We have all kinds of images of the modern poet, little mythologies made out of snatches of the life and work and reputation. The figure is hieratic and austere, like Mallarmé and Valéry, inward and intricate like Eliot and Pessoa, serenely eccentric like Marianne Moore, public and overflowing like Neruda and Pound.
One of the strangest and most tantalising of these images is that of Yeats, both worldly and spiritualist, silly like us, as Auden said (sillier, some would say), and yet wonderfully hard-headed. But there can’t be a weirder or more unmanageable image than that of Rilke, the social and emotional butterfly, dreamy, hysterical, devoted to angels and children and the lure of death, perpetually stranded, it seems, in some angular Art Nouveau twilight, and yet capable of the sternest, strongest lines, mingling drastic common sense (‘You must change your life’) with stuff which can strike the terror of God into the most settled atheist heart.
Because the beautiful is nothing
other than the beginning of the terrible, which we can scarcely bear,
and we marvel at it, because it calmly refuses
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
First Duino Elegy, my translation
There is also the effect of simplicity in extreme difficulty, the tone of one who has found advice in a place where the very idea of advice seems dead:
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.
Be forever dead in Eurydice ...
Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 13,
Stephen Mitchell’s translation
Rilke was born into an ambitious but failing family in German-speaking Prague in 1875. His first given name was René, which he changed to Rainer when he met the extravagant Lou Andreas-Salomé. Before that he had unhappily attended a couple of military schools and gestured towards university studies in Prague and Munich, but he seems to have inaugurated very early on what was to be his erratic and earnest literary life. He wrote and talked furiously, courted great men, travelled: to Russia, Egypt, Spain. One of the many pleasures of Ralph Freedman’s patient biography is the sight of Rainer and Lou, enormous Russophiles, visiting the disappointing country of their dream. The trip included what Freedman calls a ‘famous non-visit’ to Tolstoy. Tolstoy had met them before, but barely remembered either of them, and scarcely spoke to them now. Later in life Rilke wasn’t sure he ought to meet Gorky because the fellow was a socialist, and offered the opinion that ‘a Russian is as suitable for revolution as a cambric handkerchief for mopping up ink.’ This in 1907. In 1919, in tune with the times, Rilke was a supporter of the Russian Revolution and the short-lived Bavarian Republic, and a few years later he was admiring Mussolini (‘What soaring language, and not only in literature but in public life!’). Freedman says ‘Rilke’s perception of political life was essentially literary, but that’s putting it mildly.
Rilke lived in Berlin, then in an artists’ colony near Bremen, where he met and married the sculptor Clara Westhoff. They had a daughter, Ruth, often abandoned to her grandparents, and pretty much entirely abandoned by her father. The marriage itself seems to have been only a kind of long-distance friendship, although the couple never divorced. Throughout his life Rilke had short-lived affairs with other women, intense, literary and dominated by the word ‘soul’. Rilke moved to Paris, became Rodin’s secretary for a while, acquired more and more aristocratic patrons, who were delighted to have him for long spells as an honoured guest in various villas and châteaux, on Capri, in Sweden, Germany, Austria, France. The patron of the Duino Elegies, said on the title-page to be their owner, was the Princess Marie von Thurn and Taxis-Hohenlohe, mistress of the castle at Duino on the Adriatic. Rilke spent the years of the First World War back in Munich, then settled, as far as he ever settled, in Muzot in the Swiss Valais. He died in Switzerland in 1926, and was buried in the cemetery at Raron.
Rilke appears in Freedman’s account as unspeakably phoney in everything except his writing, snobbish, evasive, preachy and calculating as only the unworldly are. Freedman is too generous to put it this way, although he does at one point speak of ‘oily didacticism’, but he keeps the problem firmly in sight, and the general) mildness of his language often amounts to an indictment. Clara survived Rilke by almost thirty years, Freedman tells us, and ‘Ruth, often neglected and sometimes unloved, dedicated her life to his memory ... She died, by suicide, in 1972.’ ‘Sometimes unloved’ is devastating; as is that dedicated life, and that death.
