One​ doesn’t think of Rainer Maria Rilke writing poems on subjects that might otherwise appear in newspapers and books of social history – on anything like emigration or poverty or unemployment. Even by the standard of unworldly poets, he is like one of those cabinet ministers who doesn’t know the price of milk. To some extent, this is a misapprehension. An early book of his, the so-called Book of Hours, has sections ‘On Monastic Life’, ‘On Pilgrimage’ and ‘On Poverty and Death’. A slightly hallowed – haloed – vision of poverty inhered in his work for a long time, more as an adjunct to his quasi-feudalism than as a by-product of industrialisation or mass production. ‘I sent you yesterday,’ he writes in a letter of October 1900, ‘a little package of a very excellent oat cereal to try. Directions on the package. Only it is good to let it cook somewhat longer than the fifteen minutes prescribed. Before eating put a piece of butter in it, or take apple compote with it … If you send for a patent “all-purpose” double boiler from a big household goods store, you hardly need to stir it; the danger of burning is very slight.’ The letter, a culinary and cohabitational vote of no confidence, is addressed to his wife of six months, Clara Westhoff. His counsel is at once frugal and fancy: just the kind of thing one could imagine Philemon writing to his Baucis, if they’d conducted their relationship by letter.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke’s only novel (1910), sets his poet hero on a downward social trajectory. A Danish aristocrat in Paris, Malte reads in public libraries (mostly Ibsen), has trouble finding a place to eat, lives in squalor, joins Baudelaire in intoning a desperate, Pharisaical prayer: ‘Grant me the grace to produce some fine verses that will prove to me that I am not the least of men, that I am not inferior to those I scorn.’ Rilke worked on Malte for the best part of ten years. The semi-autobiographical novel describes Rilke’s initial shock at encountering France. As he relates in a letter of July 1903 to Lou Andreas-Salomé, Rilke’s time in Paris matched what had until then been the worst period of his life: ‘I would like to tell you, dear Lou, that Paris was for me an experience similar to military school; as a great fearful astonishment seized me then, so now again terror assailed me at everything that, as in an unspeakable confusion, is called life.’ Malte was the most difficult thing Rilke ever worked on – the rest of the time, writing came fatally easy to him. When the novel was published, he was aghast at what he had done and warned a susceptible audience not to read it straight, but somehow ‘against the grain’. The poems Rilke wrote in the same period made up the New Poems of 1907 and 1908. Forget the horrid and ubiquitous Letters to a Young Poet, forget Duino, forget The Sonnets to Orpheus. They are for me his greatest poems, and Malte his greatest book.

The New Poems are written under the shadow of ‘mon grand ami Auguste Rodin’, to whom the second (1908) volume was dedicated: Rilke had first gone to Paris to write a monograph on Rodin, in 1902. In 1905 his wife, Clara, herself a sculptor and a former pupil of Rodin’s, arranged for Rilke to serve as the great man’s secretary. The ground note of all these years, probably strenuously denied by Rilke, is humiliation. His time as a prodigy was behind him. Oat cereal notwithstanding, he was unhappily married, and unable to feed his daughter, Ruth, who was left to eat ‘alien corn’ with her grandparents in Germany when Clara moved to Paris to join her husband; the most important person in his life, Andreas-Salomé, had ditched him after a brief and long-delayed erotic experiment, and in her dealings with Rilke confined herself thereafter to dispensing advice. (Himself the giver of so much advice, he seems to have entered the ranks of self-help books, or American wisdom literature: see, for example, Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties.) The sage Tolstoy, while admitting Andreas-Salomé to his circle, had unforgettably snubbed him. Rodin humbled him with his all-too visible, massive, unfussy production. His role as the sculptor’s secretary – from which he was dismissed ‘like a thieving servant’ in 1906, for taking too much initiative – can’t have been easy for Rilke. Paris, where he was straightforwardly reclassed as foreign and poor, was continually humbling. Malte includes many extraordinary vignettes:

