Poems – Rainer Maria Rilke

The supreme problem of every age is that of finding its consummate artistic expression. Before this problem every other remains of secondary importance. History defines and directs its physical course, science cooperates in the achievement of its material aims, but Art alone gives to the age its spiritual physiognomy, its ultimate and lasting expression. The process of Art is on the one hand sensuous, the conception having for its basis the fineness of organization of the senses; and on the other hand it is severely scientific, the value of the creation being dependent upon the craftsmanship, the mastery over the tool, the technique. Art, like Nature, its great and only reservoir for all time past and all time to come, ever strives for elimination and selection. It is severe and aristocratic in the application of its laws and impervious to appeal to serve other than its own aims. Its purpose is the symbolization of Life. In its sanctum there reigns the silence of vast accomplishment, the serene, final, and imperturbable solitude which is the ultimate criterion of all great things created. To speak of Poetry is to speak of the most subtle, the most delicate, and the most accurate instrument by which to measure Life. Poetry is reality’s essence visioned and made manifest by one endowed with a perception acutely sensitive to sound, form, and colour, and gifted with a power to shape into rhythmic and rhymed verbal symbols the reaction to Life’s phenomena. The poet moulds that which appears evanescent and ephemeral in image and in mood into everlasting values. In this act of creation he serves eternity. Poetry, in especial lyrical poetry, must be acknowledged the supreme art, culminating as it does in a union of the other arts, the musical, the plastic, and the pictorial. The most eminent contemporary poets of Europe have, each in accordance with his individual temperament, reflected in their work the spiritual essence of our age, its fears and failures, its hopes and high achievements: Maeterlinck, with his mood of resignation and his retirement into a dusky twilight where his shadowy figures move noiselessly like phantoms in fate-laden dimness; Dehmel, the worshipper of will, with his passion for materiality and the beauty of all things physical and tangible; Verhaeren, the visionary of a new vitality, who sees in the toilers of fields and factories the heroic gesture of our time and who might have written its great epic of industry but for the overwhelming lyrical mood of his soul. Until a few years ago, known only to a relatively small community on the continent but commanding an ever increasing attention which has borne his name far beyond the boundary of his country, the personality of Rainer Maria Rilke stands to-day beside the most illustrious poets of modern Europe.

The background against which the figure of Rainer Maria Rilke is silhouetted is so varied, the influences which have entered into his life are so manifold, that a study of his work, however slight, must needs take into consideration the elements through which this poet has matured into a great master. Prague, the city in which Rilke was born in 1875, with its sinister palaces and crumbling towers that rose in the early Middle Ages and have reached out into our time like the threatening fingers of mighty hands which have wielded swords for generations and which are stained with the blood of many wounds of many races; the city where amid grey old ruins blonde maidens are at play or are lost in reverie in the green cool parks and shady gardens with which the Bohemian capital abounds, this Prague of mingled grotesqueness and beauty gave to the young boy his first impressions. There is a period in the life of every artist when his whole being seems lost in a contemplation of the surrounding world, when the application to work is difficult, like the violent forcing of something that is awaiting its time. This is the time of his dream, as sacred as the days of early spring before wind and rain and light have touched the fruits of the fields, when there is a tense bleak silence over the whole of nature, in which is wrapped the strength of storms and the glow of the summer’s sun. This is the time of his deepest dream, and upon this dream and its guarding depends the final realization of his life’s work. The young graduate of the Gymnasium was to enter upon the career of an army officer in accordance with the traditions of the family, an old noble house which traces its lineage far back to Carinthian ancestry. His inclinations, however, pointed so decisively in the direction of the finer arts of life that he left the Military Academy after a very short attendance to devote himself to the study of philosophy and the history of art. As one turns the pages of Rilke’s first small book of poems, published originally under the title Larenopfer, in the year 1895, and which appeared in more recent editions under the less descriptive name Erste Gedichte, one realizes at once, in spite of a lack of plasticity in the presentation, that here speaks one who has lingered long and lovingly over the dream of his boyhood. As the title indicates, these poems are a tribute, an offering to the Lares, the home spirits of his native town. Prague and the surrounding country are the ever recurring theme of almost every one of these poems.