The biography starts in a rather fuzzy manner, as if the writer couldn’t get his prose into focus, or as if the copy editor had started work and got lost. There are all kinds of slips of tone and logic. ‘Life progressed inexorably in the honeymoon homestead’; ‘Paris had been a bust’; ‘Rilke knew he was headed for a showdown with his own powers of inspiration.’ We hear about the suicide of an uncle, ‘whom the child Rilke loved well, because he could not bear being still a captain at 51’. That sounds like Rilke, even if he sounds like a child of 51, but I think the ‘because’ must refer to the suicide. Within a couple of sentences of each other, Lou’s husband is barefoot and Rilke is footloose. Of Clara we learn that ‘she had ... once danced barefoot on the hot deck of a boat, blistering her feet. She was eager to study with Auguste Rodin in Paris.’
But then these bumps and uncertainties largely disappear, the prose settles into its kindly precision, and the haze of Rilke’s life comes as clear as it is probably ever going to get. Rilke never seems to be there when anyone wants him, he leaves places without reason the way others take off without providing their forwarding address. The life seems to drift, but the poems and the prose writings, after some early groping, have extraordinary edge and direction. ‘Give to each his own death,’ Rilke wrote when he was 28. ‘The dying that arises out of that life/in which he knew love, sense and need.’ The torso of Apollo stares at us and knows us, and says: ‘You must change your life.’ Much later we are told to ‘Will the change.’ Is it surprising that the poems should be so strong and straight when the poet was so devious? It may be that the second condition causes the first. Rilke doesn’t have too much in common with Brecht, but both of them probably knew so much about grace and courage because they had an intimate and harrowing experience of what it meant to lack them. There is a curious kind of integrity here: the writer doesn’t accuse or forgive himself, and his exploitations and evasions continue. But he knows better than anyone what it takes to be a good person; how long and gruelling the journey is if you are starting from where he is. Freedman quotes the Auden poem I mentioned, and compares Yeats’s silliness to that of Rilke. But Rilke wasn’t silly, finally. He was, as he said, a man who indulged his angels and his demons for the sake of his writing, and it is Freedman’s great achievement to have made clear the paradoxical, dangerous discipline of this indulgence.
Rilke wrote plays, stories, literary essays and art criticism, including a book on Rodin, but he is best known for his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), and for the volumes of verse published at two moments rather widely separated in time: The Book of Pictures (1906), New Poems (1908); Duino Elegies (1923), Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). His Letters to a Young Poet (1903) have also been treasured by several generations of readers, often readers who are not otherwise much interested in modern poets. This scheme and these dates suggest a perfectionist writer, writing only sparely, much at the mercy of his inspiration. Rilke himself did much to promote this view, holding off publication of books even when they were finished, speaking of himself, as late as 1915, as ‘a beginner who can’t begin’. Edward Snow, in his Introduction to Uncollected Poems, calls this ‘sheer mythologising’, and reminds us that Rilke wrote poems prolifically and all the time – ‘in letters, in guest books, in presentation copies, and above all in the notebooks he always carried with him’. Snow also wants to argue that these occasional poems represent a quite different ‘manner’ from that of the mythological Rilke, ‘an alternate aesthetic’, a ‘necessary counterpoise’. There are wonderful poems in this volume – I think especially of ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, ‘On the Mountains of the Heart Cast out to Die’, ‘Again and Again’, ‘Elegy’ – but they seem to me precisely continuous with Rilke’s other work; fragmentary at times, of course, but formal and informal in just the same way. When Snow tells us that these supposedly more casual poems ‘tend to be fast, headlong, in transit’, and that ‘they touch down at full throttle’, these phrases not only seem to me to misdescribe the poems we have just read, they don’t seem to describe any Rilke poem we could imagine. Think of this delicate, simple, stately late poem, and ask yourself about the throttle (the English translation is Snow’s):
Ach, im Wind gelöst,
wieviel vergebliche Wiederkehr.
Manches, was uns verstösst,
wenn wir vorüber sind,
ratlos die Arme auf.
Denn es giebt keinen Lauf
zurück. Alles hebt uns hinaus,
und das spät offene Haus
Ah, adrift in the air,
how much unfulfilled recurrence
The things that expel us,
so often, afterwards,
once we’ve gone,
spread hopelessly their arms.
For no course leads back.
Everything lifts us up and across,
and the belatedly open house
Rilke is always said to be untranslatable, but it’s worth pausing over what this means. There is the ordinary untranslatability of poetry, embedded in a particular language, full of shadows, inferences, history. German, for instance, has many expletives like schon and ja, which alter the meaning of a sentence without really counting as separate words Ach is more ordinary and more emotional than ah; a good deal less elaborate than alas. Heimweh is altogether more metaphysical and desperate than homesickness; and Wiederkehr, in the above poem, literally enacts the movement of turning (kehren) again (wieder) in a way that recurrence, or evenreturn, cannot. Vergeblich is not exactlyunfulfilled but in vain, and is itself one of those words that echo through the lyric poetry of the language, the way desengaño, disenchantment, echoes through poem after poem in Spanish, or the word dishevelled comes up so memorably in Yeats.
