Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

In this poem (and indeed in many of Rilke’s poems), it is extremely difficult to separate poetic devices from themes. Major themes of the poem include the positive aspects of separation, the gains to be had from risking one’s safety, the insights one gains from being thrown into the dangers of existence, the ways in which one achieves a fuller consciousness by looking at the abyss of nothingness. In its most trite form, one might think of Rilke’s major theme as “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” He expands that cliché, however, to something more like “everything ventured, all of existence gained.”

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Only four months before his death, Rilke was forced to contemplate these themes as he approached his final separation from life and his own confrontation with nothingness. Having survived several serious bouts of illness, he realized that human consciousness can be heightened by such an experience. He returned from each illness with a new sense of insight. The poem thus encourages its readers to face their own dangers with a sense of self-confidence and hope. Like the dove and the ball, human beings can gain from the separations they are forced to endure or bold enough to seek. This view puts a more positive light on the prospect of facing death. It gives the reader the hope that that separation too might yield as yet unimagined benefits, a hope that even this split might provide a new and unexpected wholeness as the poem creates a totality and unity despite the visual fracture that seems to break it open.

In a letter to Arthur Fischer-Colbrie eight months earlier (in December, 1925), Rilke articulated the theme of this poem in more discursive language. In a passage about the seven-year break in his poetic production that made Rilke fear that he would never write again, he happily asserts:“That a person who through the wretched difficulties of those years had felt himself split to the core, into a Before and an irreconcilable, dying Now: that such a person should experience the grace of perceiving how in yet more mysterious depths, beneath this gaping split, the continuity of his work and his soul reestablished itself,seems to me more than just a private event; for with it a measure is given of the inexhaustible stratification of our nature, and how many, who, for one reason or another, believe themselves ripped apart, might draw from this example of possible continuation a special comfort.”

In this passage, Rilke has the vision to perceive the wholeness that can contain the rents of existence. The poem, too, creates new unity and insight by daring to create a visual rift that helps to convey wholeness and hope.

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