J.P. Stern

  • The Sacred Threshold: A Life of Rainer Maria Rilke by J.F. Hendry
    Carcanet, 184 pp, £9.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 85635 369 8
  • Rilke: sein Leben, seine Welt, sein Werk by Wolfgang Leppmann
    Scherz Verlag, 483 pp, £11.00, May 1981, ISBN 3 502 18407 0
  • Rainer Maria Rilke: Leben und Werk im Bild edited by Ingeborg Schnack
    Insel Verlag, 270 pp, £2.55, May 1977, ISBN 3 458 01735 6

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.

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