The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

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“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 time he had achieved it with observing.” The act of Anschauen (watching, observing) is now in the past, but, before he lets it go completely, Rilke lists his earlier achievements. The power of his look could force nature and inanimate objects to submit to him: “stars collapsed on their knees,” and towers were “filled with terror.” This power was not entirely negative since a landscape could “rest in his calm perception,” animals and birds trusted him, and flowers returned his gaze as they did to little children. The very rumor of such an observer, a seer, stirred up women. In all these cases, the poet shows, even boasts about, how he could will everything to his unique poetic vision.

The poem then begins its transition from the proud declaration of earlier victories to an overriding feeling of doubt. A lonely, anonymous hotel room is evoked along with an air of depression. This is a scene he has been through many times (in fact, Rilke traveled and lived a great deal abroad, often in difficult financial circumstances). He avoids the mirror, perhaps to avoid looking at and into himself. The bed torments him, due not only to its probable poor construction but also to his own doubting consciousness. He is painfully alone with his thoughts and heart—a heart that still beats painfully, desiring to feel love. The poet can no longer avoid his moment of truth: He does not have love in his heart. The turning point of “Turning” comes when the poet realizes the limits of his former successes. He must go forward with himself and his poetry because the world can only mature and be nourished in love. The “work of the eyes is done,” and he must now go forth and “do heart-work” on the very images he had earlier submitted to his gaze but still does not truly know. The poem’s last lines are a plea for him to look within and learn from the feminine inside himself to discover her multiple natures so that he might finally learn to love.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

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.