It is tempting, as William H. Gass writes in Reading Rilke (Basic Books), to organize Rainer Maria Rilke’s life story around the several themes that obsessed and stalked him, particularly the image of the Rose. As it was for his contemporary Yeats, and many poets before and after them both, roses were the source and object of many of Rilke’s most brilliant poems and metaphors, including one of his finest lyric works, “The Bowl of Roses.” However, to think of Rilke’s life in terms of his own mythologies is to fall into the trap of choosing aesthetics over facts, gloss over content.
Rilke did not lead a mythical life, but a tragic and mundane one. He was a deeply troubled person whose early years were a model case for Freudian analysis. His parents quarreled often, both of them failed social climbers who blamed each other for their mutual unhappiness. Until he entered school, Rilke’s hyper-religious mother dressed and treated him as a girl, and called this feminine “good self” Sophie, all in lieu of mourning the baby girl who died just before the poet was conceived. His father had failed in the armed services and attempted to live out this fantasy of success by proxy, sending Rilke to a military academy — it was not a happy experience. For the rest of his life, Rilke would flee from mother figure to mother figure, drawn particularly to the influential iconoclast Lou Salomé; he would worship several father figures, first Tolstoy and then Rodin, who rejected him offhand; he would be a failed literary organizer, a persistent philanderer, and a sycophant of the aristocracy he encountered.
The poet was also, and particularly late in his abbreviated life, an ardent supporter of young writers, revered and beloved within a moderately-sized circle of readers, and a true imaginative genius of the century. Robert Musil famously asserted that Rilke was “the greatest lyric poet the Germans have seen since the Middle Ages,” that he “did nothing but perfect the German poem for the first time.” It is hardly an exaggeration. In Rilke’s oeuvre, we find some of the most beautiful and moving lyrics of the twentieth century, many of which resonate as if they had been written today. Indeed, his poems touched upon such human dilemmas that persist into our postmodern world, as in the existential “The Panther” where, in the caged beast, “a mighty will stands numbed.” Lines from the Sonnets to Orpheus — “All that we’ve gained the machine threatens, as long / as it dares to exist as Idea, not obedient tool” — reflect our modern paranoia about the internet as well as they did his own anti-modernism. Rilke’s best work, as is the case for so many great poets, contain some universal quality that renews itself to meet the needs of each new generation.
Adam Zagajewski exhausts his introduction to The Poetry of Rilke attempting to reconcile these two versions of the poet — the spoiled, selfish sycophant with the mind capable of such genius — eliciting, as a result, more confusion than insight. He argues that Rilke is “a flawless example of a modern artist’s existence, an example purer perhaps than any other, perfect in its relentless pursuit of beauty,” that he exhibited a “nonbelonging, non-clinging to what was given him by his parents, his city, his biography.”
Yet, what we find between the biography and the poetry couldn’t be further from this notion. Rilke was too solipsistic to remove his own life from his work entirely. Consider this conflicted, deeply personal passage from the sixth elegy of the Duino Elegies,
Wasn’t he always the hero, Mother, even in you?
Didn’t it already start there in you, his imperious choosing?
Thousands teemed in the womb, wanting to be him.
But look: he seized and excluded —, chose and made good.
If he crushed columns, it was when he burst
from the world of your body into the narrower world [. . .]
Read in light of Rilke’s biography, one cannot ignore the self-objectification, the splintered identity, and the shifts from criticism to worship; all framed by the figure of Samson, himself betrayed by a woman, and addressed to mother. Rike’s genius hid these sentiments deep below the context of his work, burying them within his deeply-felt worldview, and in the vivid images for which he is deservedly renowned. The poems are not moving because they are personal, but they are inescapably both. The caveat is necessity. One does not need to know — nor, does it necessarily benefit one to know — the details of Rilke’s life as they relate to the poetry. Perhaps this is what is meant in the introduction, that the personal life and the poetry are fruitfully divorced, that one does not depend on the other.
Zagajewski also repeats the truism that “today [Rilke] is probably more read in the United States than in Germany.” This isn’t an original claim by any stretch — still, it seems preposterous that a country as notoriously parochial as the United States could be so interested in a Prague-born German poet, dead now almost a century. In fact, there are dozens of translations available in English, with new editions appearing almost every year; there are also biographies, theses, and articles, as well as books such as Gass’ uncategorizable reflection. They don’t qualify as a feverish output, but a steady one.
The abundance of volumes on and by Rilke is a consequence not so much of the poet’s enduring appeal to readers, but of his appeal to American poets, translators, and critics. This writerly, scholarly interest is maintained by the intricacies of his work and worldview, as well as its oddly American flavor — a set of themes that seem to echo in the American character: his concerned with spiritual matters, utilizing the language of religion while being equally skeptical of its limitations; his poems’ frequent no-place, no-time, vacuum of reflection, as if they took place in a movie theater or a museum; his encompassing so many voices through the prism of his own (at times, in Snow’s translation, reminding one of Whitman); and his search, always, for the potentiality that bubbles beneath our surface existence.
It is in that obsession with the always-potential, with the boundaries and nature of transformations spiritual, mental, and physical, in which the poetry resonates in the American imagination. Rilke approaches these themes in a variety of ways. He often considers the concept through imagistic reflections, as in this stanza from the Sonnets to Orpheus,
Will transformation. O be ravenous fire
in which a thing boastful with change forever eludes you;
that designing Spirit which plots the earth’s flourishes, —
it loves most in the figure’s élan the moment of turning.