On the other hand, the notion of being dissolved or dispersed or released into the wind, as the opening line of the poem says, doesn’t seem difficult, and ‘adrift in the air’ surely belongs to another school of poetry. This is a separate, but endemic difficulty of translation: the translator’s sense of a poverty in the original, and the need to do something about it, Even Stephen Mitchell, whose translations of Rilke usually manage to be both loyal and idiomatic, doesn’t always resist this temptation, When he writes ‘the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long / childhood hours’, the ‘childhood hours’ catch tone and meaning remarkably, but he has himself supplied both the chill and the length. All Rilke wrote was ‘the uncertain light of afternoons, / in which one was afraid as a child’, ‘das ungewisse Licht von Nachmittagen,/in denen man sich fürchtete als Kind’. The same impulse makes Snow translate luck (Glück) as ‘great luck’, ‘mountains of feeling’ (‘Gebirg/seiner Gefühle’) as ‘feeling’s far ranges’ and ‘the mountains of No More’, or ‘No longer’ (‘Gebirgen des Nichtmehr’) as ‘mountains of nevermore’. If Rilke had wanted the Poe-like effect of nevermore he could have had it: nimmermehr.
However, Rilke has his own peculiarities, and some of the language that seems totally impossible in Snow’s version is barely possible in German. ‘The silence, how it throngs’; ‘Mere falling is out best’; ‘Lofty reproach, hurled up high before the heart / that didn’t feel so surgingly’; ‘O the curves of my longing through the cosmos,/and on all the streaks: my being’s / flung-outness’. I don’t think there is much to be done with this in any language. But Rilke also has his marvellous directnesses too, and this is where the enduring and interesting difficulty arises. A poem about flamingos, for instance, in New Poems, ends with the birds striding off into the imaginary. I’m not sure you can say this in English, and I think Mitchell is right to render it as ‘stride into their imaginary world’. But then that isn’t quite what they are doing. They are doing something simpler and spookier, and it isn’t clear that there is any world where they are going. Snow’s Uncollected Poems are full of examples of this difficulty. Rilke writes literally: ‘This then: this goes out of me and dissolves / in the air.’ I can’t see how to get this into English, although Snow’s use of ‘exit’ as a verb seems unnecessarily awkward, and the idea of breaking is all his: ‘And so this: this exits me and breaks loose/in the air.’ When silence is described as a female loser in Rilke, a Verliererin, one who loses things, Snow translates this as spendthrift, which catches very well the sense of silence’s failing to hang onto what we need, but also introduces a note of deliberate recklessness which is at odds with the pathos of loss. But then again, Snow has some startling successes amid all this weirdness, including the evocation of a mystery ‘weighing nothing finally but arrival’, ‘nichts wiegend als die Ankunft’, and his remarkable rendering of the last lines of Rilke’s cryptic last poem:
Renunciation. That’s not the way illness was
in childhood. Pulling-off. Subterfuge
for growing. Everything called and whispered,
Don’t mix those early marvels into this.
But perhaps the best way to get a sense of what’s at stake is to look at two versions of the same poem, both of them, I think, within the imaginable possibilities, pretty successful (the first is by Mitchell, the second by Snow). The word translated here as exposed and cast out to die is ausgesetzt, literally set out, put out – the way Oedipus is left out on the hillside when his patents want to get rid of him. It’s hard not to think of Hopkins’s sonnet ‘No worst, there is none’, with its terrifying mental cliffs; but the mood is different. Hopkins’s despair here becomes something unnameable, an ascent beyond words and feeling into something like extremity itself. The scary thing is that it is not entirely unpleasant.
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge
an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.
But the one who knows? Ah, he began to know
and is quiet now, exposed on the cliffs of the heart.
While, with their full awareness,
many sure-footed mountain animals pass
or linger. And the great sheltered bird flies, slowly
circling, around the peak’s pure denial. – But
without a shelter, here on the cliffs of the heart ...
On the mountains of the heart cast out to die. Look, how small there,
look: the last village of words, and higher,
but how small too, yet one last
farmstead of feeling. Do you see it?