Who are these people? What do they want from me? Are they waiting for me? How do they recognise me? It’s true my beard looks somewhat neglected, and it is barely vaguely reminiscent of their sick, old, faded beards that always impressed me. But don’t I have the right to neglect my beard? Many busy people do, and it would never occur to anyone to immediately lump them together with the outcasts on that account. For it is clear to me that these people are outcasts, not just beggars. No, they’re really not beggars; one must discriminate. They are trash, husks of people spat out by fate … [How] did that small grey woman come to stand for a quarter of an hour beside me before a shop window while showing me an old, long pencil that protruded with infinite slowness from her filthy, closed hands? I acted as if I were looking at the goods displayed and didn’t notice anything. But she knew I had seen her, she knew I was standing there and wondering what she was really doing. For I understood quite well that it could not be a question of the pencil: I felt that it was a sign, a sign for the initiated, a sign that the outcasts recognise; I felt she was indicating to me that I had to go somewhere or do something.

Hence the gutter level of his perspective in the novel, the eyes literally or metaphorically cast down, the personal ordeal of the greasy back of the armchair in his rented room:

At first it was really hard for me to lay my head back in this armchair, for in its green covering there is a kind of smeary grey hollow into which all heads seem to fit. For quite a long time I took the precaution of putting a handkerchief behind my head, but now I’m too tired to; I have discovered that it works without it, and that the small indentation is made precisely for my head, as if to measure.

There is an intractable sense of downward mobility in Malte. This baisse was something Rilke had to work his way out of. Otherwise he was only the deserting husband, the absentee father, the menial employee, the émigré retained to write letters that a native could have written in a tenth of the time. He needed the torturous ten-year plan of Malte – the failure of which might have left him at the bottom of a well – and the ‘method’ of the New Poems. He set himself subjects the way a shoemaker might, or a sculptor. Laocoön. The burghers of Calais. The thinker. The lovers. The tiny figurines and vast hands.

Rilke took himself to the Paris zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, where in living memory starving communards had killed and eaten the elephant. He acquired an artist’s pass and could visit when it was closed to the public. He wrote ‘The Panther’, ‘The Gazelle’, ‘The Flamingos’. He retold stories from the Bible, and stories from antiquity. He documented his travels (he was fussy about place and places; his life’s compass-rose was Russia and Spain, Sweden and Egypt). He wrote ‘thing-poems’, Dinggedichte: poems about things, but also poems that are ‘a thing’, not a mood or an atmosphere, as too many of their predecessors had been. A few of them cast some of the Malte material as verse, Baudelairean encounters with unspeakable crones, the beggars, the lunatics, the mad, with the partitions taken out of their brains. He took some of the humility of Rodin and his other great discovery of those years, Cézanne. In October 1907, he wrote:

You know how much more remarkable I always find the people walking about in front of paintings than the paintings themselves. It’s no different in this Salon d’Automne, except for the Cézanne room. Here, all of reality is on his side: in this dense quilted blue of his, in his red and his shadowless green and the reddish black of his wine bottles. And the humbleness of all his objects: the apples are cooking apples and the wine bottles belong in the bulging pockets of an old coat.

The two volumes of the New Poems are, in my view, among the most beautiful poetic sequences ever made. Rilke realised early on that one book would not suffice. The first volume appeared in December 1907; he wrote the second in a year and a day, between 31 July 1907 and 2 August 1908: 99 poems. New Poems (The Other Part) was his last book of verse for fifteen years, before the late spate of the Elegies and Sonnets. The poems suggest and follow one another; themes and words, constructions and preoccupations call out and resonate. The blue hydrangea and the pink. The panther and the gazelle. The cadet portrait of the father, and the self-portrait. The Renaissance expressed now as Flanders, now as the Mediterranean. New Poems (The Other Part) begins with Apollo – you know the one – and ends with Buddha. It goes from the periphery to the centre, from the perimeter of the archaic torso (one of very many sculptural subjects) to the ‘centre of all centres, core of cores’, ‘Mitte aller Mitten, Kern der Kerne’. From the injunction ‘You must change your life,’ to the changed life: ‘Yet already there’s begun inside you/what lasts beyond the suns.’ And there, somewhere along the strung sequence of miracles, of mostly altered sonnets, mutated or truncated, is ‘Emigrant-Ship (Naples)’. It is one of a cluster of poems subtitled ‘Naples’, including ‘Easter Eve’ and ‘The Balcony’; then there are ‘Roman Campagna’ and ‘Landscape’, a colour study celebrating the Italian blue hour. We have here a little locus of the sempiternal German love of Italy, from Alaric the Goth to Goethe.

