The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote part 1 of “The Lace” in Paris, France, in the early summer of 1906, and part 2 in Capri, Italy, in February of 1907. In addition to varying in time and place of origin, the two parts also differ in form. Part 1 has three stanzas of five, four, and four lines, and alternating rhyme. Part 2, with its octave (in the original German) and sestet, is an Italian sonnet. The meter throughout is iambic pentameter, varied by Rilke’s strongly rhythmic language. Both parts begin with abstract musings about the nature of human existence. Both parts end with a smile.

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Contrary to what one might expect from the title, there is little description of the lace itself. In part 1, readers learn only that it is a small, densely woven piece; in part 2, that it is a flowery border. Not that Rilke’s knowledge of lace was limited—a passage in his novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958) displays his familiarity with various kinds of lace: Italian work, Venetian needlepoint, point d’Alençon, Valenciennes, Binche, and pillow-laces. It is the existence of the lace, though, that is central to the poem.

In New Poems, Rilke was placing newfound emphasis on objects, sometimes describing them in detail, other times, as in “The Lace,” seeking to extract their meaning from them. German has a word for such a poem—a “Dinggedicht,” or a poem about a thing. The lace is referred to as “this thing” in both parts of the poem.

Rilke’s interest in objects was strengthened by his close association with contemporary artists. From 1900 to 1902, he lived in an artists’ colony in Worpswede, a village north of Bremen, Germany. Among his friends were Heinrich Vogeler, who illustrated many of Rilke’s first editions; Paula Modersohn-Becker, whose early death is mourned in Rilke’s “Requiem”; and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who became Rilke’s wife and introduced him to the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Not only did Rilke admire their works, he also understood their creative personalities. It is, therefore, not surprising that, in both parts of “The Lace,” his focus shifts from the lace to the lace-maker, from the artwork to the artist.

The only personal glimpse Rilke provides about the lace-maker is that she eventually went blind. His first impression is that her eyes were, perhaps, too high a price to pay for a piece of lace. Then, with astonishing directness, he apostrophizes the lady: “Do you want them back?” From this changed perspective, he understands that the lace was made with joy and still contains a trace of that joy. In fact, the very soul of the lace-maker seems present in the lace, kept alive in it long after her body has perished. The poet, with new insight, smiles at its usefulness.

In part 2, Rilke derives a lesson from the lace. It is a source of inspiration, an example of the perfect artistry to which humanity aspires. Well worth the effort, the finished product makes the artist smile.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

According to the Germanist Käte Hamburger, Rilke’s basic literary maneuver is the comparison, such as a simile or a metaphor. There is one of each in part 1 of “The Lace.” The simile is in the second stanza: “is all your human joy here inside this thing/ where your huge feelings went, as between/ stem and bark, miniaturized?” There is a detailed analysis of this simile in Wolfgang Müller’s study, Rainer Maria Rilkes “Neue Gedichte” (1971). Müller finds the comparison fitting in three ways: First, it stresses how small the lace is that has nevertheless taken on such significance—thin enough to fit between the stem and bark of a tree; second, it likens the process of lace-making to organic growth, since a tree adds new rings between the stem and the bark; third, when the bark is peeled off, a lacelike pattern is left on its dried inner side.

The metaphor is in the third stanza: “Through a tear in fate, a tiny interstice,/ you absented your soul from its own time.” The verb in the original German is entzogst. The root of it, ziehen, means “to draw or pull,” and the prefix ent means “away.” Drawing something through a hole is fundamental to the art of lace-making. Rilke retains the basic gesture, but, instead of having the lace-maker absent herself from everyday activities by drawing threads through parts of her pattern, he has her transcend her own time by drawing her soul through a hole in fate. The commonplace is transformed. The image of lace-making conveys the idea of spiritual permanence.

Rilke’s writing is persuasive without being polemical. His skillful use of questions in “The Lace” gently deemphasizes a pragmatic viewpoint without denying its validity. The sober fact of the matter is that the lace-maker went blind. While being human is fraught with changing fortunes, her fate seems particularly unkind. Rilke anticipates such a comment and avoids having to refute it by phrasing it as a question. He then effectively precludes debate by suddenly asking the lace-maker herself, by accessing the only truly knowledgeable source.

The second stanza, with its striking simile, is also phrased as a question. While stated more positively, it leaves room for doubt, as if the poet is not quite sure what the lace-maker is telling him. Not until the third stanza does her soul seem so present in the lace that he is able to employ the indicative and explain how it got there.

Proceeding from the knowledge gained in part 1, part 2 opens confidently with a lengthy rhetorical question. The poet is now sure of the deeper meaning of the lace, but, by appearing to ask, he continues to engage the reader. In a subtle series of questions, he has shifted attention from the lace-maker’s ailment to her ecstasy.

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