheus as well as several other poems written, to the accompaniment, as always, of countless letters, notes and telegrams: a month which shows the poet in the fervour of an inspiration that has perhaps no equal in the annals of modern poetry.
From the ‘Orpheus, Eurydike, Hermes’ poem of Neue Gedichte (1907), through the ten bitter years (which include the emotionally paralysing years of the Great War) during which he was waiting to complete the cycle begun at the castle of Duino on the Adriatic, to the poems of the last four years which follow the Muzot experience, and which include two collections of French verse, Rilke wrought those astonishing mythical creations in which most critics have seen the consummation of his poetry. To one side of the ‘War God’ of the odes of 1914 and the phallic god of ‘Sieben Gedichte’ of 1915, these creations include ‘the Angels’, ‘the Lovers’, ‘the Young Dead’ and Picasso’s travelling artistes, ‘the Saltimbanques’, of the Elegies; ‘the Rose’, which has its place in his poetry at all times; and ‘the poem’ (‘Gedicht’, ‘Gesang’, ‘Rühmen’) as a vessel and emblem of the creative impulse. These mythic creations culminate in the tenth and last Elegy, in which the figure of ‘Lament’ re-enacts a Dantesque journey and at the end of it names ‘the new constellations’ in the sky beyond the last horizon – ‘the Rider’, ‘the Staff, and that fuller constellation they call Fruitgarland ... ’ – and in naming them celebrates the mythopoeic process itself.
But why speak of myths, why not simply of images, or symbols, or poetic figures? Rilke’s poetry is not the expression of a philosophia perennis: the vision it contains is profoundly historical. It belongs to the modern age, Rilke’s era at the threshold of ours. From one of the foundation documents of this era, The Birth of Tragedy of 1872, which Rilke copiously annotated, he takes over Nietzsche’s historicist belief (itself part of the heritage of German Romanticism) that no sustaining culture and no valid art are possible without a living mythology. Nietzsche follows up this insight with a fireworks of rhetorics – enter, and eventually exit, Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Rilke, on the other hand, is compelled to face in his own creative work the paradox inherent in the deliberate making of a modern mythology: he acknowledges the difficulty of inventing consciously what was once the spontaneous, inspired incarnation of commonly valid religious beliefs, values and rituals. And so he sets out on his task of creating those figures, actions and ‘things’ which would embody, not indeed new beliefs and values, but the predicament of men in an age of transition and of search for these values and beliefs. Strenuousness and inward ardour – hallmarks of the modern poetic process – are more than optional attributes: they belong to the essence of his poetry.
Rilke’s ‘myths’, then, are anything but uncontentiously given. In an outstandingly interesting discussion the Swiss critic Beda Allemann has designated them ‘Paramythien’, the term by which J.G. Herder in a note of 1791 had sought to distinguish the inventions of modern poets from ancient myths proper. In Rilke’s work, though not necessarily in that of other 20th-century poets, these ‘paramythiai’ have, or aspire to, three properties. First, they originate in that paradoxical situation in which conscious and deliberate poetic invention takes the place of anonymous and immemorial generation. Secondly, a private poetic invention, they aspire to public reception as aesthetic, not religious objects; at worst, they serve as the content of an aesthetic religiosity. They don’t provide a foundation for religious belief, nor do they constitute it: instead, they question and interpret it – they thematise it. Finally, they resemble ancient myths because they are fashioned after them; to understand them is to know their Classical, Christian or, in the case of Rilke’s ‘Angels’, their Islamic counterparts. They offer reinter-pretations of old beliefs in the spirit of our age – an age at the ‘torpid turn of the world’, when the objects of our experience, ‘things we can live with are falling away, for that/which is oustingly taking their place is an imageless act.’
