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Thursday, 13 October 2016
On struggle and acceptance in the "Duineser Elegien" (1912-22) and the "Sonette an Orpheus" (1922) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Rainer Maria Rilke’s two great poetic cycles of his late period, the Duineser Elegien (composed 1912-22, published 1923) and the Sonette an Orpheus (1922, published 1923), are closely intertwined in both content and creation. Individual elegies and sonnets can be, and often are, extracted and reprinted elsewhere, but each holistic poetic cycle is inevitably much more rewarding in its entirety. More rewarding still, however, is to read the two alongside one another as complementary, it being during the same frenzied burst of inspiration in February 1922 that Rilke finished the Elegien and simultaneously began, and then completed, the Sonette. When the cycles are understood in this context of considerable overlap, it becomes much clearer why we can read them as a pair, allowing Rilke to take us from elegies to sonnets, from a predominant mode of struggle to a predominant mode of acceptance. Though that is not to say that anything as complex as these two collections can be split into two modes quite so easily, the thorny ontological questions raised throughout the Elegien for the most part gain a set of answers in the last four elegies (particularly VII, IX and X, but notably not VIII), answers which bear significant resemblance to the ideas expressed in the Sonette - in that they align in terms of purely abstract ideas, though the resemblance extends to little else.
In this respect, though a reading that restricts itself to precise chronological order of composition might be too messy, it proves helpful to closely analyse the Duineser Elegien in the sequence in which Rilke eventually published them, their order as they sit on the page, since this enables us to build from initial questions to potential answers and hint at the way these answers are further explored in the Sonette an Orpheus.
We might begin by asking why Rilke chose the classical form of the elegy. Whilst sometimes defined more broadly as any sombre or pessimistic poem, the elegy is strictly speaking a lament, sad and mournful in tone, and expressing regret at the passing of a deceased beloved, or perhaps a tragic event: Coleridge wrote that ‘elegy presents everything as lost and gone or absent and future’. He could well have been describing the Elegien, which express consistent anguish (‘wehe’ being one of the poet’s most frequently recurring interjections) over loss of meaning and direction in an ever more uncertain modernity. During World War I, and post-Freud, Einstein, and Heisenberg, the question of what literature exists to do, how it should respond to these vast, destabilising developments, forms the central struggle at the heart of the Elegien. So much of this struggle is couched in the language of language, and specifically lyric at that, from ‘erste Musik’ (I:92) to ‘Stimmen, Stimmen’ (I:54) to the poet’s more primal ‘Lockruf’ (I:8) - and that just in the First Elegy. The Elegien, at least in part, could be described as an elegy to elegies and what elegies represented, to contained, neatly limited, meaningful verse, to a lost capacity for coherent human expression. Structurally this is neatly conveyed in the changes made to the traditional elegiac form, a line of dactylic hexameter followed by line of dactylic pentameter; Rilke emulates it to an extent, but it is never consistently applied, as though the link to an older poetic tradition is imperfect, and is in danger of being lost.
The questioning tone of the Elegien is exemplified by the First Elegy’s famous opening: ‘Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel/Ordnungen?’ (I:1-2). This anxiety about how to reach a transcendent realm, whose representatives are the Angels, or indeed whether there is such a realm, stays with the poet until at least the Sixth Elegy, and resurfaces again in the Eighth. This transcendent realm (‘das Schöne’, I:4) torments mortals by its inaccessibility, the very noumenal status of whatever it is which casts shadows on the cave wall proving so far beyond our mere visible world that the poet must declare ‘ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich’ (I:7) and retreats from his attempt to call upon it (‘und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf/dunkelen Schluchzens’, I:8-9). The struggle has begun, and Rilke’s language continuously reminds us of it - take ‘wie der Pfeil die Sehne besteht, um gesammelt im Absprung/mehr zu sein als er selbst’ (I:52-3), in which the Sehne - the bowstring - calls to mind sehnen, yearning: that pre-flight state of trembling, waiting, hoping to be something greater and transformative in fluid motion, is common to both words. We are at odds with our 'gedeutete Welt' (I:13), unable to properly live in it (‘Freilich ist es seltsam, die Erde nicht mehr zu bewohnen’, I:69) - yet even here, though there is not yet resolve or release, the first indications of how this struggle might end are present: ‘wagende erste Musik dürre Erstarrung durchdrang;/daß erst im erschrockenen Raum, dem ein beinah göttlicher Jüngling/plötzlich für immer enttrat, das Leere in jene/Schwingung geriet, die uns jetzt hinreißt und tröstet und hilft’ (I:92-5, my italics). Consolation, aid, perhaps is found in the ‘erste Musik’ that filled up the empty space, the arid wastes - but the poet remains uncertain, asking if such a tale has any meaning: ‘Ist die Sage umsonst’ (I:91).
