ReviewThe Crying Giant: On Rilke's Poetry
The Poetry of Rilke, by Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 684 pages, $50
The new collection of Edward Snow’s translations of the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the great figures of twentieth-century European literature, ideally will accomplish two things. First, it will allow new readers to discover this essential modern poet. The one guaranteed readership is students in the growing creative-writing programs around the country; this group is arguably the most substantial, sustained audience for foreign-language poetry in translation today. This should be applauded, as it continues a long, distinguished engagement of American writers with Rilke, from Robert Lowell, James Wright, and Robert Bly to Galway Kinnell, Heather McHugh, and William Gass. Second, the volume represents a welcome culmination, of sorts, for fans of Snow’s seven award-winning individual volumes of Rilke’s writing in translation. (He himself speaks of the collection as a “distillation” and “revision” of prior work.)
I, like so many others, first discovered Rilke’s poetry in the popular Vintage translation by Stephen Mitchell, but since reading Snow’s renderings of Rilke’s New Poems, available in paired red and blue volumes handsome in their simplicity, my allegiance has ceased to be single-minded. Having Snow’s efforts collected here, from the newly translated The Book of Hours (1905), an early work, to his Uncollected Poems (1909–1926) and last poems, is cause for celebration. This is no inexpensive collection, unfortunately, but what one finds here is substantial and worth the price—namely, the most comprehensive gathering of Rilke’s German poetry in English versions, including more than 250 poems overall and two of Rilke’s most famous sequences, The Duino Elegies (1923) and Sonnets to Orpheus (1923), complete.
Snow’s nearly forty pages of commentary and the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s model introductory essay, “Rereading Rilke,” add enormously to the value of the volume. The lengthy introduction presents Rilke as a “flawless example of a modern artist’s existence” and a writer of poetry “perfect in its relentless pursuit of beauty.” Yet Zagajewski also emphasizes, over and against Rilke’s general reputation, that he was no High Modernist but an antimodernist. In other words, he was in his cultivation of a broad European ethos and tradition closer to Goethe than to the futurists of his own day.
Rilke was born in provincial Prague in 1875, and his being a German language writer who was neither German nor Austrian has arguably facilitated his rise as a global writer of the past century. He developed this breadth during his life by moving, “diffident, homeless,” as Zagajewski puts it, among the wealthy patrons of poetry in castles and palaces in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, and what is today the Czech Republic. He completed the first four of his magnificent Duino Elegies between 1912 and 1915, having waited patiently to receive the “Angel’s orders,” as he said. Some admire this sense of high calling and the personal sacrifice so evident in Rilke’s life, an intensely focused one “untouched by the news,” whereas others judge him as a snob, freeloader, and social climber.
His poetic intensity and artistic commitment can certainly become fodder for mockery, or at least a convenient symbol for artistic hyperself- consciousness. I have noticed that this version of Rilke is especially prevalent among American poets, whose natural admiration is often mixed (also understandably) with something hovering between intimidation and irritation. The New York City poet Frederick Seidel, reclusive and not unlike our subject in some respects, captures that impression in his poem “Rilke.” There he writes about the European poet’s cerebral sensitivity—“In his mind is / The lid of an eye”—and he describes how “Rilke feels his body / Moving in front of his last / Step.” Alternately, the poet Thomas Lux writes about a Rilke who sees a tree and bursts into tears, and Kate Daniels transfers those tears to a fragile reader in “Prayer to the Muse of Ordinary Life,” a powerful poem about the struggle between motherhood and artistic ambitions:
I am not fancy.
My days are filled
with wiping noses
and bathing bottoms,
with boiling pots
of cheese-filled pasta
for toothless mouths
while reading Rilke,
This overall conflicted attitude is also heard in the novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner’s remembrance in “The Eyes of the Heart” of his dear friend James Merrill, another poet of rarefied taste:
The kinds of things that make people weep, either for sadness or for joy, were things that with his extraordinary gift for wit and irony he managed more oftenthan not to deflect or to transform almost beyond recognition. The only real tears I could imagine him weeping were poetic tears.
Rilke was in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, serving as secretary for the sculptor Auguste Rodin, whom Zagajewski credits with helping the young poet modulate his high-strung personality. Photos of Rilke show him “with a narrow face that seems to expect something to happen,” Zagajewski imagines, and a poem in his early collection The Book of Hours (1905) expresses this ambition: “I may not achieve the very last / but it will be my aim.” Elsewhere, in The Book of Images (1902, 1906), he writes bluntly, “Lord: it is time.” One finds in this early volume, in a single poem, both whimsy (“Strange violin, do you follow me?”) and a psalmist’s utterance (“Life is heavier / than the weight of all things”), but the overall effect is narrow, the voice limited in range and shallow insight. In contrast, “The Drunkard’s Song” here is a peculiar favorite of mine among Rilke’s poems, although neither Snow nor anyone else has done as much justice to it as the poet David Ferry’s remarkable, inebriated rendering—see his “Song of the Drunkard” in Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations.
The young Rilke in Paris found himself, in Zagajewski’s words, in a “kind of San Andreas Fault of cultures,” and he was soon influenced by the likes of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Cézanne. Rilke consequently outgrew the art-nouveau affectations of his first three volumes of poetry, and his stronger vision emerged most dramatically in the paired collections of New Poems (1907–1908). Zagajewski describes piety giving way to X-ray vision in “The Panther,” and in general, the misty uses of myth in previous works evaporate before more forceful encounters with Buddha, Abishag, St. Sebastian, and Apollo. After the fiery envisioning in one of his most famous poems, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the speaker boldly ends this lyric by challenging the reader (and doubtless himself): “You must change your life.” In “Landscape,” Rilke describes shafts of moonlight “as if somewhere / an archangel had unsheathed his sword.”
Rilke labored on his two great sequences for the next decade and a half. The opening of the first Duino Elegy is justly famous, and one of the most sublime utterances in poetry:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me
among the Angels’
Orders? and even if one of them
suddenly to his heart: I’d be
in his more potent being. For
beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which
we can still barely endure,
and while we stand in wonder it
to destroy us. Every Angel is
Rilke repeatedly seems to arrive at moments of peace, lyrically achieved, amid the most profound human struggles, as in this later elegy: “But this: one’s death, . . . / to hold it gently and not feel anger: / is indescribable.” In Sonnets to Orpheus, the nearly otherworldly pair of sequences constituting fifty-three sonnets, Rilke’s speaker as a “votary of Orpheus” interrogates the origins and meaning of art. “Only he who has eaten with the dead / from their stores of poppy / will never lose again the softest chord,” he writes in the ninth sonnet of the first sequence. This world, the living world, must struggle with Time the Devourer, a nemesis that recalls many of Shakespeare’s great sonnets, whereas art remains far above: “And music, forever new, out of the most tremulous stones / builds in unusable space her house fit for gods.”
Rilke’s Uncollected Poems, which first appeared in Snow’s versions in 1996, features a number of interesting poems on the raising of Lazarus and on Christ’s harrowing of hell. And we hear again that similar refrain of a poet utterly passive before his severely high aesthetic—“Assault me, music, with rhythmic fury!” One can see why American poets today regularly treat Rilke with an easier-going wink as often as a bow of the artful believer, but
Zagajewski and Snow are both persuasive in their cases for Rilke— most persuasive in the translations themselves, but also in the contrasting of the mundane around us with this poet’s ecstatic moments and rich language. Rilke is “living proof that poetry hadn’t lost its bewitching powers,” says Zagajewski in defense of this seraphic original: “the poetic fire could still be alive.” •
Brett Foster’s writing has recently appeared in Books & Culture, Image, the Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan. His first book of poetry will be published next year by Northwestern University Press. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College.