Rilke visited Naples several times, as a sort of staging post, to or from Capri and Rome. He was there for a few days in June 1904, and again in November and December 1906. He put up at the recently refurbished Hotel Hassler on the waterfront and seems to have experienced the typically mingled fortune of visitors to the South: personal comfort and expense; geographical beauty in the distance and a certain amount of picturesque (and other) misery at close quarters. The hotel is slightly unusual as a setting for Rilke. He had little money and didn’t like to spend it.More often, he stayed in people’s houses, ideally when they were gone, leaving him their cooks and chauffeurs. The hotel makes him vulnerable. No one knows who he is (as it says on his tombstone) – and, worse, he is spending his own cash. Naples twinned with Paris. A big city, and a major port. ‘The sea has already changed twenty times while I have been writing.’ From a boat, he watches Naples recede, and ‘it takes on more and more the character of an enormous quarry that is reddish and bright on its fresh surfaces between old, steep, long-unbroken grey. The deeper-lying parts finally fade away completely into reddish mist.’ He thinks, as a tourist will, that he has come at the wrong time: ‘Naples too, as indeed everything Italian, is more beautiful in the summer.’ His barber warns him of an impending change of weather: ‘Pioggia, scirocco, eh –’ He haunts the museum, takes refuge in the book he has brought with him from Munich, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. In his dedication to the first volume of New Poems, he writes of ‘what being completely alone, being unobserved, unseen, invisible means to me. For three days in Naples I went about with it as with a treasure in all the gloriously foreign world.’

The informal sequence of Naples poems form a little island of neo-realism in Rilke’s work. ‘Easter Eve’ might have come from Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy; ‘The Balcony’ from a cramped, multi-generational drama of Francesco Rosi’s; ‘Emigrant-Ship’ from the Taviani brothers’ Pirandello adaptation, Kaos. All are street-level, and have a documentary quality uncommon in Rilke. It is as though he has brought his tourist’s impressionability, and vulnerability, with him. Unusually for Rilke, these are poems almost with a smell. In the procession of ‘Easter Eve’, he sees the loaves stretching ‘before the yawning of the melons’, the dead and condemned beasts voluptuous in death, the perishable, flyblown plenty of the South.

The balcony is a favourite image of Rilke’s. In his work – as in ‘Lady on the Balcony’, written on 17 August 1907 – it usually implies aristocratic elevation. And yet ‘The Balcony’ gives the subject a Neapolitan twist: one can readily imagine generations wearing black. The balcony pulls the people together, seems to bunch their faces into a ‘bouquet’. Two sisters, a brother, their mother, an even older woman and a single child. A family without a single couple, long-lived and short-lifed, so to speak; the brevity in the South of attraction and vigour. Perhaps here Rilke is thinking of his mother, now a widow, who was to outlive her son, his absent wife, his child, an etiolated line. The balcony hangs like a balloon, or a bunch of balloons, as the faces and the generations float away into indeterminacy.

The holiday swarm and plenty; then the watchers and the wreckage of family; finally, the people who are changing their lives: the emigrants. ‘Emigrant-Ship’ is Rilke’s second take at both subject and title. The first was in 1894, when he was eighteen. He wrote it in Bohemia – a strange thing for a piece, set, as it were, in Illyria. The first draft was in irregular verse, then he recast it in the modish prose-poem mode, with excitable dot-dot-dot punctuation. It cuts with offensive speed from distance-shot to close-up, the ship a knocked-together frame for the standard fin-de-siècle portrait of feminine desire:

Emigrant-ship. Packed to the gunwales. Well-to-do, laughing, strolling, feasting. Deep below in fume-filled cabins, where only the cheerless lamp burns with a tired light, the poor. Men, women. Pale, sullen, pressed tight together by uncertain fear. Dulled faces, stupefied, careworn … One woman though … Pale and still with large eyes, tear-laden, deeply dark; with eyes that solicit passionate love, solicit so greedily. Sallow lips that quiver as though from tears choked back, golden-brown hair in locks half undone shadowing her forehead … And once again her eyes. – As though for this life’s secret they sought the grave solution … Will they ever find it? – There? – I do not know. Only sometimes in sleepless nights do these eyes rise up before me … yes, these tired eyes, athirst for death.