These attributes have their equivalents in terms of Rilke’s linguistic resources. The language of his mature poetry does not aim at the anonymity of folk poetry, as does Goethe’s and Heine’s (and that of all too many of Rilke’s fellow poets). On the contrary, his diction displays, sometimes to the point of preciosity, its character of artifact. Whatever its flaws, it is of its time, free from nostalgic archaisms. Furthermore, Rilke is not a mystical poet. Words like ‘indescribable’, ‘unsayable’ are in his poetry descriptive terms which draw, each time anew, the movable boundary around what can be poetically said. Nor is he an esoteric poet: his meanings are often withheld for a while, and then they overwhelm us with startling clarity. Moreover, while he has no ‘language of his own’ or ‘private language’ (no poet has that), his diction often deviates from common discourse, sometimes subtly and imperceptibly, at other times in defiant assertion. There are biographical reasons for this. While his ready variations on the figures of Classical mythology reflect his unsystematic, ad hoc acquisition of Classical learning, his linguistic mutations reveal his critical and problematic attitude to contemporary German usage. He imposes them on us by an act of the creative will, and we establish their meanings by assembling the reasons for their deviation from the norm. Similar variations enrich his use of metric forms: in the allusions of his vers libéré to the Classical elegiac distich, and in the charming and ingenious games he plays with the sonnet form. Each time the effect depends on our appreciation of the difference between his poem and the poetic kind to which it belongs.
‘Paramythia’, as Herder pointed out, means not only ‘alternative myth’ but also ‘consolation’, ‘encouragement’, ‘Zuspruch und Trost’. This meaning lies at the heart of Rilke’s mythology and thus of the greater part of his poetic undertaking; we may give it our assent without indulging in the quasi-religious expectations of the Rilkean disciples and evangelists, who in any event are thin on the ground now. Nor should we give up our critical attitude toward this undertaking: having been treated to the spectacle of some pretty peculiar myths in the political sphere, we have a sharper eye than did his contemporaries for those of his consolations which court bathos. It cannot be of service to his poetry to defend the indefensible. Yet when the tinsel is removed, abundant treasures are left. Exalting the transformation of the world into ‘the realm of the invisible’, he seeks to endow the world with the fervour he believes it once possessed and which is now to be found in poetic creativeness; and the poetic, for Rilke, is the paradigm of the human.
But the mythopoeic imagination aims higher still. It is intended to guide us, now by a sudden movement, now again by imperceptible transitions, on a journey to a ‘reality’ which is at first connected with, and at last leads beyond, our world, to the realm of ‘the unsayable’ and metaphysical. And in spite of Rilke’s avowals to the contrary (as when he speaks of ‘my rabid anti-Christianity’), a last vestige of a Christian meaning clings to his account of this journey. It leads to the homeland of his mystical figures, the land in which they have their being and may perhaps be redeemed from the strenuousness of their poetic incarnation. And again, the poetic stands as an emblem of the human when it is least distracted from its given purpose. The human and the metaphysical worlds are continuous, connected by the necessary resemblance they bear to each other.
This world picture is, as I have said, steeped in its historicity. Rilke’s is the first generation of poets and writers for whom the notion of ‘reality’ and our attitude toward it become problematic and literary. Never before had Wirklichkeit played such an important role in literature as well as in common discourse, never before had its meanings been so radically polarised, and never before had it been the embodiment of everything that is most difficult of attainment. ‘Reality’ is the supreme paramythia, the name he gives to the last all-encompassing myth of them all.
But is to say all this not to lose sight of the poetry? Where so much emphasis is laid on difficulty of attainment – ‘das Schwere zu leisten ... ’ – a particular need arises for harmony, euphony, lightness of touch and abundant play of imagery. This has always been Rilke’s strength: if evidence of his gift to supply this need is wanted, it is in the poetry of those early years when ‘he hadn’t yet anything to say’ and turned out ornamental verse with unparalleled facility. (Indeed, so strong is this gift that even his occasional attempts to free himself from rhyme and rhythm seem of their own accord to suggest wrought form, as in the stylised letters mentioned earlier.) A hostile critic who ignores the poet’s development as a biographical irrelevance will condemn the tropes of the mature poetry too as mere ornament; or, conversely, he will claim that instead of being the bearers of poetic intention, they are allowed to dominate a given poem’s meaning, ‘tropic’ luxuriance determining a pretentiously ‘prophetic’ vision.
