Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

In the section of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that deals with lace, looking at the family lace is something the young Malte and his mother like to do. They carefully unwind the familiar specimens from a spindle and behold their patterns with awe and wonderment yet again. By writing a second part to “The Lace” months after completing the first, Rilke is doing the same thing, taking another look at the lace, seeing something else in it, describing it in a different form.

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Like any good work of art, the lace rewards repeated visits. Aesthetically pleasing, it remains the same in a changing world. It is interesting that Rilke, in part 2 of the poem, presents this permanence and perfection as particularly pleasing to adults, which has to do with his perception of the adult world as not necessarily an improvement over the world of a child, as hardly worth the effort of outgrowing “our first pair of/ shoes.” Above all, adulthood seems to the poet a time of uncontrollably changing fortunes, as if one hardly gets settled when something else happens to cause a disruption.

As evidenced by the different locales in which Rilke wrote the two parts of the poem, he had no permanent home in his adult life. Rilke lived the life of a benign vagabond, traveled extensively to satisfy his curiosity about other cultures, and was a migrant guest of various admirers of his work. That was his chosen lifestyle. Multilingual, he felt at home in most of Europe and Russia. He also improved steadily as a writer, enjoying considerable success in his own time. Today, he is considered the most significant and influential German lyric poet of the first half of the twentieth century.

In “The Lace,” the poet par excellence disregards his own accomplishments and is drawn instead to the product of what seems to have been an enviably settled lifestyle. The lace-maker’s art was the fruit of years working with intricate patterns, striving for perfection. Lace-making is too complicated to be a casual pursuit, so it was usually done by intelligent ladies of the nobility whose secure lifestyles left them the time to embark on long-term projects.

Rilke admires, in the octet, the fact that the lace, the complex product of an intelligent, artistic adult mind, got made. In the sestet, he admires the perfection of the completed product. Art, unlike life, can, in gifted hands, conform strictly to a grand design and, when finished, can reflect the artist’s vision, untainted by extraneous or random forces.

That argument, though, applies not only to works of fabric art. It applies equally well to musical compositions, dance choreography, visual arts, and literature. Rilke responds as one artist to another, as someone who understands the trials and rewards of the creative process, and who knows that each work, in its own way, contains some of the artist’s soul.

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