The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 471 words.)