At the opposite end of critical sophistication from Hendry’s and Leppmann’s biographies lies Paul de Man’s essay on Rilke’s Tropes’ in Allegories of Reading (1979). However hostile de Man may be to Rilke’s poetry – the essay is more an exercise in debunking than in ‘deconstruction’ – he has no difficulty in identifying the centre of it, Rilke’s search for ‘reality’: ‘A too easily granted promise would be suspect and would not convince, but a promise of salvation that could only be deserved by endless labour and sacrifice, in suffering, renunciation and death, is a different matter. One can begin to understand Rilke’s poetry only if one is willing to entertain this conviction.’ The promise, de Man argues, is never redeemed. Indeed it cannot be redeemed because the poetry is excessively ‘phonocentric’: that is, too much preoccupied with itself, too ready to allow phonic harmonies (assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia), tropes (metaphors, chiasmus) and ‘rhetoric’, in the sense both of organised tropes and illegitimate suasion, to act as a validation of the promise. To be fair, having accused Rilke of ‘logocentricity’, he then accuses him of abandoning it. And Mr de Man adds for good measure, while reluctant to take his argument further, that it is a paradox ‘inherent in all literature’ that ‘the poetry gains a maximum of convincing power at the very moment that it abdicates any claim to truth.’ Does he mean that the more poetic the poetry, the more it lies? Though Plato and Tolstoy held something like this view, it is hard to see how a literary critic can share it.
The claim of ‘phonocentricity’ is based on analyses of a few distinctly minor early poems, which are then treated as though they were not significantly different from Rilke’s mature poetry. But ‘the priority of the phonic element’, which de Man condemns in Das Buch der Bilder of 1902, does not ‘dominate the work until the end’, and to claim that it does is to ignore one of the most attractive aspects of Rilke’s poetic career – his defiance of routine, his seemingly endless capacity for new beginnings. Rilke’s poems are preoccupied with poetry, and its status in a world bereft of meaningful images and imagination, with poetry’s power to create meanings, and with the limits of that power. There are poems whose images are fashioned into accounts of poetic discourse, and others whose message is entrusted to euphonic and visual tropes which take them to unexpected and paradoxical conclusions. But this is not, as it is for de Man, the end of the argument.
The sharpest of the critic’s barbs are aimed at ‘a void’ or ‘lack’ at the centre of Rilke’s poetry. Its ‘figurative’ and ‘referential’ aspects are said to cancel each other out, the ‘promise of salvation’ is said to remain unfulfilled. As to that ‘promise of salvation’, Mr de Man may well be right: Rilke himself would certainly not wish to claim that he had fulfilled it – he neither founds a religion nor offers a doctrine of salvation. The affirmations to which the logic of his figures leads us are tentative, but even when they end on a firm or jubilant note, they are followed by a coda in a different key, offering a gentle alternative:
And yet, were they waking a symbol within us, the endlessly dead,
look, they’d be pointing, perhaps, to the catkins, hanging
from empty hazels, or else they’d be meaning the rain
that falls on the dark earth in the early Spring.
And we, who have always thought
of happiness rising, would feel
the emotion that almost startles
when happiness falls.
The conditional mode should not be lost on us, as it is on de Man: the poet ‘gives us possibilities of being, and that’s enough.’
Rilke’s verse, de Man argues, is governed by ‘the priority of lexis over logos’, of ornament over meaning and truth, whereas, reading it as poetry, we conclude that the work is governed by the poet’s unabating endeavour to unite lexis with logos, poetry with truth. This endeavour is not always successful – there are poems invoking humanly impossible situations. But no man knew better than Rilke that the poet’s task is never completed. To those who are either assured in the possession of a faith, or to those who don’t care either way, he hasn’t much to say; they will be embarrassed by his exaltation and ardour. The rest will find in his greatest poems, as in all metaphysical poetry, lament for what has been lost and intimations of richer being.