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O Tell Us, Poet, What You Do — Rainer Maria Rilke

October 18, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote some uncannily moving poems. The Duino Elegies are perhaps the greatest for meditative study, but he also wrote some hit singles like the gem below. It’s a vindication of the task of poetry, with an interrogator asking a sharp series of questions, to which the poet always gives the same, simple answer. “Ich rühme,” he says in Rilke’s original German, “I praise” or “I celebrate.” It’s interesting that the skeptic is so searching and eloquent in line after line, and the poet just stonewalls.
Fred Sanders, The Bible Institute of Los Angeles

O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it, how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillnesss and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.

There are those who will tell you that Rilke is not a Christian poet or that he rejected Christianity. Many have rejected the Christianity that dominated their particular age. I rejected mine for the longest of time which is why I am understanding of Rilke and his rejection perhaps. There is too much in Rilke’s writings that move my Catholic heart for me to believe that he was not one of us if not for the simple reason his idea that poets, like the Christian man, the original homo adorans before the fall, praises. The poet revives this vestigal memory we all possess from the Garden.

Micah Mattix, an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University wrote this review of Letters on God and Letter to a Young Woman By Rainer Maria Rilke was featured in the WSJ a few months ago. I don’t agree with a lot that he wrote but I appreciated his attempt to make a few sharp clarifications:

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Death was central to Rilke’s view of life. To embrace death meant embracing the “incomprehensible,” another name for God.

It’s fair to say that the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was bedeviled by God, or what the poet called God. In “Improvisations of the Caprisian Winter” (1906-07), God is a mountain, Rilke writes, in which “I climb / and descend all alone and lose the way.” In another early, uncollected poem (1909), he addresses God as “you, whom I cannot take hold of now, anywhere.”

For Rilke (1875-1926), God is difficult to grasp not because he is absent but because he has been pushed to the corners of our mind. “Could one not see the history of God,” Rilke writes in one of the “Letters on God” now being published in English for the first time, “as if it were the side of the human condition that was never visited, always put off, saved up for later, and eventually missed out on altogether?” The poet’s duty is to find him again.

Annemarie S. Kidder’s translations of these two essay-like letters show how central this search was to the poet. The first was written in Munich on Nov. 8, 1915, not long after the French blockade of the city during World War I. Writing to a female admirer of his only novel, “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” (1910), Rilke, perhaps with the war at the forefront of his mind, quickly turns to the question of how it is possible to live when life is so “incomprehensible.”

It isn’t, he answers, unless we embrace all that is beyond our control, including death. We wrongly treat death as unnatural, Rilke argues. We bracket it out when we should accept it as part of the cycle of life. “When a tree begins to bud,” Rilke writes, “both death and life spring up in it.” To embrace death is to embrace the “incomprehensible,” which, for the poet, is another name for God.

Rilke was raised a Catholic, and there are echoes in his work of Christ’s pronouncement that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Yet he came to reject the Catholic church, due to what he saw as his mother’s superficial religiosity. Sophia Rilke (née Entz), who came from a well-to-do family in Prague, would often take the young Rilke on pilgrimages and to churches.

If the family could not be wealthy, they could at least be “spiritual,” she seems to have believed. While the poet was deeply attached to his mother in his youth, he came to despise her overbearing nature and what he called “her absent-minded piety.” In his poetic cycle “Visions of Christ” (1896-98), which he refused to publish in his lifetime, and in the second “letter on god” published here, Rilke rejects the principle tenet of the church — the divinity of Christ — fashioning instead his own sense of spirituality.

In this second letter, written in 1922 in the guise of a factory worker and addressed to the deceased poet Emile Verhaeren, Rilke asks: “Who is this Christ that is meddling in everything?” For Rilke, Christ is holy to the extent that he embraced death and, therefore, life. He is an example of a life fully lived. “I cannot believe,” the poet writes, “that the cross was meant to remain; rather, it was to mark the crossroads.” People who worship Christ, Rilke writes, are “like dogs that do not comprehend the meaning of an index finger and think they have to snap at the hand.”

For Rilke, “degraded Christianity” has wrongly disdained sex, which has resulted in its “distortion and repression.” His own version of Christianity celebrates boundless sex as a form of participating in the mystery of one’s own life. (This is a view, no doubt, that was at least a little convenient for a poet who, to put it delicately, maintained a number of complicated relationships with women.) He comically lauds in this letter the debauched popes “weighed down by illegitimate children, mistresses, and victims of murder.” “Was there not more Christianity in them,” Rilke asks, “than in the lightweight restorers of the Gospels; namely, something alive, unstoppable, transformed?”

As these letters show, Rilke’s search for God was really a search for self. In finding himself, the poet hopes to find what he calls God but what most Christians would call devilry. His rather strange definition of death as part of God helps to explain Rilke’s divine angel in his most powerful poetic sequence, “The Duino Elegies” (1923).

In his earlier poems, God had been our “neighbor” who hides in “lowly” places. The poet watches attentively for the divine being’s “groping hand.” But in “The Duino Elegies,” God is replaced by a powerful angel. While this angelic spirit is still associated with the everyday, it is also something to be feared. “Every Angel,” Rilke writes, “brings terror,” but in facing the angel, the poet faces death, “names” God and thus provides his life with a fullness of being.

This volume also collects several letters that Rilke wrote to Lisa Heise between 1919 and 1924. Rilke was in his 40s at the time of the first letter; Heise was 26 . Her husband of three years had left her and her 2-year-old son. She sensed a kinship with the poet after reading “Book of Images” (1902) and wrote him. Rilke generously responded.

If Rilke is sometimes self-absorbed, his letters to Heise show him to be a patient and well-intentioned correspondent who genuinely cares for his interlocutor. While he is often philosophical — Rilke attempts a definition of womanhood, addresses the relationship between the artist and his work, and again discusses death — he also labors to help Heise deal with her sense of solitude (a subject on which Rilke was an expert) and shows sincere concern regarding her living arrangements, her son and her health. He also opens up to Heise. “My internal gardening,” he writes in one letter, “was magnificent this winter.”

In his final letter to Heise, her situation much improved, Rilke writes: “And what does living mean but this courage to fully grow into a cast, which one day will be broken off from our new shoulders.” The result, he says, will be a joyful freedom. The poet would die two years later. Whether he himself experienced this joy only God knows.

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