The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

“Dove, That Stayed Outside” (or, as translator Stephen Mitchell titles it, “Dove That Ventured Outside”) is a short poem of twelve lines divided into three stanzas of four lines each. The meter of the original poem is predominantly dactylic, and the German rhymes aabb, cdcd, eeff. The poem is graphically striking, because it is divided vertically down its center by a break in the text, a blank space that runs through the middle of all three stanzas. This blank space reinforces the central theme of the poem, which is separation. The two parts of the poem are physically separated from one another by the blank space, but they nevertheless form the unified whole of the text.

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This text is part of an exchange of letters, written in the form of poems between 1924 and 1926, between Rainer Maria Rilke and the eighteen-year-old Austrian writer Erika Mitterer (the Erika to whom the poem is addressed). This particular poem was dated August 24, 1926, only four months before Rilke died. It is in response to Mitterer’s discussion of surviving a near encounter with death after a serious operation. The “festival of praising” referred to is the joy of praising life itself after a brush with death.

The first stanza describes the feeling of the dove that remains outside the dovecote and that is, therefore, united directly with the night and day. This dove that remains outside knows the mystery of the dangers and fears that threaten its flight. Stanza 2 looks at the dove that remains within the protection of the group, spared any fear and never endangered. This secure dove cannot know the tenderness of fully inhabiting a heart that one has won back from some danger. The more adventurous dove of stanza 1 gains a freedom by exploring its own abilities outside the group’s protection.

Stanza 3 begins by generalizing about the condition of daring the unknown by suggesting that “everywhere” stretches itself out over “nowhere”—that is, that all of existence can only be explored by risking the encounter with nothingness or oblivion. The same sentiment is reiterated in the last image of the poem, that of the ball. The ball tossed out into space, the audacious ball, which leaves the hand as the dove leaves the dovecote in stanza 1, returns to the hand with an additional weight for having been tossed forth. Like the dove and the ball, humans gain by risking the unknown.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

As in many of his poems, Rilke uses a strong central image from the natural world (the dove) to serve as a metaphor for some aspect of the human condition. In this case, the dove’s activity of remaining outside the protection of the group, of daring to fly free even in a frightening and threatening world, gives the dove a sense of self-worth and a new feeling of its own capabilities. The dove who always remains in the secure position never gains this additional level of consciousness. In the same way, the human being who risks exploring terrifying parts of existence will gain a new understanding of himself or herself. The experience of being forced out over the abyss occurs unavoidably when one is ill or facing death. Although the experience may be terrifying, the person may gain a much broader understanding of existence as a whole for having dared to remain in danger.

The final image of the ball being tossed up and caught again repeats this basic metaphorical message. Just as the ball gains weight and momentum from having been thrown forth, human beings tossed into uncertainty by fate regain their stability with an added sense of comprehension and a deepened consciousness of the value of the world. A sick person who regains his or her health may well value it more than a person who has never been endangered.

The dove and the ball also share the act of flight—either voluntary (as in the case of the dove) or involuntary (as in the case of the thrown ball). Rilke often depicts flying as a risky business, full of both fear and freedom. The dove and the ball must leave the earth in order to overcome the sky; in a similar way, man must be willing to leave his familiar terrain in order to conquer new levels of consciousness and experience. All those who venture forth return enriched. Rilke reinforces this idea by rhyming Wiederkehr (return) and mehr (more, an increase) in the final two lines of the poem.

In another clever device, Rilke embodies this act of being separated by visually cleaving his own poem in two. After beginning each line, he throws the second half of the line out of its normal position by leaving a number of blank spaces between the two halves. This has the effect of tossing half of his poem out into space in the same way that the ball is tossed in the closing lines. The effect of cutting the lines in two is emphasized by the meter of the poem in German. The two syllables bordering the blank spaces are usually both stressed. This results in a breaking of the line rhythmically as well as visually into two half-lines.

The split down the center of the poem recalls the division of the dove from the dovecote and man from his normal security. It may also call to mind the threat of being cut off, sundered from life itself when one is ill. In any case, the visual effect of the ruptured poem makes one think about separation as a theme. The dove must be willing to remain separate from the dovecote, and the ball must be willing to separate from the hand in order to gain new insight and weight. A person must be willing to leave the safety of others in order to reach new levels of awareness. The frightening aspects of separation thus take on a new positive value in Rilke’s poem.

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Themes