On the mountains of the heart cast out to die. Rockground
under the hands. Here, if its true,
some things flourish, out of mute downplunge
an unknowing herb breaks forth singing.
But for the one who knows? Ah, who began to know
and now is silent, on the mountains of the heart left to die.
True, many an unhurt consciousness roams here,
many, so many sure mountain animals
change fields and stay. And the great sheltered bird
circles the peaks’ pure refusal. – But
unsheltered, here on the mountains of the heart ...
Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’ is a book-version of a series of lectures given in Cambridge at a date the editors choose not to reveal to us, but certainly several years ago. It’s easy to imagine these pieces – ten in all, one per elegy – as lively and informative in delivery, but with two or three striking exceptions, they are pretty dead on the page. There is too much paraphrase offered as criticism, and too much criticism which knows only the judgmental mode. You run into phrases like ‘while hot with poetic ardour’ and ‘the golden beacon of the cycle’, and make the unsurprising discovery that the Third Elegy gives us ‘a rather unbalanced picture of gender roles’. There are stranger things here, too, like the belief that the year 1923, which was the year of two of Rilke’s major works, was also the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and a certain obstinacy in mistranslation, so that wie, in a context where it must mean like or as, becomes how, and then a page later, like after all. More seriously, Rilke’s careful, enigmatic phrase ‘Everything/is not itself’, is given as ‘Nothing/is itself’, which surely means something quite different.
Peter Stern, who died in 1991, has some charmingly strict words about interpretation in his lecture on the First Elegy. ‘Perhaps,’ he says, ‘you will begin to think of the poem in distinctly philosophical terms. It is to be hoped that you won’t. Rilke does not say (as some of his critics have suggested): “Intensity is all.” We must not lumber him with this, or indeed any other philosophical or ideological maxim.’ So that when Stern offers us ‘lament without rebellion’ as a definition of praise in the context of an elegy, this is an invitation to critical, not philosophical precision: praise as poetic act, not as argument or posture. Shouldn’t there be more rebellion, isn’t there something too limply accepting in Rilke’s endless bowing to the inevitable? At times there is, I think, and then the poetry becomes unbearable, the orchestration of a kind of beautiful complacency in death and distress, as if the sorrows of the world were the best part of some providential plan. ‘Killing is a form of our wandering grief,’ as Sonnets to Orpheus, II has it. Surely one of the most subtle of all defences of murder. But then it is impossible to feel this way about the picture of Eurydice, in the great poem ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’, from New Poems. She is ‘full of her own great death’, even when Orpheus is leading her back to life. This is not a celebration of death so much as a recognition of its deep difference: you couldn’t just come back to life as if nothing had happened. Eurydice’s death is ‘so new’, Rilke says, and in an extraordinarily delicate narrative touch, he has Orpheus’ turning around not even noticed by this ‘so-loved woman’, only reported by a horrified Hermes. Eurydice goes back to the underworld as she came from it, ‘uncertain gentle, and without impatience’.
And the deaths of children, in the fourth Elegy, provoke these extraordinary lines, where the outrage of early death, necessarily, haunts those astonishing cases where no outrage is felt:
Murderers are easy
to understand. But this: that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, and not refuse to go on living,
‘Indescribable’ is Rilke’s last word here, which is perhaps more helpless than Mitchell’s ‘inexpressible’; and the phrase Mitchell translates as ‘not refuse to go on living’ is ‘nicht bös zu sein’, an idiom which manages to mime the style of a child’s thought, since it means not getting cross or angry, as if death and disease were unruly playmates. ‘Resentful’ is the grown-up word, and it is the one Patrick Boyde uses in his excellent essay on this elegy, a piece of genuinely illuminating (and personal) criticism that holds this whole book together; but it suggests slightly too much reflection. These children are not refusing resentment, nor are they refusing to go on living; they haven’t even thought of these options.
Rilke, that terrible parent, wrote about children as no one else has; about the child he was, and about the child we all perhaps imagine we were. There is a realm where we once lived, he suggests, again in the fourth Elegy, a place between world and toy, or as he says in language whose very repetition, apparently so awkward, makes us linger in this lost domain, a ‘between-space between world and toy.’ a ‘Zwischenraum zwischen Welt und Spielzeug’. Some of us have never left this place; and many left it, early or late, on such terms as to make the very memory of it unbearable.