For the reader who must rely on a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s culminating work, the story and the man behind its appearance may overshadow the poem itself. No translation of the elegiac German original can do justice to the philosophy of the man who wrote it or be as deeply affecting as the inspiration that produced the work.
Rilke is often ranked with William Butler Yeats as one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His poetic innovations might, however, be better compared with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though in the case of Rilke, experimentation with rhythm and rhyme never took precedence over content. Like Yeats, he often let the content find the form. Of the three, Rilke was the most intuitive, rhapsodic, and mystical, and he was perhaps the most consummate craftsman.
In October, 1911, the poet visited his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at Duino Castle, near Trieste. He remained at the castle alone throughout the winter until April, and there he composed the first and second elegies and parts of several others. The opening stanza—which begins “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?”—came to him while he was walking in a storm along a cliff two hundred feet above the raging sea, a romantic interlude worthy of an atmospheric passage in a gothic novel. Rilke conceived the plan of all ten elegies as a whole, though ten years elapsed before the poem found its final form.
The first elegy, like the first movement of a musical work, presents the central theme and suggests the variations that follow. From the opening line to the last, Rilke invokes the angels, not those of Christianity but of a special order immersed in time and space, a concept of being of perfect consciousness, of transcendent reality. As a symbol appearing earlier in Rilke’s poetry, the angel represents to him the perfection of life in all the forms to which he aspired, as high above humankind as God is above this transcending one. Nearest to this angelic order are the heroes—later he praises Samson—and a woman in love, especially one who dies young, as did Gaspara Stampa (1523-1544), whom Rilke celebrates as a near-perfect example. Like the lover, human beings must realize each moment to the fullest rather than be distracted by things and longings. With this contrast of people and angels, of lovers and heroes, and with the admission of life’s transitory nature, the poet suggests the meaning of life and death as well as words can identify such profound things.
If the introduction or invocation is a praise of life, the second elegy is a lament for life’s limitations. Mortals must, at best, content themselves with an occasional moment of self-awareness, of a glimpse at eternity. Unlike the Greeks, people in later times have no external symbols for the life within. In love, were humans not finally satiated, they might establish communication with the angels; finally, though, human intuitions vanish, leaving only a fleeting glimpse of reality.
Rilke began the third elegy at Duino and completed it in Paris the following year; during an intervening visit to Spain, he composed parts of the sixth, ninth, and tenth elegies. In the third section, he confronts the physical bases of life, especially love. He suggests that woman is always superior in the love act, man a mere beginner led by blind animal passion, the libido a vicious drive. Sublime love is an end in itself, but human love is often a means to escape life. Even children have a sort of terror infused into their blood from this heritage of doubt and fear. From this view of mortality, Rilke would lead the child away, as he says in a powerful though enigmatic conclusion:
. . . Oh gently, gentlyshow him daily a loving, confident task done,—guide himclose to the garden, give him those counter-balancing nights. . . .Withhold him.
Perhaps the advent of war made the fourth elegy the most bitter of all, written as it was from Rilke’s...
(The entire section is 1,656 words.)