The meadows, the maidens, the dark river in the evening, the spires of the cathedral at night rising like grey mists are seen with a wonderment, the great well-spring of all poetic imagination, with a well-nigh religious piety. Through all these poems there sounds like a subdued accompaniment a note of gratitude for the ability to thus vision the world, to be sunk in the music of all things. “Without is everything that I feel within myself, and without and within myself everything is immeasurable, illimitable.” These pictures of town and landscape are never separated from their personal relation to the poet. He feels too keenly his dependence upon them, as a child views flowers and stars as personal possessions. Not until later was he to reach the height of an impersonal objectivity in his art. What distinguishes these early poems from similar adolescent productions is the restraint in the presentation, the economy and intensity of expression and that quality of listening to the inner voice of things which renders the poet the seer of mankind. The second book of poems appeared two years later and like the first volume Traumgekrönt is full of the music that is reminiscent of the mild melancholy of the Bohemian folk-songs, in whose gentle rhythms the barbaric strength of the race seems to be lulled to rest as the waves of a far-away tumultuous sea gently lap the shore. The themes of Traumgekrönt are extended somewhat beyond the immediate environment of Prague and some of the most beautiful poems are luminous pictures of villages hidden in the snowy blossoming of May and June, out of which rises here and there the solitary soft voice of a boy or girl singing. In these first two volumes the poet is satisfied with painting in words, full of sonorous beauty, the surrounding world.

From this period dates the small poem Evening, which seems to have been sketched by a Japanese painter, so clear and colourful is its texture, so precious and precise are its outlines. With Advent and Mir Zur Feier, both published within the following three years, a phase of questioning commences, a dim desire begins to stir to reach out into the larger world “deep into life, out beyond time.” Whereas the early poems were characterized by a tendency to turn away from the turmoil of life—in fact, the concrete world of reality does not seem to exist—there is noticeable in these two later volumes an advance toward life in the sense that the poet is beginning to approach and to vision some of its greatest symbols. Throughout the entire work of Rilke, in his poetry as well as in his interpretations of painting and sculpture, there are two elements that constitute the cornerstones in the structure of his art. If, as has been said with a degree of verity, Nietzsche was primarily a musician whose philosophy had for its basis and took its ultimate aspects from the musical quality of his artistic endowment, it may be maintained with an equal amount of truth that Rilke is primarily a painter and sculptor whose poetry rests upon the fundaments of the pictorial and plastic arts. Up to the time of the publication of these volumes, Rilke’s poems possessed a quietude, a stillness suggested in the straight unbroken yet delicate lines of the picture which he portrays and in the soft, almost unpulsating rhythm of his words. The approach of evening or nightfall, the coming of dawn, the change of the seasons, the slow changes of light into darkness and of darkness into light, in short, the most silent yet greatest metamorphoses in the external aspects of nature form the contents of many of these first poems. The inanimate object and the living creature in nature are not seen in the sharp contours of their isolation; they are viewed and interpreted in the atmosphere that surrounds them, in which they are enwrapped and so densely veiled that the outlines are only dimly visible, be that atmosphere the mystic grey of northern twilight or the dark velvety blue of southern summer nights. In Advent, the experience of the atmosphere becomes an experience in his innermost soul and, therefore, all things become of value to him only in so far as they partake of the atmosphere, as they are seen in a peculiar air and distance. This first phase in Rilke’s work may be defined as the phase of reposeful nature.

To this sphere of relaxation and restfulness in which the objects are static and are changed only as the surrounding atmosphere affects them, the second phase in the poet’s development adds another element, which later was to grow into dimensions so powerful, so violently breaking beyond the limitations of simple expression in words that it could only find its satisfaction in a dithyrambic hymn to the work of the great plastic artist of our time, to the creations of Auguste Rodin. This second element is that which the French sculptor in a different medium has carried to perfection. It is the element of gesture, of dramatic movement. This might seem the appropriate place in which to speak of Rilke’s monograph on the art of Rodin. To do so would, however, be an undue anticipation, for it will be necessary to trace Rilke’s development through several transitions before the value of his contact with the work of Rodin can be fully measured. The gesture, the movement begins in Advent and Celebration to disturb the stillness prevailing in the first two volumes of poems. Even here it is only gentle and shy at first like the stirring of a breath of wind over a quiet sea; and gentle beings make this first gesture, children and young women at play, singing, dancing or at prayer. Particularly in the cycle Songs of the Maidens in the book Celebration, the atmosphere is condensed and becomes the psychic background of the landscape against which the gesture of longing or expectation is seen and felt. It is the impatience to burst into blossoming, the longing for love which pulsates in these Songs of the Maidens with the tenseness of suspense. The Prayers of the Maidens to Mary have not the mild melody of maidenly prayer; they vibrate with the ecstasy of expectant life, and the Madonna is more than the Heavenly Virgin, their longing transforms her into the symbol of earthly love and motherhood.

