Poetry Inc.

Christopher Reid

To read Donald Prater’s biography of Rilke in the hope of getting to know the poet in depth would be a tantalising exercise. Lack of information is not the problem. There is no shortage of documentary evidence available to the investigator and Prater has made full use of it. Rilke himself supplied his large share in letters of a princely egocentricity, upon which he appears to have lavished a formidable outlay of time and creative energy. Many of those who were personally acquainted with him, too, were scrupulous in setting down their impressions of a figure whose near-divine poetic status was taken for granted from an early date, while scholars and researchers have shown comparable zeal in the subsequent mopping-up campaign, until now it would seem we have all the facts we could reasonably ask for. Prater’s eight-page bibliography alone testifies to the abundance of secondary literary material generated by what was, after all, an oeuvre of modest size (if one leaves aside those letters) and a life whose most notable characteristics were a cultivated detachment from the surrounding world and a dismaying evasiveness in personal matters.

A Ringing Glass would be the perfect title for an account of such a life if all it evoked was a hollow vessel and its power of eerie resonance. But Prater, who has lifted the words from one of the Sonnets to Orpheus

Be here among the vanishing in the realm of entropy,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings –

clearly means something above and beyond this, and his meaning may be justified in the light of Rilke’s conception of the sublime nature of poetic utterance. Unfortunately, the sublime and the quotidian are not always the most compatible of partners, and the observer who was immune to the enchantment of Rilke’s poetry would have no difficulty in interpreting his awkward ditherings between them as a sort of grimly instructive moral farce. The glass may ring and shatter in an ecstasy of fulfilment and extinction, but which way do the splinters fly? And who cleans up the mess?

Perhaps it would have suited Rilke if he could have fixed his dwelling in the world of pure abstraction, like those angels, lovers and other bodiless creatures who flit so unpindownably from page to page of the Duino Elegies. Certain letters show him imposing a similar wishful rhetoric on the facts of his own earth-bound existence. ‘I grew up in absolute nothingness,’ he informed one correspondent on the subject of his childhood, ‘up towards nothing.’ By contrast, Larkin’s famously laconic ‘forgotten boredom’, which on the surface may look every bit as dismissive, has all the substance and savour of actual experience; through delight in those finely-chosen syllables, the reader is allowed to feel precisely what is meant. Rilke’s account of himself is far more of a tease – as if he had set out, with a great display of conceptual hanky-panky, to obliterate such details as might subvert the intriguing enigma which he intended to present to the world, especially the female half of it, as his official image. His letters are devoted largely to the construction and preservation of this image, and it is clear that he became a master of the form of epistolary manipulation whereby admirers were kept at just the right distance for the calculated effect to be seen at its best. There are moments when he sounds positively ambassadorial, or like a very well-informed tourist guide to the more picturesque parts of his inner being.

Peremptory measures were reserved for friends and acquaintances who threatened to overstep the limits laid down for them. Of these, Rilke’s wife, Clara, and daughter, Ruth, are the most likely to engage the sympathy of Prater’s readers. After a brief honeymoon euphoria, it appears that Rilke soon recognised the folly of his marriage to a woman who was a talented artist in her own right, and who might therefore have her own personal and artistic needs to satisfy. The birth of a daughter only confirmed him in his determination to free himself from the marital trap as speedily as possible. With his singular flair for rationalisation, which Prater seems only too happy to accept at its face value, Rilke argued successfully for a severing of ties. As Prater puts it, he had ‘already foreseen the need for them to dissolve their household and separate, for each to find their own solitude if her mission and his own were ever to be fulfilled’. A franker picture emerges from a letter addressed by Rilke to Lou Andreas-Salomé, one of the few intimate friends with whom he could discuss his feelings candidly, in which he said of his wedded life: ‘What was my house, then, except a foreign thing for which I had to work, what more my family than visitors who refused to leave?’ In the context of so much pious theorising about ‘intransitive love’, the ‘mutual guardianship of solitude’ (Rilke’s definition of marital bliss) and the sacrosanctity of the artist’s vocation, such plain speaking comes as a refreshing surprise.