One of the most repeated motifs is that of Strom, whether that’s in the word itself or in its many compounds, entströmt, Strömung, etc - sometimes of water, sometimes of air, but always referring to a lightness, a fluidity, of being which seems to elude our dully mortal and limited existence. And yet crucially we creatures of self-consciousness lack fixed corporeal existence, too, when compared to the world of objects around us: ‘Siehe, die Bäume sind; die Häuser,/die wir bewohnen, bestehn noch. Wir nur/ziehen allem vorbei wie ein luftiger Austausch’ (II:39-41). It is this place between physical and spiritual which we inhabit, but the poet questions how we can carve out this delicate space for our own: ‘fänden auch wir ein reines, verhaltenes, schmales/Menschliches, einen unseren Streifen Fruchtlands/zwischen Strom und Gestein’ (II: 74-6), in which - right down to the plosiveness and sibilance of the consonants that comprise the words - Strom is the fluent, transcendent, onward-moving realm, and Gestein the firm rigidity of solid objects. We seek this narrow human realm which bridges the two, but the poem does not tell us how we may find it. We must take an outward step of action, ‘denn Bleiben ist nirgends’ (I:53), a linguistically inventive statement which does away with linguistic logic or categorisation of words, violating rules to hint at the end of such petty distinctions - an invention which recurs in ‘Pollen der blühenden Gottheit’, ‘Räume aus Wesen’, ‘Schilde aus Wonne’ (II:12, 14), the physical categories of noun blending with the purely abstract. Down to the word choices themselves, Rilke is mingling these two ways of being.
So this is the struggle: trying to locate ourselves ‘zwischen Strom und Gestein’, balancing between rising to a transcendent realm and falling onto an earthly one, between being ‘light’ creatures and ‘heavy’ ones, pure thought and pure corporeality, flow or stasis, energy or matter. Rilke would not feel such anguish or begin with his vivid cry directed towards the heavens if this balance was an easily maintained one. In fact to slip is easy: ‘wo sich das reine Zuwenig/unbegreiflich verwandelt -, umspringt/in jenes leere Zuviel’ (V:82-4). The poet’s various attempts to answer this all prove unsuccessful: in suggesting that children are somehow ignorant of their own consciousness as set against the world, ignorant of being at odds with the purely external but also at odds with the purely internal, he is confronted with the problem that children grow up. Lovers may catch a glimpse of this alternative, but only briefly, and - as he will say later - the other blocks the view (‘wäre nicht der andre, der/die Sicht verstellen’, VIII:24-5).
Why it is not entirely accurate to say the Elegien focus only on struggle becomes clear in the Seventh Elegy, where the poet starts to find solutions to his questions - and indeed a kind of acceptance. The sentiments expressed here mark a dramatic shift from his earlier standpoints, as befits a poetic cycle with a tortured gestation almost but not quite solely limited to two phases of creativity ten years apart. That Rilke can declare ‘Hiersein ist herrlich’ (VII:39) shifts the new comfort with which he regards humanity’s limited, worldly, material place in the cosmos. Our limited mortal sphere becomes praised despite - no, because of - its limitations. Plato might have put it in different terms: that we should stop worrying about who casts the shadows on the cave wall. With the search for transcendence and the yearning for angels having been abandoned, focus turns to transforming the physical and the limited within our consciousness, or making use of the limited space and time we have. It is by being limited that we achieve, which angels - with their inability to comprehend endings, beginnings, boundaries, deaths - can never attain and so can only marvel at. ‘Engel, dir noch zeig ich es, da!’ (VII, 71), the poet exclaims triumphantly, and his second-class-citizen status in comparison with the angels is gone in a stroke. How could angels conceive of, draw up plans for, and build a cathedral like Chartres, or even know when it was finished? How could they feel the oncoming excitement of a song that is about to start and the satisfied sadness when it is over? Where would be the preciousness of their lives, if they are never fleeting? In this regard all eternities - heaven, hell, purgatory - may as well be the same thing, limited as they are by not being limited.