In Young Rilke and His Time, George Schoolfeld calls this woman ‘an advance member of [Rilke’s] rich gallery of women variously beset’. The recast piece is called ‘Fantasy’ and subtitled ‘a poem in prose’. Enough already.

The second ‘Emigrant-Ship (Naples)’ is both immediate – note the subtitle – and at the same time distanced, distanced into colour and (like many of the New Poems) into geometry. Think Cézanne, then think Rodin. Here it is in Edward Snow’s literal English version:

Imagine: that someone fled hot and burning,
and the victors were close behind,
and all at once the fleeing one turned,
abrupt, unexpected, and charged
against hundreds – : that intensely
the glow of all the fruit threw itself
again and again at the blue sea:

as the slow-moving orange boat
carried them past, on out to the huge
grey ship, into which, from thrust to thrust,
other boats were lifting fish, bread, –
while it, full of scorn, took
coal into its womb, open like death.

Denk’, it begins in German – ‘think’ or ‘imagine’, in the imperative. (‘Denk es wäre nicht,’ begins ‘Gold’, another of the New Poems: ‘Imagine that it weren’t,’ where we are asked to conceive the gold as something that might never have been, as elsewhere we are asked to conceive the unicorn, that ‘unbelievable’ creature. The impossible is Rilke’s terrain, and the conditional or subjunctive his mood.) In ‘Emigrant-Ship’ the metaphor almost capsizes the poem. Someone is running away, fleeing for his life, pursued by enemies. Our emigrant, we suppose, initially. Wrong, but carry on. Suddenly he turns, and makes bold to confront his enemies, but it turns out he is just a personification, a measure of intensity, for another rhetorical figure, a metaphor, for a boat full of oranges that insistently and repeatedly goes out into the blue bay. See Naples, you recall, and die. The visible is both heightened and almost annulled by the metaphor. Number, as it often is for Rilke, who wanted to be allowed to use a cardinal number with a singular noun, as in ‘two evening’, is a problem. Can a boatful of oranges be likened to a single warrior? At a pinch – a big pinch. Meanwhile – sestet now – as the orange boat is going out, other boats are going too, and going faster, and seemingly more purposefully, loading bread and fish (we think of the biblical miracle of their multiplication) into a grey ship, and all the while the ship itself is being loaded, with coal.

We see blue and orange and grey and (the unstated) black. Or blue, then orange, then grey, then black. The livelier colours are puddled together, making more grey. Something is being seen here, has been seen, but it gives way to a point of view. It is a strangely coercive poem. There is something gallant about the oranges: they are going to their doom, they are heroic, they remind one of the Greeks at Thermopylae – the hot gates – successively, individually, halting the Persian advance. Just as much as a darkening and a dulling, the poem enacts a cooling, a loss of vital energies. Then the fish and the bread, no colour, less glamorous, the unavoidable echo of scripture – almost polluted, and certainly dwarfed by the ship’s greater need, for coal. So many of the New Poems resolve themselves into accounts of energy. Here there is an orange line, going first one way (fleeing), then another; then the black, heavily scratched over the orange. Towards a grey rectangle. We had something pretty for a while, but it was obliterated. The fire cools to ash. Most generously, an existing life, a furnished life, a life in progress (orange, warm, maybe Europe, hand-made) reverts to one in potential (black, cold, maybe America, mechanical).