All the same, Rilke’s treatment of his wife and child makes, by and large, for dispiriting reading. He shrugged off financial obligations to them when he could have been generous, and at one point late in his life committed to paper the chillingly formal declaration: ‘I regard myself, as far as any aid is concerned which exceeds the agreed allowance, purely as “friend” to Clara Rilke and in no wise “duty-bound”.’ His refusal to meet normal adult responsibilities, while freely enjoying the hospitality and munificence of his various wealthy patrons and indulgent publishers, inevitably brings to mind the slithery career of Harold Skimpole, perhaps the least amiable of all Dickens’s villainous characters. Add to the facts such details as Ernst Norlind’s impression of the poet’s ‘almost childlike’ love of nature and ‘simple happiness’ which Norlind believed to be ‘accorded only to great souls’, or Rilke’s note on his own dainty eating habits – ‘At 7 I have a supper worthy of a child, and am ready for bed just after, Lord preserve my simplicity’ – and the resemblance grows uncanny.

‘Rilke was poet and personality even when simply washing his hands,’ Stefan Zweig opined in his memorial oration. Did Zweig intend a sly Biblical reference? It is true that Rilke washed his hands of a great deal in the course of his European travels, but whether his manner of doing so had anything essentially poetic about it must be open to doubt. Following his career as recounted by Prater, one is left admiring those friends and allies who supported him with money and accommodation, and thereby helped him to write his poems, pitying those whose infatuation was answered with snubs and evasive manoeuvres, and more than a little baffled by the central figure in the story. What animated him? What was he really like? Exactly how did the personality and the poet interrelate? One suspects that there was rather more to it than the question of how Rilke washed his hands, either literally or figuratively, but Prater seems unable to offer any satisfactory insight. For all his commendably thorough gathering of facts, from which it would almost be possible to say where Rilke was, and in whose company, and how he spent his time, on any given day of his life, the important issues remain beyond his scope. It is as if one were asked to imagine a very complicated board-game in which the map of Europe provided the ground-plan, Prague stood for ‘Go’, certain castles and country estates represented points of safety, amorous women were the major hazards and rewards came in the form of great poems, which the protagonist, a solitary human tiddlywink, collected according to the arbitrary disposition of Fate’s dice. Something, one feels, must be missing.

That something may have been precluded by a curious deficiency of Prater’s narrative method. As information accumulates, it becomes increasingly clear that the biographer is either unable or unwilling to take a strong interpretative line. If ever a note of appraisal or explanation is sounded, a close look at the text reveals that the view of some other party (often Rilke himself) is being transmitted indirectly. Indeed, a disconcertingly large proportion of A Ringing Glass turns out to be in the ambivalent form of oratio obliqua. Statements made by Rilke in his letters are too often presented, with minimal adjustment, as if they were the last word on his own behaviour – a particularly dangerous procedure in the light of his habitual disingenuousness. It matters less when the high-powered flattery or bedazzlement of a patron or new lover is concerned, but there are instances when the reader is entitled to query the moral tenor of some ostensibly objective piece of reporting. To go back to Rilke’s dealings with Clara: is it enough, for example, to say, when discussing the poet’s plans for a legal divorce, that ‘Clara was now so much more secured and independent that he felt the more formal separation would be welcome to her too’? I hardly think so. In fairness to both sides, surely something less bland and equivocal was required, and not only here, but in many other citable passages as well? What a pity that this industrious biographer failed to provide it, but opted instead for an approach seemingly designed to trespass as little as possible on areas ruled out of bounds by his touchy and elusive subject.

Letters: Summer 1926 serves as a valuable footnote to Prater’s study. At the time of this three-way exchange, Rilke was ailing and had not long to live, and his punctilious courtliness seems to have been somewhat strained by the headlong overtures of Tsvetayeva, in particular, with whom, as was characteristic, he flirted for a while until the threat of her actually visiting him in his Swiss sanctuary became too much to contemplate and defensive tactics were called for. Clearly, for Tsvetayeva, Rilke was not simply the greatest living poet, as he was for Pasternak, but he was ‘poetry incarnate’, too, and for this reason alone it is probably fortunate that they never met in the flesh.

Letters, sent over long distances and, in the case of those between Rilke and Pasternak, through intermediaries whose dilatoriness was a source of maddening frustration to the young Russian, provided the perfect vehicle for friendships which seem to have been sustained largely by a delirium of mutual misunderstanding. For a time, Pasternak, in Russia, proposed to leave his wife and child and join Tsvetayeva in exile. It is easy to see from the evidence here what made Tsvetayeva an object of whimsical curiosity to Rilke and a symbol of freedom to Pasternak. Her letters display an exhilarating forthrightness as they sweep along ideas, confessions, apercus, jokes and bits of sometimes nonsensical word-play at a pace and in a style that must be inimitable. Alongside her contributions, Rilke’s tend to look suave and mannered, Pasternak’s laboriously earnest. Nonetheless, they all had interesting things to say when the important business of poetry was under discussion.