Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

Rilke was in his late thirties when he wrote “The Spanish Trilogy.” In 1910, he completed his novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930), felt exhausted, and wondered whether he could continue writing. Another major project, Duineser Elegien (1923; The Duino Elegies, 1930), was also proving more difficult than expected, and, at the time of his trip to Spain, Rilke was entertaining alternative career plans. For this reason, some critics have interpreted “The Spanish Trilogy” as dealing specifically with the “processes of poetry, as Rilke experienced them,” as a three-stage description of the creative process: First, poets have an intense experience; second, they struggle with the materials of that experience; and third, they feel the satisfaction of successfully converting the essence of the experience into a permanent form, a poem that effectively communicates their sensations and perceptions to others. While this approach is too narrow to do justice to the entire poem, it does have merit. Rilke had written a short prose piece a year earlier titled “über den Dichter” (about the poet), in which he describes a situation that presented itself as an allegory for the role of the poet. Sailors rowing a becalmed boat upstream are energized when a man standing at the bow bursts into song. His voice connects them with the distant goal that only he can see. The poet, for Rilke, is the person who can make that connection and convey that vision to others. If this insight is applied to “The Spanish Trilogy,” the poet is the person who, in the turmoil of the big city, can recall the calm of a pastoral scene. People who are not poets also calm themselves through recourse to special memories, and this is what Rilke is recommending. He does not expect that his experience of the shepherd will have a similar effect on others, but he does suppose that others have their own significant sources of peace and harmony: “Let him be whomever you wish.”

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The last lines of the poem, which must be included in any comprehensive interpretation, go far beyond any comment on writing. They place Rilke’s Spanish experience in the order of the ultimate considerations of life and death: “May death/ more easily find its way.” In Ronda, Rilke felt extraordinarily at one with the world. A few weeks after writing “The Spanish Trilogy,” he wrote “Erlebnis” (experience) 1 and 2, prose pieces that also describe states of unusually heightened awareness. He remembers how, in a garden by the sea, he felt the subtle vibrations of the life force itself in a tree trunk and how the blue of a periwinkle was of inexhaustible significance. A bird call was simultaneously outside and within him. Once privy to this transcendent state, he had a new perspective on everyday life since he had, in a sense, overcome its restrictions. “The Spanish Trilogy” is written with the knowledge of universal harmony. Having glimpsed the massive forces that contain life and death, the poet quietly accepts their sovereignty.

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