The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “The Spanish Trilogy” in Ronda, Spain, between January 6 and 14, 1913. He had seen El Greco’s dramatic painting of Toledo in 1911 and made the trip to Spain to see the landscape. The opening lines of the poem capture his great enthusiasm for the rugged countryside, which is full of movement and charged with portent on a windy night. Rilke’s engrossment in the landscape is reflected structurally in the complex, long first sentence of the poem, which spans all twenty-four lines of part 1. Its repeated prepositional phrases beginning with “from” convey a sense of involvement in an active, synthetic process, the purpose of which is revealed in an infinitive clause without subject: “to make one Thing.” Something is happening to the poet. In a moment of heightened awareness, he becomes one with his surroundings. His impassioned language, “Lord Lord Lord,” reveals his rush of ecstacy. His clever closing simile, comparing the “Thing” with a meteor, emphasizes the speed and significance of the occurrence.

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Part 1 is written in a rhythmic iambic pentameter without rhyme. In the original German, all lines have a masculine ending except for the last line, whose extra, unaccented syllable gives a sense of graceful completion to the last word: “arrival.” Part 2 is, by comparison, more introspective, more involved in the human condition. Its twenty-two lines are divided into three stanzas. The poet has been in the presence of the extraordinary, which he must accept with imperfect understanding. Rilke managed to write all of part 1 without naming a subject. Now, in part 2, he humorously likens himself to a servant who does not dare to ask, “Master, why this banquet?” He makes the same point more seriously in the second and third stanzas, choosing the likeness of a shepherd. The man is necessarily so alert and so observant that he is bombarded with “world”: He has “world each time he lifts his head;/ each time he looks down—world.” Again the repetition of a word, in this case “world,” lends an emotional element to the description.

Part 3 returns to the first-person point of view and relaxes the metric scheme. Its twenty-one lines of free verse sound more like conversational commentary. The poet is resolving to use his memory of the shepherd to his advantage when he returns to the city of Paris, France. At the end of the poem, Rilke resorts to a more pastoral, idealized picture of the shepherd, even describing him as majestic and godlike. The four-line coda at the end of the poem explains that the image Rilke retains of the shepherd is, for him, a means of accessing inner peace, of returning to a most meaningful experience, a moment of oneness with the universe that was so intense he would happily have died afterward.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Since the three parts of “The Spanish Trilogy” are different in tone and content, Rilke relies on structural similarities to unify the poem. Each of the three parts begins with anaphora. In part 1, lines 1, 3, and 5 proceed from the same preposition: “From this cloud,” “from these dark clustered hills,” and “from this stream in the valley.” Lines 2, 4, and 6 complement that with epistrophe, all ending with “(and from me).” Rilke has introduced the two main components, the landscape and the poet, from the left and the right and uses the rest of the stanza to combine them. In part 2, the first two stanzas begin with the identical rhetorical question “Why must a man.” In part 3, Rilke uses the repetition of “Let me” at the beginning of lines 1 and 4 to lead in the poet’s resolution. The anaphora at the beginning of each part of the trilogy helps to underline the sequence of the parts. First the poet has an extraordinary experience, then he has a period of questioning, and finally he decides his further course of action.

Rilke provides the reader with a wealth of images in the course of the poem. The image of the shepherd is given extended treatment in parts 2 and 3 and can also be inferred in part 1 from the mention of the flock. Yet Rilke cautions, in the coda, against seeking hidden meaning in the figure of the shepherd: “Let him be whomever you wish.” He is interchangeable, simply a means to an end. The poet is not so much interested in the shepherd as in the elements and forces in the midst of which he appears: night and day, the earth and sky, old age and youth, this world and the next; in short, the universe in its totality. The “Thing” of part 1 is both “earthly and cosmic.” In part 2, the shepherd takes “all the galaxies/ into his face.” In part 3, he is “like the day itself” with space thinking for him. These are grandiose, mind-expanding images.

In “The Spanish Trilogy,” Rilke is dealing with something very real but at the same time elusive. It can only be indicated as an abstract “Thing” or approximated through analogous descriptions. Rilke ends each stanza with a striking simile. The position of the similes provides structural unity, and each of them makes the meaning more precise. For example, the simile at the end of part 1 that compares the “Thing” to a meteor shows the substantial becoming insubstantial. It emphasizes the transitory nature of the experience and its subsequent inaccessibility while leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind about the actual event. The image used in the final simile of the poem is scaled down considerably from that of the first. For the poet, evoking the memory of his Spanish experience has the same stabilizing effect as placing a stormlamp around a fluttering candle. This is the fire of the meteor in more manageable form. Implicit in the simile are elements of volition and control, of quiet domesticity, duration, and fulfilment. The poet has come a long way in the course of the poem.

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