RILKE, SINGER OF HADES, (Part Two: The Death Muse and Modern Spirituality)
The personal spiritual and artistic development of the poet Rilke could be said to anticipate and summarize almost the whole modern spiritual predicament and its various mystical/new age strivings, certainly its now familiar “spiritual not religious” aims. It’s therefore important for modern religion and poetry, and in some respects even morality, to understand where Rilke could be considered most right and wrong about the highly original direction his work and vision took.
What Rilke was unconsciously and consciously doing amid his “soul making” has been charted at great but readable and illuminating length (700 pages) by Daniel Joseph Polikoff in his In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke a Soul History (2011). Its interpretations draw upon insights from the work of neo-Jungian theorist James Hillman. Hillman was a psychiatrist who sought to dethrone the overdone Freudian Oedipal theory in favour of a new theory of psychoanalysis based on the myth of Psyche, she who after many adventures engages the sacred marriage with the Eros she almost loses. Polikoff regards Rilke as all about Psyche. I agree and would regard a lot of modern spirituality about the same – both for better and for worse. Hillman also sought to restore a “polytheistic” imagination over a “monotheistic” one. This doesn’t exactly mean restoring all the old gods but, in a way Polikoff regards Rilke as exemplifying, instead overcoming fundamental familiar western splits like body and mind, life and death etc to perceive energies and symbols operating everywhere.
Under the influence of especially the Danish novelist Jens Jacobsen, Rilke had briefly turned atheist in his late teens. This phase was nonetheless soon abandoned for a more psychological approach to religion which variously allowed for soul-making and a search for, or even construction of, an alternative god. Both Rilke and his lover the early Freudian theorist, Lou Andreas-Salome, whom he met in Munich in 1897, loved the Bible that they didn’t believe in and often read it to one another. Their anti-Christian convictions nevertheless preferred the Old Testament many of whose figures and ideas weave in and out of Rilke’s verse. There is however particularly one OT verse that seems relevant to the poet’s spiritual progress and the mystery of his final illness that Lou couldn’t explain for him – Rilke believed in dying one’s own death that would express one’s personal beliefs and entire life. The verse is: “For the path of the Wise leads upwards in order to avoid Sheol [Hades] below”. (Prov 15:24). In what I dare say the kind of Hillmanesque psychology just mentioned would regard as only and even the needed reaction against historic religious over-cultivation of spirit as against soul and thus an appropriate openness to unconscious depths, it is declared in the early collection Das Stundenbuch The Book of Hours:
Doch wie ich mich auch in mich selber neige:
Mein Gott is dunkel und wie ein Gewebe
Von hundert Wurzeln, welche schweigsam trinken.
This is loosely rendered in the popular Barrows and Macy translation as:
But when I lean over the chasm of myself/it seems/my God is dark/and like a web; a hundred roots/silently drinking.
The Book of Hours and this statement anticipates the direction Rilke would go. Even if we should find something (or even much) of God in the unconscious, the claim is immediately religiously problematic to the extent God is “the Father of lights” (Jas 1:17) and “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Joh 1:5). Like the Rilke devotee, Stephanie Dowrick, many find the foundational early lyrics (voiced through the alter ego of an icon painting monk), poignant, honest and expressive for many seekers today. They are felt to represent those to whom God doesn’t respond but who sense he is or must be found somewhere and even everywhere.
But this is to read Rilke as almost an elegist of a lost modern belief which isn’t quite the case, Rilke’s sense of elegy being more about what can’t be readily achieved in life and spiritual quests. There is never any notable regret for lost faith. Rilke had early imbibed the American Unitarian Emerson’s “self reliance” doctrine which had no need for a helper deity reached by prayer – his Russian monk even speaks of God’s care as “being a nightmare to us”. What Rilke always wants is spiritual/mystical reality, a certain connection with the All, a feeling of reverence before the World, Earth and Existence which is like religion. But effectively the problem is stated (if indeed the trap for the rest hasn’t been set) by, in effect, not just encountering something of God in the soul/unconscious, but by treating the soul itself as God (a rather Jungian position and opening upon Hillman’s “polytheism”).
