The Poem

“Turning” is a poem of fifty-four lines divided unevenly into ten stanzas. The title suggests a turn or change in some important issue, and that is, indeed, the focus of the poem: a turning away from the poet’s previous vision of the task of poetry to a new phase in his development as a poet. The poem is written in the third person, a device often used to distance the poet from the speaker or subject of the poem. In this case, however, it is clear that the poet is Rainer Maria Rilke himself. He sent the poem to a friend, saying that “it portrays the turning that will certainly have to come if I am to live.” This poem can be read as a history of Rilke’s poetic focus on observation of the outer world and a transition to bringing his vision inward.

The poem opens with a slightly altered quote from the philosopher Rudolf Kassner, a friend of Rilke: “The way from intensity to greatness leads through sacrifice.” The quote is quite appropriate, as the poem represents a time during which Rilke was turning away from his intense exterior observations to look into himself for poetic inspiration. The poem can be divided into two main sections. The first, longer section describes his former way of seeing and creating poetry. The second section, beginning with the sixth stanza, reveals his doubts of his earlier perspective and describes his new intentions for his poetry.

Rilke lets his reader know from the very first line that a change is imminent: “For a long...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Forms and Devices

The structure of “Turning” is more difficult to grasp than Rilke’s earlier poems, which had regular meter and rhyme patterns. “Turning” has no rhyme pattern and has a very irregular meter, though iambic meter dominates. The stanzas are divided unevenly, the longest containing thirteen lines and the shortest containing one line. This irregular structure is appropriate for “Turning” when one considers that the poem is a criticism of the unemotional, objective vision that the poet now rejects in favor of listening to his emotional side that is striving to be released. A poem that was highly structured, following a strict rhyme and meter pattern, would betray the very purpose of what the poem is trying to say.

One structure that Rilke does use repeatedly in “Turning” is the present participle. Examples abound throughout the poem, including knieend (kneeling), weidende (grazing), and ein Schauender (one watching). This grammatical form has the same effect in German as it does in English; there is a sense of an ongoing process, a flowing movement both in sound and meaning. That this grammatical structure is used in German much less frequently than in English makes it all the more noticeable in the original. When reading the poem aloud, there is little that is musical or rhythmic due to its lack of rhyme and regular meter, but the present participle slows down the language and softens the proselike effect of the poem’s message.

One device used frequently in “Turning” is personification (giving human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract qualities). The objects that the poet has conquered through his gift of observation take on human characteristics or actions. The stars he mastered with his look “collapsed on their knees,” the towers he stared at were “filled with terror,” the landscape “sank to rest” in his calming observations, and the flowers “gazed back into him.” During the difficult transition period in his art, the rooms he stays in during his wanderings also take on a personality. They are “distracted, alienated,moody,” and the very air in the rooms becomes filled with voices discussing his work and, finally, judging it and him to be without love—a judgment that will lead to a crisis and a turning point in his poetry.