Rainer Maria Rilke wrote part 1 of “The Lace” in Paris, France, in the early summer of 1906, and part 2 in Capri, Italy, in February of 1907. In addition to varying in time and place of origin, the two parts also differ in form. Part 1 has three stanzas of five, four, and four lines, and alternating rhyme. Part 2, with its octave (in the original German) and sestet, is an Italian sonnet. The meter throughout is iambic pentameter, varied by Rilke’s strongly rhythmic language. Both parts begin with abstract musings about the nature of human existence. Both parts end with a smile.
Contrary to what one might expect from the title, there is little description of the lace itself. In part 1, readers learn only that it is a small, densely woven piece; in part 2, that it is a flowery border. Not that Rilke’s knowledge of lace was limited—a passage in his novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958) displays his familiarity with various kinds of lace: Italian work, Venetian needlepoint, point d’Alençon, Valenciennes, Binche, and pillow-laces. It is the existence of the lace, though, that is central to the poem.
In New Poems, Rilke was placing newfound emphasis on objects, sometimes describing them in detail, other times, as in “The Lace,” seeking to extract their meaning from them. German has a word for such a poem—a “Dinggedicht,” or a poem...
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