We have successively something like a picture (the pretty contrast of orange and blue), then a meaning (orange and black across blue, into grey: a ship is being loaded up), then an attitude. We think – we are told to think – of the anonymous column of émigrés, the caravan of departing souls: where is the heroism in that, where is the resistance? These Greeks are just giving up in front of the Persians, kowtowing. Then we notice, rather oddly, that there are no people in the poem. We are told a story only in terms of colour and objects, in a kind of reading of an image. The rhymes compete: the feminine triad, grosse, Stosse, Schosse (‘great’, ‘thrusts’, ‘womb’, in Snow’s version), has to do with eros; the masculine, Boot, Brot, Tod (‘boat’, ‘bread’, ‘death’), with thanatos. Rhymes where they are used often give one a rudimentary, accelerated sense of where a poem is going. So here: boat-bread-death. The poem bears an odd resemblance to his ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’: it heads towards light and colour, before abruptly the destination changes, and we are told it is death. (In Rilke it is not a sad story.) The single warrior of Thermopylae is Eurydice. She flees to life, then turns to die. People leaving, poor people emigrating, are implicitly likened to lumps of coal rumbling into an empty hold, to be burned. Between 1860 and 1914, roughly sixteen million Italians emigrated, mostly to the Americas, towards the end of the period at a rate of around 600,000 a year.

The vilification and spite of the Italian in his (as R.B. Cunninghame Graham wrote) ‘greasy velveteen suit’ is not Rilke’s style, and his thought is not for the pristine land and people yonder, in which in some sense he did not even believe. Is this really what they’ve signed on for? And is this really Rilke’s take on emigration – ‘full of scorn’ – or on the huddled masses, during these peak years of Italian emigration? The scholar Eudo Mason described Rilke as ‘not driven by indignation at the injustice of society, nor even, at least not principally, by human sympathy, but by absolute horror’. As the poet himself wrote of Malte, his task was ‘to make things from fear’. The ‘heat’ and ‘glow’ of the opening dims to a cold death. The account of a real event or situation follows Rilke’s most natural course: the thirst for death evinced so often in the New Poems.

The mass destiny elicits a predictable failure of compassion from Rilke. He doesn’t like plurals, after all, and, as Mason observed, he didn’t have the least sympathy for revolutionary, egalitarian, or socialist endeavours. From his ringside seat at Hassler’s Hotel – five star, made over in the 1880s by a family of Swiss hoteliers – he watched the drama of hundreds of thousands of departing Italians, who left the countryside in their droves, but are here invisible, clutching or embodying the warmth of their native oranges, their faith in loaves and fishes (nothing about the starvation offered them at home). They have accepted willingly or unwittingly their function as raw material loaded into a vast and rapacious economy. This was the sort of technical, collective and futuristic vision to which Rilke didn’t like to be exposed.

The drama of the single man, der Flüchtende, the emigrant-refugee, is among the most perverse of Rilke’s unlikely similes. He has turned the vast, optimistic-to-desperate social movement of hundreds of thousands into a heroic and quixotic spur-of-the-moment individual impulse seeking its certain doom. ‘Rilke’s abhorrence of machines,’ Egon Schwarz wrote, ‘of everything that has to do with technology and mechanics, is no less well known than his dread of the city.’ Machines are among the stranger presences in the Sonnets to Orpheus, and it’s true that they get a very bad press. Sonnet Ten of Section Two begins: ‘Alles Erworbne bedroht die Maschine’ – ‘All we have gained the machine threatens,’ in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. In the appendix to the Sonnets, sounding much more like the preachy crank he sometimes thinks he is, he writes:

The New, my friends, is not a matter of
letting machines force out our handiwork.
Don’t be confused by change; soon those who have
praised the ‘New’ will realise their mistake.

The emigrant ship here is grey, like a battleship, ‘das grosse,/graue Schiff’. In an aestheticising poem, it registers almost as an absence. It has zero aesthetic appeal.

The dismaying last phrase of ‘Emigrant-Ship’, ‘open like death’, takes one back to the dead dolphin at the end of ‘Birth of Venus’ in the first volume of the New Poems: ‘tot, rot und offen’ – ‘dead, red and open’, or perhaps ‘slashed, red and dead’. Rilke seems not only to be describing something he doesn’t understand – one might say it’s only the mention of death that brings it closer to him – and something he would never personally contemplate (the distance between Hassler’s Hotel and the unnamed ship is unbridgeable), but even to be doing it anachronistically, from the unhelpful vantage point of some earlier century. His orientation has retreated to its feudal base. His poetic imagination is at its most abstract, and it sees something merely horrific. He is a spectator, like the well-situated guest at a Roman circus watching the gladiators. The world is like that of science fiction, when the needs and abilities of machines have outstripped those of foolish, desperate humans. Hence perhaps the ‘scorn’.