This becomes a motto for how to live, how to approach the objects which inhabit our own, proudly limited spaces (‘diese gewährenden, diese/unseren Räume’, VII: 78-9): immanence rather than transcendence. The struggle returns, briefly, in the Eighth Elegy, reasserting the conditions of boundaries and alienation, as we try to impose order only for things to fall apart (‘Wir ordnens. Es zerfällt/Wir ordnens wieder und zerfallen selbst’, VIII, 68-9). Chaos is come again. It does not betray the principles of the Seventh Elegy to realise this, or indeed to realise that it is painful - especially not because the Ninth follows next and reinforces the idea that it is through speech, language, poetry that the preciousness of the limited can best be symbolised. Poetry is limited and restricted by form, meter, vocabulary, even the physical dimensions of the book which encloses it, yet it gives us glimpses of limitlessness in among the limited. ‘Hier ist des Säglichen Zeit, hier seine Heimat’ (IX, 43), says the poet, in which the hier is our earthly realm, yes, but also the event, the singularity, of the poem: the instant of its being written and the instant of its being read. The role of the poet is to illuminate and immortalise with his/her language the world around them, rather than aiming for a transcendence that is impossible to attain. Earth, ‘du liebe’ (IX:71), becomes the new focus of the poet’s apostrophe, not the Angels. The vividness of ‘Hiersein’ and of the moment of ‘Hiersein’ that is writing becomes a way of winning the struggle, of claiming the physical world of objects for our own in the face of devouring time, devouring mortality.
The Tenth Elegy - a kind of afterword - sees the poet bring us back down to Earth so we are ready to live here (and, indeed, ready for the Sonette an Orpheus). There is a distinctly tangible sense to the Tenth Elegy which has been missing in the previous nine: we are closer to our earthly lives. There is a city, valleys and mountains: there is a topology, somewhere we can envisage living rather than flights of abstraction. We return to our limited, earthly existence but it is now a productive existence we can transform and preserve. Limitlessness, not limitation, is a prison. The final act of the Elegien thus becomes a direct inversion of the calling up to heaven at its opening, contentment in the here and now: ‘und wir, die an steigendes Glück/denken, empfänden die Rührung,/die uns beinah bestürzt,/wenn ein Glückliches fällt.’ (X:110-13).
Having dealt with this struggle against transcendence and gradual coming to terms with the earthly, the reader is now ready for the tone of acceptance which permeates the Sonette. The grand existentialism of asking how we can possibly live gives way to the no less significant, but perhaps more focussed, question of how we shall live, how we shall move forward now we are back on Earth. Rilke himself paralleled the small, russet-coloured sails of his 55 sonnets with the larger canvas that was his elegies - and true enough, they are of a very different poetic form. They are modest, restricted and limited by rhyme scheme where the Elegien were freeform and unrhyming, or would frequently eschew perfect dactylic meter altogether. They generally follow the conventions of Petrarchan sonnets, shifting from two quatrains to two tercets, the shift in the middle sometimes being conveyed by a single turning-point line, the volta. Within these rather stricter limitations than those of an elegy, the Sonette are nonetheless playful - most notably in enjambment from a quatrain to a tercet (as in II,IX:7-9, ‘Ins reine, ins hohe, ins thorig/offene Herz träte er anders, der Gott/wirklicher Milde’) where normally one would expect a shift in meaning. On the whole, however, they are more formal, that is to say the form in which they are written is stricter, which perfectly gestures at the equilibrium which permeates them in comparison to the Elegien - and yet simultaneously Rilke plays with the sonnet form with astonishing reinvention, happy to career in a freewheeling manner from one variety to the next.
The acceptance that came into play toward the end of the Elegien and lies at the heart of the Sonette involves recognising a broader understanding of the visible world and the life we live in it, including perceiving death as a dimension of life, an aspect of its ongoing aliveness. This stands in opposition to the initial treatment of the dead in the Elegien, who are seen to have already attained transcendence on ‘the other side’, as it were. But here Orpheus the musician, emblem of the transformative artist, can only maintain ‘den leisesten Ton’ (I,IX:7) once he has ‘mit Toten vom Mohn/aß, von dem ihren’ (I,IX:5-6): paradoxically, poetry that embraces Hiersein, poetry that lasts, must be aware of the death and limitation into which it is born. Orpheus continues to sing and play his lyre even whilst he is being torn apart by the Maenads (I,XXVI:4, ‘aus den Zerstörenden stieg dein erbauendes Spiel’, echoing the same verb ‘stieg’ at the cycle’s very opening). He becomes an ideal figure for this earthly ‘Doppelbereich’ of life and death: a poet who retains an awareness of that invisible world, that ‘other’ level of reality which is somehow deeper, yet must appreciate and praise present reality because it is also a crucial dimension of existence (‘sei - und wisse zugleich des Nicht-Seins Bedingung’, II,XIII:9). This vision of both Strom and Gestein at once - which we heard in the Second Elegy - seems to be the balanced way of living, and recurs again at the Sonette’s close: ‘Und wenn dich das Irdische vergaß,/zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne./Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin’ (II,XXIX:12-14). After the ontological struggle of the Elegien, permanence in transience, limitlessness in limitation, becomes something Orpheus and Rilke suggest we can - and must - accept in order to live.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, WERKE: Kommentierte Ausgabe in vier Bänden, Vol 2: Gedichte 1910 bis 1926, ed. Manfred Engel and Ulrich Fülleborn, Insel Verlag, 1996.