Before the above cited lines about God as darkness, Rilke’s monk has mentioned, (reflecting the poet’s own experiences with Italy and Renaissance art and religion prior to his definitive Russian experiences), that down in the South, God becomes “an ardent flame”. This is rather important for the whole picture. Biblically God, or God the Creator/Father (whom the Russian monk even wants to make his son instead) is primarily fire as per the visions of Ezekiel and Heb 12:29. Himself born of fiery Sagittarius, Rilke under-represents and even represses “fire” in his quest and this has certain consequences. It is even key to the whole life and opus. But to this I can return.
Despite the radical rejection of Christ, Christianity and organized religion, as Polikoff reminds us Rilke, however incongruously, lifelong also remained a devoted reader of St Augustine and we need to understand why. It is in Rilke’s attraction to and rejection of Augustine (asteroid Augustinus suggestively rises in his birth chart to heighten any sympathetic identification!) we have a clue to at any rate what is most positive and challenging to religion about the poet’s work and I can begin with that.
AN IMAGINATIVE ERROR: AUGUSTINE’S COSMOS AND INDIVIDUALISM
Augustine stands very much behind the development of modern individualism itself. He was highly self-conscious defining the self over against God and world, and Rilke adheres strongly to what has been this ever growing western tradition of autonomy. Augustine’s selfhood, like that of many romantics centuries later, is located in the cor (heart) which certifies his feelings which are in turn related to memoria.
According to Hillman, Augustine and the ancient world’s memoria is more like our unconscious and imagination – imagination needless to say being crucial to any poet and poetry. I was incidentally prompted by Hillman’s claim to look up where asteroid Memoria was placed in my ever relevant and working data for Christ’s birth. (Who wouldn’t want clues to Jesus’ “unconscious”?!). Sure enough it was conjunct Poesia, an indication that the mind of Christ was nothing if not poetic as indeed many scholars have long claimed pointing out that translated back into the Aramaic Jesus spoke, the Sermon on the Mount becomes poetry. Also relevant is that Christ’s Neptune, a factor that itself is much symbol, dream and imagination- linked, conjuncts his Eros.
Hillman maintains religion is inevitably and rightly focussed on “soul”, but that paradoxically Christianity, like the western secularism influenced by a legacy of Christianity and science together (even if in strife), is anti-soul. And Augustine unwittingly leads the field in being anti-soul. Yet how can this be if Augustine was a mystic and theologian? Basically because he believes in ex-nihilo creation. God creates a cosmos which is separate from him and which once humanity “falls” is very separate indeed. It leaves all nature as rejected and evil. There is no longer as for the ancient world any animus mundi (world soul) providing a relation however reduced to God or the gods. God is not immanent and present through anything but wholly transcendent. Result: imagination and itssymbols, the mediator between soul and spirit, psyche and eros, have no place. The world is disenchanted, empty. The only way out of it is via the dictates of doctrine and morals literally understood much like a scientific principle. (Hillman even finds something “unimaginative”, depersonalized in Augustine’s conversion to Christ which is little better than a formularized submission to morality).
Is this true? Somewhat and even essentially yes. Augustinian Christianity which is inadequately biblical and Judaeo-Christian (though foundational for medieval Catholic philosophy), is fatally flawed and in error about the world. The “soul of the world” is effectively the Cosmic Christ of Paul’s epistles and the world is upheld by God in this way because, as Jewish mysticism realized, the world is created from God even if because God first created a womb-like space within himself in which to create and sustain. If ‘nothing’ could exist outside God it would be a rival to God. Everything must be through God. The needed correction to ex nihilo doctrine which as much as anything is a logical point, is important for life, poetry and much else. As argued in my Solomon’s Tantric Song (http://amzn.to/14aa5Qe), one will not adequately interpret the poetry of the Song (it is always taken too spiritually or materially) unless it is understood that God is behind and through all things, including or even sometimes even especially Eros.
What about imagination and morality that Hillman wants to connect? Undeniably it’s possible to be so “imaginative” and subjective that like Rilke one accepts virtually no objective, given moral principles. Truth can be deemed so immanent and immediate as opposed to transcendent and eternal that one indulges every whim even to making poetry depend upon the latest liaison! After all, undeniably “soul life” is connective on the way to its ultimate connection with spiritual Eros!. Even so and practically, morality does need to be “imaginative” to a degree or it becomes oppressive, inflexible legalism. An example is how Christian literalists cannot give any sympathetic or socially realistic reading to the existence of gays, failing to see those scriptural hints and directions which suggest things beyond the apparent ban of Leviticus. Without the imagination born of soul, religion becomes dry theology and formal observance and there is nothing that can be felt in or out of life as we know it.
JESUS THE IMAGINATION
Before going further I will say something already emphasized in several of my books and first set out in Cosmic Father. The at any rate Christian relation to art which Rilke supremely doesn’t represent, is or should be this. It needs to be recognized, even if for different reasons from William Blake, that Jesus is “Jesus The Imagination”. Arguably the ban on images in the Old Testament dispensation (which corresponds to the Age of Aries) is a purification and preparation for the New Testament dispensation (of the Age of Pisces “ruled” by imaginative, symbol rich Neptune) in which Jesus is recognized as Cosmic Christ who is the Animus Mundi. And this cosmic soul contains the symbols which despite everything, and in however hidden a way, is also Eros (which actually conjuncts Jesus’ Neptune natally). It is as Christ “dwells within” organizing the mass of floating symbols that the soul can hope to reach Spirit and that Spirit can reach down to soul.
With that thought in mind we can see how the Rilke who chose for this world and the material over against a God assumed to be totally transcendent, went wrong and, in my opinion, misled himself and misled others. Indeed he even finished up with a very strange last illness he begged his mistress and guru Lou Salome to “explain” but which she couldn’t do. Rilke had imagined (perhaps most clearly in the Elegies) that by correctly naming and declaring things like a magus one could connect all things symbolically from animal to angel. In the course of this operation one helps transform oneself and things from visible to invisible nature in which everything eternally exists – at least as a kind of vibration cum symbol it seems. There is no death in the sense that all life is just the flip side of an all-embracing death vibration, something akin to, though not acknowledged by Rilke as, a Buddhist style Plenum Void. This is however a Void to which Rilke does not appear to allow any reincarnations – they would only savour of the fragmentation his Whole negates. The Elegies are most insistent upon the uniqueness of life. Elegy 9 declares “ Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more/And we also once. Never again”….Some of Rilke’s sense of tragedy and elegy depends upon exactly this belief/feeling, that to all appearances some persons will have lived happy lives and other merely wretched ones though as in his poems on the urban poor he seems to think a truly summarizing death helps redeem things in an inexplicable way and is almost a gift.
Lou, though a former mistress/lover came to be seen by herself and by Rilke as a kind of twin from a time before incest was known. Given the nature of Rilke’s relation to her and to many other women subsequently, I think one may come to see why (as per statements of my February blog re Matthew Vines and gay theology) there is much to be said for the notion that all Christians need to become slightly gay and “eunuchs for the kingdom”. A lot of the symbolism, complexes and input as from the Puer archetype for the kind of alternative psychic/spiritual development Hillman envisages and Rilke implies, are almost nearer to those associated with homosexuality. We should note that after having lost his wife to Hades the mythic Orpheus becomes founder of same sex love according to Ovid’s rendering of the myth. This is a datum that Rilke’s journey into the Orpheus archetype ignores). And the poet’s symbols and complexes would probably work more easily within homosexuality and with less dire consequences than the confusion and heartbreak Rilke’s amours entailed for many of the women appropriated to his markedly heterosexual pilgrimage of the spiritual terrain. There is a strange almost sinister poem Don Juans Auswahl (Don Juan’s Election) in New Poems, one of two devoted to the subject of Don Juan, though really about Rilke himself, in which an angel arrives to tell DJ to let him give him all the women who are going to be “ripened” by the experience of solitude (which it seems the seduction and abandonment of the women will supply!).
It is a difficult saying but in some respects Christianity, psychologically regarded, is a somewhat “gay” spirituality. Salvation and Resurrection themselves are (psychologically and archetypally speaking) Puer issues. It is in part because Rilke is insufficiently “gay” in the broadest sense that he does not and cannot absorb salvation and resurrection but is simply forced to love the earth and unite life and death and is even swallowed up by them or more precisely by death, frantically trying to declare death and/or its centre Hades to be life itself. Another biblical verse seems relevant: “For whoever finds me [Wisdom/the divine feminine] finds life….but those who miss me injure themselves, all who hate me love death”. (Pro 8: 35/6).
THE FOUR STAGES OF RILKE’S DEVELOPMENT
Be that as it may…..Rilke begins with a not unreasonable rejection of the Augustinian universe in favour of the one that Sagittarians prefer and of which we have some example in the philosophy of Spinoza. This will be a perfect unity (of sorts) in which one is optimistically involved in “life”, a great Whole founded in this earth that we can mystically intuit as one thing. It follows that there must and need be no mediator with God to sully the immediacy of perception involved. Christ is simply in the way of perceiving ‘God’ and anyway he can’t help anyone. Rilke’s little studied and conveniently ignored (because at points almost Satanistic) early composed Visions of Christ (1898) had inclined to this position that Jesus was a thoroughly failed Messiah. In one of the poems he is a person unable to comfort an orphan girl, in another he is portrayed in a brothel himself needing help from a modern Magdalene.
Rilke was encouraged in his outlook by Lou Salome and her book Jesus the Jew which expounded the theory Jesus arrived at disappointment and failure through the hubris of imagining he was God. Lou believed God and the gods were originally created by human need, though devotion to them created a kind of “back effect” that made them real at a certain purely psychological level. Both Rilke and Lou were influenced by Nietzsche causing Rilke at one point (as in his short story The Apostle) to be against Christ or Christianity because it represented the kind of pity and compassion that undermines life. (While some of Rilke’s later poetry as about the urban poor and sick or trapped animals does suggest a level of pity and compassion it is almost despite himself. There is no record of Rilke ever engaging in any notable acts of charity or campaigning for social change; he simply observed and recorded and of course wished a good, self-expressive death on them).
Rilke’s development is as follows and it corresponds approximately to the emphases of four main collections of poetry, first The Book of Hours, then New Poems (1907) plus New Poems the Other Part (1908), then Duino Elegies (1922), and finally Sonnets to Orpheus (1922). These chart and express
- A phase in which he will choose and create his own god by simply imagining deity. He wants “God” to reply, but becomes more or less resigned to silence and even desires it for his work of deity creation.
- A phase in which no longer awaiting revelation and connection of whatever kind, his “Thing Poems” perceive the radiance in objects and people that issue from the Whole.
- A phase in which he accepts the need if not for a mediator, then a transformer or witness for the energies of earth in the form of “the Angel”. This is a time when feeling ever more alienated from Christianity Rilke experiences some attraction to Islam, to its unmediated “one” God who has no son. His poetic/spiritual mission at this point is to name things, to give messages in the style of Mohammed, to evoke “initiation” itself (along Hermetic lines in Rilke’s case – the last elegy looks towards Egypt) with its multilayered concerns and sensations evoking the great Whole.
- A phase, prompted by the death of a young woman who haunts the collection in which with life and death unified as part of the One, “the or a god” emerges in the form of the poet semi divinity Orpheus who in some respects is the poet of Hades.
These four stages show considerable correspondence to features of new age spirituality whether or not in the same order.
- Rejecting “religion”, “doctrine” or “tradition” one goes within and chooses the deity or system that best fits individual striving, self creation and what can be felt – direct experience of “God”. Practically, one is simply building soul apart from notions of deity, especially of God as Creator or in any way omnipotent.
- With God firmly absent one lives a more aesthetic life, cultivates Zen gardens or flower arrangements, finding para-divine experiences in the way and spirit of things. There emerges a new relation to objects, nature, food, the body, food etc (Rilke was trendily attracted to vegetarianism and nudism). Art becomes a spirituality or religion in itself – Rilke spent a great time studying and writing about art.
- Various spiritual practices like yoga may suddenly produce shocks and visions or “initiation” as when kundalini energies unexpectedly rise. At this point God and/or spirits assume more importance at least as organizing, controlling factors akin to Rilke’s enigmatic angels. Alienation from Christian traditions may as for Rilke produce at least temporary attraction to Islam. Much of Rilke’s poetry is anyway deemed to have affinities with Sufism (a mystical heresy of Islam). The soul function tries to manage spirit, make the soul itself, save it, initiate it.
- The or a new god or at least guru appears. Heidegger thought of poets as harbingers of the new revelation of a/the god some await. It is the artist Benjamin Creme who declares the soon advent of Maitreya/Christ. Rilke reintroduces the god of poetry, Orpheus, to the world.
Can the new god save us? It depends upon what you are looking for and believe “salvation” implies, but I would suggest that Rilke does not and cannot solve the problems and quest he sets himself. It is not possible in Christian terms and not especially possible, even just psychologically, as regards many faith systems to approach God unmediated. Philosophy may think otherwise and Sagittarius is both philosophical and very optimistic about what it sets out to do, but experience denies it. Some kind of lens is required. Even Tibetan Buddhism which denies the existence of a Creator virtually renders the guru a mediating divine figure.By repudiating (Christian) mediation one simply opens oneself up (to the extent one does touch ultimacy at all) to horror. As the opening lines of the Duino Elegies have it:
Who if I shouted, among the hierarchy of angels
Would hear me? And supposing one of them
Took me suddenly to his heart, I would perish
Before his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
But the beginning of terror……..Every angel of terrible
One might add to this perception that “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). Rilke sort of knows but ignores this. If early on his alter ego monk had conceded that outside of Russia God was a flame, he didn’t absorb this himself. Polikoff’s psychological analysis of the poet’s soul life has things to say about his experience of Coagulatio, (earth phase) Solutio (water phase) and Sublimatio (air phase) i.e. those mental states, especially Coagulatio’s black depression or Nigredo, that are terms borrowed from alchemy and used by Jung to describe mental states and processes towards individuation. But Calcinatio, the process of purification by fire scarcely features. In alchemy the Lion screams as his paws are burned off in the destruction of pride. As a fire sign Sagittarius can have a great sense of entitlement with affinities to the pride of Leo the lion. Rilke, even at his most humble or vulnerable, is still full of entitlement towards God and Life (his prose work, Tales of God, could be considered distinctly presumptuous if not blasphemous). Considering that in his early Visions of Christ, in the poem Jewish Cemetery Jesus raves against God invoking powers at an occult Rabbi’s tomb to curse the world with destruction by fire, there is a special irony in the poet’s death which he experienced as fiery. It is as though a certain repression of psychological/spiritual “fire” and the feelings of the fiery Christ curse manifest in him.
This is why I have called Rilke the poet of Hades which biblically is one of the words for hell. Rilke intends to join all things. Life must be joined to death, even is itself death so that death should be sung as much as life. Orpheus himself is a kind of death god. In Christianity hell itself is effectively experience of God, (since all things do exist through God), but it’s experience as only fire, not any of the other elemental cum psychological states possible. Having refused the fiery Creator God, Rilke is consumed by him. He wanted to have, as he wished for everyone, their own death and in effect he evoked his own. (Granted much of what he felt during his last illness was simply common to leukaemia, but his relation to it was psychologically peculiar – he even believed he could know the very first moment it began, and plainly there was as much psychological as physical going on in his case. He needed to explain it because he almost seems to have thought he gave his illnesses permission, which at a certain level is just possible).
UTTERANCES AND AFFIRMATIONS
It is impossible to summarize the work of Rilke to make it merely easy, but one can evoke it through lines of or references to his poetry particularly the first and most popular Book of Hours. It anticipates so much else even if it’s more about deity making than the later soul making. The book is divided into three sections The Book of Monastic Life, The Book of Pilgrimage and The Book of Poverty and Death, the last written part reflecting a hard time in the poet’s life and his very negative initial impressions of urban life in especially Paris. The poems have no titles. The collection’s sub-title is Love Poems to God, but the feeling is closer to a one-sided argument, love attaches rather to the atmosphere of art and religion
Poem 1:1 affirms in harmony with the Idealist strain in German philosophy that “nothing has ever been real/without my beholding it/ All becoming has needed me”. This helps set the collection’s attitude towards God, even though the poet is willing to describe himself as like “a tree rustling over a gravesite” (1:5) which already justifies my description of Rilke as very Hades identified.
The approach to God is quirky and petulant. Living next door to God, the icon painter declares: “If you should be thirsty/ there’s no one to get you a glass of water…I wait listening” (1:6). Psychologically significant is 1: 11’s admission “I love you more than the flame that limits the world” and this because “the dark embraces everything….I believe in the night”. Conflict with the Christian view that “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light” ( Joh 3:19) is patent here.
There is anyway no submission to the divine whether as darkness or light because (and it’s very modern!) “I want to know my own will/ and to move with it” ( 1:13). In Rilke’s attitude to God even where a trace of conventional humility enters, it is never from any sense of shortcoming. The attitude has affinity for the resentment of other Sagittarian poets towards the divine like Emily Dickinson and Heinrich Heine.
Though the poet is more interested in knowing himself, there’s hope for God yet: “You are not dead yet; it’s not too late/ To Enter your depths” ( 1:14)
Also according to (1:25), God is the great homesickness (Heimweh) we could never shake off.
The same poet who doesn’t believe that death can remain a sorrow or a need for us asks:
“What will you do God, when I die?/I am your pitcher when you shatter (1:36)
Poem 1:44 is almost an ultimatum. Having said that God’s first word was light, that his second birthed man and fear, the poet doesn’t now want to hear the third word. Admitting he sometimes prays he says, “Please don’t talk/Let all your gesture be by doing only……Be our shepherd but never call us”. Plainly this God is not the Word. Silence like darkness is required of him or it.
1:55 wants to make God “complete” (without speech?!) because that will make the poet complete.
Anticipating the spirit of New Poems 1: 61 wants to love “the things”.
1:62 is a little more conventionally pious. The “deep power” is thanked that he/it works with the poet ever more lightly, and this feeling carries over to the beginning of book 2 on Pilgrimage.
In 2:2 the poet yearns to belong to something and be contained in an all-embracing divine mind which however significantly will need to perceive him “as a single thing”.
2:3 sees God as the Being without voice to whom all bow, but inquires is the poet himself not “the whole” and asks if God is distracted from hearing him by “some whining little tune”. He wishes God were back inside him in the darkness that grew him.
In 2: 4 the poet decides he loves God as his son. In 2:6 he affirms it would create a gulf between them if God were to be thought of as any father. Sons are superior to fathers. (I imagine some of Rilke’s contempt for his own father colours this!)
2:16 anticipates many later poems in its declaration “if we surrendered to earth’s intelligence/ we could rise up rooted like trees”. 2:25 dismisses all yearning for the afterlife, all looking for a beyond, all belittling of death. We should long for what belongs to us and “serve earth” (a very new age sentiment). 2:26 declares we won’t be herded in churches, God meets us in solitude only).
In Book 3 on poverty and death the poet still goes on seeing God in places and situations he would rather not. 3:1 declares the big cities are lost and rotting. Perceiving that people live unfulfilled lives in cities, again anticipating various developments in 3:6 the poet asks God to give us our own death “The dying that proceeds/From each of our lives”. 3:7 speaks of the “The great death that each of us carries inside”. Pursuing the wretchedness of city life it is suggested in 3:18 that God is “the diseased one/whom we fear to touch”. 3:31 condemns cities for caring for only what is theirs and in effect for being totally unspiritual. There is a block here which the next main collection of verse will somewhat resolve.
Prior to Paris Rilke was prone to wait for inspiration to fall however long it took. Under the influence of the workaholic Rodin he went to the other extreme of believing he must force himself to create poetry rather like sculpture, working at it, rather than waiting for it, carving it from the block of existence which will release radiance, epiphanies. Some of the poems of New Poems, parts 1 and 2 are Rilke’s best loved like The Carousel known to most schoolchildren in Germany. The most famous and exemplary for the whole collection is the celebrated Archaic Torso of Apollo which is about the power of art and its capacity to contain and convey life itself. It is somewhat the power of eros that is conveyed since though headless and broken the image still smiles at the viewer, still holds the power of its loins. The image is the kind of living imprint alive and dead that belongs to existence and immortality Rilke style.
The poems reflect simply life as in The Square, or The Lady Before her Mirror and the well known Venice poems. There are also some memorable poems about animals like The Panther (a Sagittarian speciality as for example Blake’s The Tiger). However the religious theme persists throughout in such as Abishag, David Sings Before Saul, Joshua’s Council, The Olive Garden, The Prophet, The Angel, The Departure of the Prodigal Son and many more. Numbers of these anticipate queer theology with its revisionings of familiar scriptural stories. The Olive Garden presents a Jesus who feels he couldn’t succeed, has had a lot to put up from a Father who doesn’t exist “Oh ineffable shame”. It is affirmed no angel ever came to Gethsemane as reported, only night did and it was only like any other night anyway. The Crucifixion portrays the soldiers wanting something special from Jesus’ death but all they get is Mary screaming and Christ bellowing and “caving in”. There are two poems about the Buddha – The Buddha in Glory even finishes the collection. But it is the Buddha’s power to reflect, to be and influence life along perhaps with the artistic beauty of his image that seems to be the attraction since Rilke was far from a believer having more affinity with Mohammed though it is unlikely Muslims would be quite delighted with the peculiar Mohammed’s Summoning which has the prophet at first resisting an angel who then worships him for his ability to read. The relatively long Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes loosely anticipates Sonnets to Orpheus in establishing a certain association with the Hermetic and to my mind casts a few doubts on how completely spontaneous the vision of the Sonnets should be considered.
The organ peals of the highly if jaggedly lyrical dense and oracular Duino Elegies arguably constitute Rilke’s finest work. They take him nearest to the role of prophet or shaman to which, Sagittarian style, he always seemed to aspire. The vision of the poetry traverses several levels and the material is not easy to understand and is not meant to be. It comes from some Beyond and is to be meditated like so much scripture. At least some of the verse borders on glossolalia, a speaking in tongues though it never quite reaches the surrealistic incoherence of a Dylan Thomas. (The likely meaning of each elegy is neatly summarized in the McIntyre’s German/English version of 1961, but there will always be some level of difference over the exact meanings even as we sense the drift of the whole).
The Elegies are elegies to the extent their subject is the lamentable difficulty of life, our attempts to get things right amid the sorrows of existence and not being able to reach to the level of the inspirational, numinous (“terrible”), energy transforming angels. (The angels are Mohammedan not Christian ones from the period in which following a trip to Southern Spain Rilke felt an attraction to the Koran and Islam). The poem is most essentially about soul-making and the need of soul to hold within itself the underlying substance of spirit (Hillman’s Psyche/Eros theme). This is often assisted by love as exemplified by the great lovers of history and others… “then sing the girls who were lovers /the fame of their passion has not made them immortal enough” and “when we love, arises in our arms/the sap from immemorial ages”. Love of all or any kind thus helps link us to the great Whole, to Life-in-itself beyond just life and death – significantly the angels, unlike us, don’t know if they move among the quick or the dead.
Especially the second half of the Elegies (Elegies 5 to 10) is about the poverty of life and its perception short of realizing the pure consciousness inhabiting it and the things and the animals who may have wisdom we lack. “Nowhere beloved can world exist but within/ our life is spent in changing”. There is a certain emphasis upon wind and space or the Open (Das Offene), space being a symbol for the mystic experience itself and effectively an initiatory one which arguably the poetry is directly evoking by its disorientation of the reader through the shock of its images, unexpected connections and declarations. Eventually realization of Truth creates simply praise. Working through the numerous paradoxes of the elegies the poet exclaims in Elegy 9, “Earth, isn’t this what you want: invisibly to arise in us? Is it not your dream/to be some day invisible? Earth Invisible!/ What if not transformation, is your insistent commission? Earth, dear one, I will!”. This in my opinion is almost the core of the work, the affirmation of and commitment to a kind of quasi-Spinozan pantheism which worships and praises Life-in-itself and “the things” and which, whether visible or invisible (and ultimate energies are invisible) is one, now and eternal.
Although apart from the many New Poems Rilke relied upon “inspiration”, this was never so pronounced as for the Sonnets to Orpheus. Unlike other inspirations he experienced these as gift and virtual dictation or revelation from the god (i.e. Orpheus, mythic founder of music and poetry and escapee from the Hades where he lost his wife). Certainly all 55 were completed in an incredible few days in February 1922, the month which also saw the completion of the long unfinished Elegies. The sole possible triggers were an image of Orpheus bought in a local shop in Switzerland where Rilke was living and at the beginning of February news of the premature death at twenty of the highly talented Vera Ouckama Knoop, daughter of a friend. It was the kind of death that for Rilke was the worst, the life not lived, not come to “ripeness”, apparently wasted and for which we want comfort or explanations even if God and afterlife present no answers.
As opposed to the oracular often philosophical statements of the Elegies, the Sonnets are more like sensory and sensuous, showings of what transcendence into life in the whole through or as the god of poetry and music really is. What this is borders at times upon a surrealism. Obviously referring to Vera’s recent decease Sonnet 2 (again the poems are untitled) begins “Almost a girl it was and issued forth……She made herself a bed inside my ear/ And slept in me. And all things were her sleep”. It was the miracle of the singing god that he so perfected her she had no desire to awake or she arose and slept at once. In short once again for Rilke death and life are ultimately the same and he can sing this power of Hades/Orpheus to make it so.
Sonnet 15 which is one of the most eccentric and confusing may be one of the most typical and closest to what the poet felt, meant and taught. It begins “Wait…that tastes good….it’s already in flight”. It then encourages the girls to dance the taste of the fruit they have experienced. “Dance the orange” which it is declared is something they have possessed but which has been converted into them and therefore they can dance it. They can create a relationship to the rind and to the juice in the orange.
In the first poem of the second half of the collection “the open” is stressed’ “World space in pure/Interchange with our own being”. It’s a counterpoise within which the poet is happening rhythmically. He asks the air if it realizes how many of the places within it have already been in him. Many winds have been like his sons and they are like a leaf containing his words. The earth also contains all and by the end of the collection everything is flowing into everything else. The last lines are
Say to the still earth: I flow
To the rapid water: I am
Overall Rilke seems to be saying in the Sonnets that all life is composed of energies, hence rhythm. This fact automatically supplies Orpheus and his disciples, the poets and musicians, some higher understanding; but at the same time it is at least implied that the organizational power of death/Hades is what most makes sense of the life which must be grasped as a whole. There is a sort of refusal of negativity, an optimism based on an idea of the Elegies that “our life is spent in changing”, which is almost ultra-Sagittarian (the sign is “mutable”) and philosophical though not necessarily convincing as philosophy. The sound of it is better than the sense, and if Rilke is “In the Image of Orpheus” according to Polikoff, less positively his message is simply that of Death and Hades.
I could be accused of religious prejudice here, but not only has one of the few guides to meaning in the Sonnets Rilke ever gave (to a Polish translator) declared one should perceive nothing Christian about afterlife etc in them because he is ever more departed from any Christian ideas, haven’t the Sonnets as good as declared the poet’s overriding attachment is to Hades and to a god of death rather than life? In Sonnet 13 of Part 2 we are advised to “ Be ever dead in Eurydice [i.e.the one whom Hades claimed and took back]….. know the condition/Of not-being , the infinite ground of your deep vibration”. This seems to give the last word to darkness and death as existence-controlling and is even the core message of a wonderfully gifted poet of a vision strange and limited and with psychological effects that came back to bite him. The poetry offers a special experience and in especially the Elegies marks a defining moment for the modern in art. However it is surely a great contemporary error to treat Rilke as any kind of life guru.