Rainer Maria Rilke

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Compare and contrast "Tell Me, O Swan" by Kabir and "The Swan" by Rilke.

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Both poems use the swan as a symbol. In the Kabir poem, the swan is seen as a kind of mystery. The poet questions the swan ("From what land do you come / O Swan? to what shore will you fly?") as a way of addressing certain mysteries of life itself. Like the swan, perhaps, each of us is on a journey to an unknown "shore."

Rilke, on the other hand, is a bit more explicit. The swan is the focus of a simile: the "laboring" of humans is like the "lumbering gait" of the swan on land. The image suggests that life is ungainly, awkward, difficult.

This difference suggests a difference in tone and in the relationship of the poet to the subject of the poem. For Kabir, the tone is expressive of a kind of ecstatic truth: yhe poet tells the swan to "awake, arise, follow me" because the poet can lead the swan to paradise ("where the terror of Death is no more"). In this sense, the Kabir poem is explicitly religious in a way the Rilke poem is not. Rilke seems to address a specific person who faces death: when he refers to "our dying," he is talking about a specific event, the moment of death, rather than a mystic concept. Rilke's tone differs from Kabir in that his poem is more personal, more contemplative, and more abstract.

Finally, both poems consist of two movements, first, how life is a struggle, and second, how death is a kind of release. Kabir explicitly sees this as a return to the divine: the paradise he speaks of in the second stanza smells of the "fragrant scent," "He is I," which can only be the scent of a transcendent union with god.

Rilke is at once more concrete and less specific spiritually. For Rilke, the specific action of the swan walking on land is equated with the "this laboring of ours with all that remains undone" or the specific sense of having not accomplished all in life we would want. The swan swimming is an image that suggests physical ease: the swan "glides" over the "yielding" water. While Rilke does not invoke a specific paradise, this "lowering" into the water is nevertheless a way of entering into a state of grace.

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"Tell Me, O Swan, Your Ancient Tale" by Kabir and "The Swan" by Ranier Maria Rilke both use the image of a swan to express different facets of the journey through life. In Kabir's poem, the speaker is addressing the swan, or the image of the swan, and speaking to him about the possibilities of life. In the poem by Rilke, the swan is used as imagery to express the ending of life's journey.

Ultimately, "Tell Me, O Swan" is about life and "The Swan" is about death. Kabir's poem has the speaker telling the swan to follow him to a land without doubt or sorrow, a land full of natural beauty where the swan does not have to fear "the terror of Death." The speaker asks the swan about where he is from and where he wants to fly. All of these images demonstrate the wonderful possibilities and beauties of life laid out before the swan.

"The Swan" by Rilke, however, is showing the ending of life after a long journey of experiencing both the good and difficult things of life. To experience the peace of death, the swan must let go of life and "all that remains undone" in that life. It is through this letting go that the swan can now feel "serene and sure, with regal composure."

Both of these poems use the beautiful and graceful swan to point out different aspects and parts of life, the universal experience.

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In the first stanza of Kabir's poem, the poet apostrophizes the swan and asks a series of questions. Where does the swan come from? Where is it going? Where will it rest? What does it seek? More broadly, what is the swan's "ancient tale"? This seems to be a question not just about the swan, but about all swans. What does it mean to be a swan?

The second stanza is slightly longer, seven lines as opposed to five. The poet no longer asks questions but invites the swan to follow him to a land "where the terror of Death is no more." The poem is no longer about the swan but about the land to which the poet wants to go.

Rilke's poem is also twelve lines, divided into three stanzas of three, three, and six lines. The poet does not address the swan directly but begins by referring to its strange gait as a simile for the heavy awkwardness of living. This comparison occurs in the first stanza. Then, the swan slips into the water and its elegant grace in gliding over the water in the transition from second stanza to third is contrasted with its clumsiness on land.

Instead of urging the swan, like Kabir, to come to a land without the terror of Death, Rilke uses the swan's assurance in swimming as an image of death, thereby suggesting to the reader that dying is both easier and more graceful than living and that, like a swan in the water, we shall be in our element in the land of death.

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The first contrast which I notice when reading these two poems is the way both poets address the swan.

In Kabir's poem "Tell Me, O Swan, Your Ancient Tale," the poet is speaking to the swan. In Rilke's poem "The Swan," the poet is talking about the swan and describing the swan to the reader.

However, in both poems, the poem is not just about a swan. Rilke's poem is comparing himself, and maybe ourselves as readers, to the swan. He points out that the swan looks strange and awkward when walking on dry land, but is beautiful in the water. He says that we are longing to get off of solid ground and into the water, which is whatever is natural and comfortable for us.

Kabir's poem seems to be addressing a swan, but the second stanza suggests that he may also be talking to the reader and encouraging us to consider this land with no sorrow. He wants the swan to come up from the water and move on to something better.

I hope this gives you a good starting place. Sometimes it can be easiest to find contrasts, so don't be afraid to first find everything that's different between the poems and then look for similarities. Focus on ways the metaphors are similar, as well as the message and theme of the poems.

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