This expectation, in spite of its intensity, is subdued and is only heard like the cadence of a far off dream: “How shall I go on tiptoe From childhood to Annunciation Through the dim twilight Into Thy Garden?” Mention should be made of some prose writings which Rilke published in the year 1898 and shortly afterward. They are Two Stories of Prague, The Touch of Life and The Last; three volumes of short stories; a two-act drama, The Daily Life, points to a strong Maeterlinck influence, and finally Stories of God. With both beauty of detail and problematic interest, the short stories show an incoherence of treatment and a lack of dramatic co-ordination easily conceivable in a poet who is essentially lyrical and who at that time had not mastered the means of technique to give to his characters the clear chiselling of the epic form. A sojourn in Russia and especially the acquaintance with the novels of Dostoievsky became potent factors in Rilke’s development and served to deepen creations which without this influence might have terminated in a grandiose æsthesia. Broadly speaking, Russian art and literature may be described as springing from an ethical impulse and as having for their motive power and raison d’être the tendency toward socio-political reform, in contradistinction to the art and literature of Western culture, whose motives and aims are primarily of an æsthetic nature and seek in art the reconciliation of the dualism between spirit and matter. Dostoievsky, whom Merejkovsky describes somewhere as the man with the never-young face, the face “with its shadows of suffering and its wrinkles of sunken-in cheeks … but that which gives to this face its most tortured expression is its seeming immobility, the suddenly interrupted impulse, the life hardened into a stone:” this Dostoievsky and particularly his Rodion Raskolnikov cycle became a profound artistic experience to Rilke. The poor, the outcasts, the homeless ones received for him a new significance, the significance of the isolated figure placed in the mighty everchanging current of a life in which this figure stands strong and solitary. In the poem entitled Pont Du Carrousel, written in Paris a few years later, Rilke has visioned the blind beggar aloof amid the fluctuating crowds of the metropolis. Of Russia and its influence upon him, Rilke writes: “Russia became for me the reality and the deep daily realization that reality is something that comes infinitely slowly to those who have patience. Russia is the country where men are solitary, each one with a world within himself, each one profound in his humbleness and without fear of humiliating himself, and because of that truly pious.

Here the words of men are only fragile bridges above their real life.” The great symbols of Solitude and of Death enter into the poet’s work. In the first decade of the new century Rilke reached the height of his art and with a few exceptions the poems represented in this volume are selected from the poems which were published between the years 1900 and 1908. The ascent toward the acme of Rilke’s art after the year 1900 is as rapid as it is precipitous. Only a few years previous we read in Advent: “That is longing: To dwell in the flux of things, To have no home in the present. And these are wishes: gentle dialogues Of the poor hours with eternity.” With Das Buch der Bilder the dream is ended, the veil of mist is lifted and before us are revealed pictures and images that rise before our eyes in clear colourful contours. Whether the poet conjures from the depths of myth The Kings in Legends, or whether we read from The Chronicle of a Monk the awe-inspiring description of The Last Judgment Day, or whether in Paris on a Palm Sunday we see The Maidens at Confirmation, the pictures presented stand out with the clearness and finality of the typical. It is a significant fact that Rilke dedicated this book to Gerhart Hauptmann, “in love and gratitude for his Michael Kramer.” Hauptmann, like Rilke in these poems, has placed before us great epic figures and his art is so concentrated that often the simple expression of the thought of one of his characters produces a shudder in the listener or reader because in this thought there vibrates the suffering of an entire social class and in it resounds the sorrow of many generations.


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