At the end of his life, in a series of letters to his Polish translator, Witold von Hulewicz, Rilke writes about the descent of man and of man-made things:

the ever more rapid fading away of so much of the visible that will no longer be replaced. Even for our grandparents a ‘house’, a ‘well’, a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely more, infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life … A house, in the American sense, an American apple or a grapevine over there, has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which went the hopes and reflections of our forefathers … Live things, things lived and conscient of us, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last still to have known such things.

The unmanned and denatured things from America, the ‘American apple or a grapevine over there’, were and continued to be a literary trope. (It is at the root of the familiar jeer about Californian wine: ‘The grapes haven’t suffered enough.’) It is there in the Hollywood poems of Brecht, who did get there, forty years later: ‘And fruit markets/With great heaps of fruit, albeit having/Neither smell nor taste,’ and on into Adorno and the ‘simulacra’ of Baudrillard. In Rilke, the oranges are going – gaily, gallantly – to their death. His emigrant ship is a death ship. His poem is an exequy.

Rilke is entirely out of sympathy with the scale of what he is describing, the medium of it, and its purpose. The idea of a class or even of a whole population taking ship to better itself, or even to survive, will have been disagreeable to him, with his promotion of passivity and his feudal and static playing-card version of society. It wasn’t in him to see desperate emigrants as versions of himself. Instead, he substitutes an individual action from the heroic age, a little byplay of colour, faith and flavour (oranges, fish, bread, blue), and his preferred terminus ad quem: death. An Alcestis by other means. The poem seems doomy, Mediterranean, death-bound. Boot-Brot-Tod. The emigrants in their black suits and widows’ weeds – crêpe and corduroy – going to die abroad. With, perhaps most unforgivably, hope in their hearts. (And nothing rhymes with orange.)

Dying abroad: the idea provoked an almost Greek horror in Rilke. When the actress and tragedienne Eleonora Duse died at the Schenley Hotel in Pittsburgh on 21 April 1924, Rilke wrote to one of his duchesses: ‘Eleonora Duse est morte, morte loin de nous, dans un pays – on voudrait presque dire dans un monde étranger … Quelle tristesse.’ (‘Eleonora Duse is dead, dead far from us, in a foreign land – one would almost say in a foreign world … What sadness.’) And then, the following day, to one of his intimates, Nanny Wunderly-Volkart: ‘La mort de la Duse! Et encore en Amérique, à Pittsbourg, en pays étranger, non, il faudrait dire dans un autre monde; elle, qui aimait tant être soutenue par son entourage, de mourir en Amérique, dans un hôtel de Pittsbourg – Dieu sait si quelqu’un coeur ami était auprès d’elle!’ (‘The death of the Duse! And, worse, in America, in Pittsburgh, in a foreign land, no, in almost another world; she, who so depended on the support of her entourage, dying in America, in a hotel in Pittsburgh – God knows if she had a friendly heart by her anywhere!’) America is where art, reality and individuality go to die. ‘Many of Rodin’s memorial works have gone to America,’ he writes, ‘the finest being destroyed in the Chilean disturbances before ever it was placed in position.’ The two halves of the sentence are balanced as though they mean one and the same thing: ‘to go to America’ and ‘to be destroyed’.

Ironically, I’ve sometimes described Rilke as an American poet. America has bought up the world of interiority, spirituality, angels. Of effusions and euphuousness. Having claimed most of this world, it is reserving the next. Rilke, to me, would sit very nicely there, in a sort of garbled literary Disneyland. It was the shrewd German writer Annette Kolb who first suggested that Rilke would have been a millionaire on the American lecture circuit. So let’s imagine him like that, taken out of the coal-hole, having done well for himself on bread and fish, directing his reputation, mingling with the Celtic showmen Oscar Wilde and Dylan Thomas, with Dickens of the spittoons and Trollope of the politicians, with the missile makers in New Mexico and the clever German Jewish Left clustered unhappily around Hollywood, retailing the old world and its soft wisdom to the new. When the war ends, he is only seventy.

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