Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Post: On Rilke and Eliot

It is time to interrupt this program of "The Best of" to pen something new. And having dwelt more on affective disorders than art in this string of posts, I feel impelled to write something about my favorite art, poetry.

Last night I was up until 4 AM reading Celan and all of Rilke's Duino Elegies. I know enough German to follow the translations and occasionally quibble with the translators, but Rilke's verse is difficult, even in German, because of his vast diction and complicated syntax, stumbling blocks for any translator. Yet the ineffable nature of Rilke's poetry shines through translation.

It's been said that poetry is what can't be translated, but I disagree, and put forth Shakespeare as an example, whose poetry has rivaled the Bible in the adaptation of his work to every major language.

Rilke is considered a Victorian/Edwardian poet by some, but I think his Duino Elegies put him squarely in the modern camp, for several reasons. First, the psychological depth of this, his later work; second, the almost conversational tenor of the Elegies; and third, the changing point of view that he manages so seamlessly. Sometimes he addresses an angel, sometimes a woman, sometimes the reader and often himself. There is also a deep honesty to his struggles, as if he tries to pull the last veil from his masks and find the essential being within. Yet even as he does this, he pulls away from the intimacy of being and calls upon the angels to save him, though he somewhat comically contends that the angels are most interested in "Things"--the details of a carnival for instance, while eschewing the temple.

I have never seen a work that so dovetails with Eliot's "Four Quartets" as the Elegies do, and the genesis of the majority of these ten master works occurred after a long fallow period, in a burst of inspiration in 1922 (he wrote the first three in 1912). In this Rilke observes a poetic silence much like Eliot's between "Ash Wednesday," written in 1927, and "Four Quartets" begun in 1936. Similar themes of time, mortality, spiritual illumination and being in the present also dominate the Elegies, though they bear the signature of a more consistent voice than Eliot's Quartets do. Yet note these comparisons:

"But this: that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun, can hold it in one's heart
gently, and not refuse to go on living,
is inexpressible." (Rilke, ending of the third Elegy)

"You can receive this: 'on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death'--that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others." (Eliot, Dry Salvages III, near the end)

Notice how the voice in each passage avoids lecturing, yet there is a certainty to the poet's arguments that is hard to resist, because each poet truly believes in what he is saying.

Here are another two passages:

"And you, dear women
who must have loved me for my small beginning
of love towards you, which I always turned away from
because the space in your features grew, changed,
even while I loved it, into cosmic space,
where you no longer were--" (fourth Elegy, near the middle)

"Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left the station...
You shall not think "the past is finished"
Or "the future is before us." (Dry Salvages III, middle passage)

How time transforms us into different people; how a human face changes with time until the person is no longer there. And both poets have a tenuous and mistrustful relationship with the body, best typified in Eliot's "Prufrock" but still present in 4Q:

Again, from the fourth Elegy:

"I won't endure these half-filled human masks;
better, the puppet. It at least is full.
I'll put up with the stuffed skin, the wire, the face
that is nothing but appearance."

From "Burnt Norton III":

"Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies empty of meaning."

So there are great similarities in substance between the Elegies and Four Quartets, although the pleading voice of Rilke is more Romantic and the more distant voice of Eliot more Classical.

Rilke's central theme is of a failed ascendancy; like the panther in the cage, he paces the world yet feels caged by it, hoping for the deliverance of angels, of some final epiphany, only to be returned to his body and the problems of human love and human boundaries that ultimately prevent a true earthly union between lovers, as in the famous passage at the end of the Fifth Elegy, so difficult to translate:

"If there were a place that we didn't know of, and there
on some unsayable carpet, lovers displayed
what they could never bring to mastery here--
Would... [the soundless dead] throw down their final, forever saved-up
forever hidden, unknown to us, eternally valid
coins of happiness before the at last
genuinely smiling pair on the gratified

Difficult to say, but would those who never experienced ideal love throw their horded idealization of it at the feet of those who achieved it in some other world? That it must happen in some other world is testimony to the fact that Rilke could not achieve it in this one; he is more identified with the soundless dead. Indeed, in his upbringing and personal relationships he fled from intimacy and perhaps his own femininity, having been raised as a girl by his mother until-shock of shocks!--his father put him in military school.

Naturally these speculations deserve a fuller treatment, and no doubt these thoughts will develop into a more fully-formed essay. But for now, let me but speak of the unadulterated joy of staying up late to bathe in greatness, of having my attention riveted by a poet whom I've read before before but never truly embraced. And to mention Celan in passing is a disservice, though I urge you to read him as well. The joy of poetry, when it descends upon you, exceeds any other intellectual joy that I know, not to mention the emotional engagement and sheer adventure of great verse.

Here ends the break from "The Best of."

At 2 Kilobunnies,



  1. This is simply wonderful stuff...I do enjoy Rilke so.

    I have been reading Baudelaire recently. Another unhappy

    I like his is one translation:


    Be wise, O my Sorrow, be calmer.
    You implored the evening; it falls; here it is:
    A dusky air surrounds the town,
    Bringing peace to some, worry to others.

    Whilst the worthless crowd of humanity,
    Lashed by Pleasure, that merciless torturer,
    Go to gather remorse in slavish rejoicing,
    Give me your hand, my Sorrow; come with me,

    Far from them. See the dead years leaning,
    In worn-out clothing, on the balconies of the skies;
    See how Regret, grinning, rises from the deep waters;

    The dying sun goes to sleep in an archway,
    And, like a long shroud dragging from the East,
    Hear, O my dear one, hear the soft night coming.

    — Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

  2. Anonymous10:48 PM PST

    good stuff CE


  3. The French Symbolists I have too long neglected, esp. with their influence on the moderns: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Jules Forgue, Apollinaire--there's a whole bunch for me to cut my teeth on yet. But I'll get to it after 10,000 other things! Thanks for the poem. Good to see you here, Norm.

  4. Thanks for this. I enjoyed the comparisons and as I've not read Rilke's elegies it's lovely to be pointed in that direction. This makes me want to read them!


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