At other times, the idea of transformation is made concrete, dramatized somehow for the reader, as in the famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends a reflection of that famous Renaissance model with the command, “You must change your life.” There is a similar dramatization at work in the great poem, “The Bowl of Roses,” in which we see not the transformation that the object demands of the viewer, but of the transformational power of the imagination at work on the object:
What can’t they be: was that yellow one,
which lies there hollow and open, not the rind
of a fruit in which that very yellow,
more intense, more orange-red, was juice?
Rilke returns to the idea of potential transformation again and again. It is the underlying focus of so many of his lyrics and images, particularly after 1907’s New Poems, and provides at least some basis for framing Rilke’s life around this idea in the image of Roses. Another enticing, if somewhat maudlin, idea that energized much of Rilke’s poetry, is that death was a transformation bringing, in turn, change to the living world — as in, “the dead, those who strengthen the earth,” from the Sonnets to Orpheus. Equally fruitful for the poetry, and more intellectually intriguing, is Rilke’s concept of death as being a part of one’s character, formed from choices and circumstances — a twin of that adage, “Character is destiny.”
Only a handful of the poems engage with a single concept or image, though. Rilke was not a metaphysical, weaving dense lyrical arguments; but, his poems could be described as Samuel Johnson wrote of Donne, “heterogeneous ideas . . . yoked by violence together.” A defining characteristic of Rilke’s poetry is the way that it moves through images and themes quickly, apparently seeking, like a fly-fisher plucking at the stream. His metaphors are striking, surprising, and once past they do not usually return. Rilke moves from one to the next, spreading layer upon layer — not as argument but as experience, allowing antagonistic emotions and images to find coherence in his lyricism.
Alistair Reid writes of Borges’s lectures, in his introduction to Seven Nights (New Directions), “The lectures are separate literary journeys that we could not take by ourselves. Borges is our Virgil; only he knows the way.” Something similar could be said of Rilke and his poetry. We cannot guess what is to come from what has come before; there is no pattern except in the connections of Rilke’s mind, especially in the Duino Elegies. Of course, in order to be lead, one has to be able to follow. This is the task of eminent translator Edward Snow.
William H. Gass, again in Reading Rilke, writes, “translating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential, kind,” and that a translator must find the poem that the poet “would have written had he been English.” Held against these standards, Snow’s translations in The Poetry of Rilke are largely a success. He transforms the originals into a fluent English, mostly eschewing archaism and ornamentation. Snow’s best work appears in the early Book of Hours, the two volumes of New Poems, and the Sonnets to Orpheus. In the poems from those collections, the short form of the lyrics and the ordinary nature of many of the images lend themselves to Snow’s unostentatious style, as in this passage from the Book of Hours,
What will you do, God, when I die?
I am your jug (and I will shatter)
I am your drink (and I’ll go bad)
I am your clothing and your calling,
you’ll lose all reason, losing me.
With me gone, you’ll have no house
where warm words will welcome you.
Without me, you’ll have no sandals:
your exhausted feet will wander bare.
For the prayer of a monk, Snow has produced simple, prosaic diction with simple, end-stopped lines. It is suitable to the occasion, and the speaker — neither too rigidly grammatical (notice the irregular punctuation in the first stanza), nor flaunting its spoken-prayer qualities. Throughout this volume, Snow takes his cues for line breaks and syntax from the original German, and only on rare occasions do we encounter the affectation of an obviously translated voice. It is a subtle and controlled style; neither too simple nor too prosaic to lose all lyric tension, as in the poem “Leda,”
When the god in his great need entered it,
he was shocked almost to find the swan so beautiful;
he disappeared inside it still surprised.
But his deceit propelled him toward the deed
before the senses of that untried life
could be explored. And the unguarded woman
saw at once who was coming in the swan
and knew too well: he begged that thing of her
which she, confused in her resistance,
no longer could conceal. The god came down,
and, necking through her ever softer hand,
released himself into the one he loved.
Then only — with what joy! — he felt his feathers,
and became truly swan within her womb.
Only in the Duino Elegies do we find Snow’s translation faltering to any noticeable degree. They are an entirely different mode of verse than the compact sonnets or the shorter lyrics, more given to a heightening of language that, it seems, does not suit this translator. His transformations into a lucid English lose some important poetic element in this case: where the elegies ought to reach out in a visionary lyricism, they are often prosaic, mundane, as in the opening of the “Fourth Elegy,”
O trees of life, how long till winter?
We lack connection. Aren’t in touch
like the migratory birds. Outmoded, late,
we thrust ourselves abruptly on winds
and fall, exhausted, on indifferent waters.
Still, one would say that the elegies are only more often flawed, that they are absent the musicality that is necessary for such a personal, visionary work to succeed. They are by no means unreadable, or even by any standard poor. It is possible that the elegies remained, even in translating them, a particular challenge to Snow: in his otherwise excellent translator’s notes, he notes that Rilke mistrusted any explanation of them, and offers none himself.
Despite the few flaws of the translation and the somewhat more serious questions left by Zagaweski’s introduction, The Poetry of Rilke is a major new text. It runs the gambit of Rilke’s mature career, from the dramatic religious sequence of the Book of Hours through the Sonnets to Orpheus, as well as the Uncollected Poems, appearing together in a single volume for the first time. With the German en face throughout and Snow’s own notes at the end, The Poetry of Rilke provides the best introduction yet to this inimitable master.
Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame.