By Warwick McFadyen
On December 4, 1875, Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke was born. The 90th anniversary of his death occurs next month – on December 29. He was known then as Rainer Maria Rilke – a poet who had sublimated his life to his calling. If he could not create, then life was barren – for life was art and art was life.
Four years before his death, he finished his masterpiece, The Duino Elegies. It was 10 years in its creation, and was published the same year as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and James Joyce’s Ulysses, making 1922 something of a year of miracles in literature.
In his end days, he had said to his nurse Frau Wunderly, “Never forget, dear friend, life is a glory.”
It is easy to forget, Rilke. Too easy. Perhaps one should turn off the world, simply pull the plugs, let the batteries die, watch the screen lights fade. For a while. (I know, I’m communicating that thought with the batteries full, the laptop plugged in, the internet connected, the screen glowing towards me.)
Life is necessary with these things, I acknowledge that, but a glory? Rilke was always going deeper with his words, into the dark woods, through the light-draped leaves, into the stillness that has always been there, will always be there. Where the soul is both shadow and sun.
Eight days before his death he wrote to Jules Supervielle, that he was “gravely ill, painfully, miserably, humbly ill. … I think of you, poet, friend and in so doing I think still of the world, poor broken fragments of a vase that remembers being of the earth.”
If this reads as a hearkening back to a utopian state of existence that was, in effect, illusory then it also goes the heart of his creative impulse. We are one – all creatures, all life, all elements – that endure. In the mire lies a memory that was/is a part of us, which would reside in us if we let it. Art was the channel to its unlocking. It was the door that opened to seeing what really is. So Rilke believed.
He took the reader there in The Panther
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a centre
in which a mighty will stands paralysed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
And in The Eighth Elegy, the ending of which is:
Who formed us thus:/That always, despite/Our aspirations, we wave/As though departing?/Like one lingering to look,/From a high final hill,/Out over the valley he/Intends to leave forever,/We spend our lives saying goodbye.
In 1925, a year before he himself said his final goodbye, Rilke wrote: “It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise ‘invisibly’ inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great, golden hive of the invisible. The Elegies show us at this work …”
In times such as these, where the world is both global village and fragmented societies and interests, where the arc of progress is smashed flat on the anvil of hate-filled ideologies, it can be an act of survival to step back into Rilke. For a while. The world does not go away, of course. But, for a small time, another opens.
From the First Elegy:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed in the overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,
which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
In this era of mass distraction, Rilke’s words can return to us what we can no longer truly, divinely, spiritually, hear or see. Ourselves.
Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor