Author Rainer Maria Rilke in a sketch by Leonid Pasternak
|Author||Rainer Maria Rilke|
|Original title||Duineser Elegien|
The Duino Elegies (German: Duineser Elegien) are a collection of ten elegies written by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). Rilke, who is "widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets," began writing the elegies in 1912 while a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis (1855–1934) at Duino Castle, near Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. The poems, 859 lines long in total, were dedicated to the Princess upon their publication in 1923. During this ten-year period, the elegies languished incomplete for long stretches of time as Rilke suffered frequently from severe depression—some of which was caused by the events of World War I and being conscripted into military service. Aside from brief episodes of writing in 1913 and 1915, Rilke did not return to the work until a few years after the war ended. With a sudden, renewed inspiration—writing in a frantic pace he described as a "boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit"—he completed the collection in February 1922 while staying at Château de Muzot in Veyras, in Switzerland's Rhone Valley. After their publication in 1923 and Rilke's death in 1926, the Duino Elegies were quickly recognized by critics and scholars as his most important work.
The Duino Elegies are intensely religious, mystical poems that weigh beauty and existential suffering. The poems employ a rich symbolism of angels and salvation but not in keeping with typical Christian interpretations. Rilke begins the first elegy in an invocation of philosophical despair, asking: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?" (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?) and later declares that "every angel is terrifying" (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich). While labelling of these poems as "elegies" would typically imply melancholy and lamentation, many passages are marked by their positive energy and "unrestrained enthusiasm." Together, the Duino Elegies are described as a metamorphosis of Rilke's "ontological torment" and an "impassioned monologue about coming to terms with human existence" discussing themes of "the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness ... man's loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet."
Rilke's poetry, and the Duino Elegies in particular, influenced many of the poets and writers of the twentieth century. In popular culture, his work is frequently quoted on the subject of love or of angels and referenced in television programs, motion pictures, music and other artistic works, in New Age philosophy and theology, and in self-help books.
In 1910, Rilke had completed writing the loosely autobiographical novel, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) in which a young poet is terrified by the fragmentation and chaos of modern urban life. After completing the work, Rilke experienced a severe psychological crisis that lasted for two years. In 1912, still facing this severe depression and despair, Rilke was invited to Duino Castle by Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis (1855–1934) (born Princess Marie zu Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst) whom he had met a few years before. The princess (who was twenty years older than Rilke) and her husband Prince Alexander (1851–1939) enthusiastically supported artists and writers.:pp.317–320
While at Duino, Rilke and Princess Marie discussed the possibility of collaborating on a translation of Dante Alighieri's La Vita Nuova (1295).:p.320 After the Princess left to join her husband at their Lautschin estate, Rilke spent the next few weeks at the castle preparing to focus on work. During these weeks, he was writing Marien-Leben (The Life of Mary).:p.103 While walking along the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea near the castle, Rilke claimed to hear a voice calling to him speaking the words of the first line, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? ("Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?") which he quickly wrote in his notebook. Within days, he produced drafts of the first two elegies in the series and drafted passages and fragments that would later be incorporated into later elegies—including the opening passage of the tenth elegy.:p.225:p.10
Rilke would only finish the third and fourth elegies before the onset of World War I. The third was finished in 1913 in Paris, the fourth in early 1915 in Munich.:p.340 The effects of the war—particularly his traumatic experiences being conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army—triggered a severe renewal of his depression that rendered him unable to write for several years.:pp.379–432
Because of his depression, Rilke was unable to return to writing for several years, and only in 1920 was he motivated to focus towards completing his work on the Duino Elegies. However, for the next two years, his mode of life was unstable and did not permit him the time or mental state he needed for his writing.:pp.433–445
In 1921, Rilke journeyed to Switzerland, hoping to immerse himself in French culture near Geneva and to find a place to live permanently.:p.471 At the time, he was romantically involved with Baladine Klossowska (1886–1969). At the invitation of Werner Reinhart (1884–1951), Rilke moved into the Château de Muzot, a thirteenth-century manor house that lacked gas and electricity, near Veyras, Rhone Valley, Switzerland.:p.474 Reinhart, a Swiss merchant and amateur clarinetist, used his wealth to be a patron to many twentieth-century writers and composers. He bought Muzot to allow Rilke to live there rent-free and focus on his work.:p.474 Rilke and Klossowska moved there in July 1921 and later in the year Rilke translated writings by Paul Valéry and Michelangelo into German.:p.478
With news of the death of his daughter's friend, Wera Knoop (1900–1919), Rilke set to work on Sonnets to Orpheus.:p.481 The Sonnets frequently refer to Wera, both directly where he addresses her by name and indirectly in allusions to a "dancer" or the mythical Eurydice. Rilke wrote to the young girl's mother stating that Wera's ghost was "commanding and impelling" him to write. In a rush of inspiration, Rilke worked on the Sonnets and renewed his focus towards completing the remainder of Duino Elegies. In one week, Rilke completed the unfinished elegies, and from 2 February to 23 February 1922 he completed all the 55 sonnets of the two parts of Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke considered both collections to be "of the same birth". In a letter to Klossowska on 9 February 1922, Rilke wrote: "what weighed me down and caused my anguish most is done ... I am still trembling from it. ... And I went out to caress old Muzot, just now, in the moonlight.":p.492 Two days later, completing the last of his work on the Elegies in the evening, he wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé that he had finished "everything in a few days; it was a boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit, and whatever inside me is like thread and webbing, framework, it all cracked and bent. No thought of food.":p.492
Duino Elegies was published by Insel-Verlag in Leipzig, Germany in 1923. Prominent critics praised the work and compared its merits to the works of Hölderlin and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.:p.515 In 1935, critic Hans-Rudolf Müller was the first to describe the collection as inherently "mystical" and promote Rilke as a "mystic" spiritual guide.
In My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, German novelist Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) describes Rilke as evolving within the confines of exploring his existential problems, that "at each stage now and again the miracle occurs, his delicate, hesitant, anxiety-prone person withdraws, and through him resounds the music of the universe; like the basin of a fountain he becomes at once instrument and ear."
However, during the 1920s, many of the younger generation of German-language poets and writers did not like Duino Elegies because of the poems' obscure symbols and philosophy. The German poet Albrecht Schaeffer (who is associated with the literary circle of German lyric poet Stefan George) dismissed the poems as "mystical blather" and described their "secular theology" as "impotent gossip".:p.515
Theodor W. Adorno's Jargon of Authenticity (1964) suggested that the poems are essentially evil: "The fact that the neoromantic lyric sometimes behaves like the jargon [of authenticity], or at least timidly readies the way for it, should not lead us to look for the evil of the poetry simply in its form. It is not simply grounded, as a much too innocent view might maintain, in the mixture of poetry and prose. The evil, in the neoromantic lyric, consists in the fitting out of the words with a theological overtone, which is belied by the condition of the lonely and secular subject who is speaking there: religion as ornament." Adorno further believed the poems reinforced the German value of commitment that supported a cultural attraction towards the principles of Nazism.
Throughout the Duino Elegies, Rilke explores themes of "the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness ... mankind's loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet." Philosopher Martin Heidegger remarked that "the long way leading to the poetry is itself one that inquires poetically," and that Rilke "comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable even of their own mortality." Rilke explores the nature of mankind's contact with beauty, and its transience, noting that humanity is forever only getting a brief, momentary glimpse of an inconceivable beauty and that it is terrifying. At the onset of the First Elegy, Rilke describes this frightened experience, defining beauty as
"... nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us."
Rilke depicted this infinite, transcendental beauty with the symbol of angels. However, he did not use the traditional Christian interpretation of angels. He sought to utilize a symbol of the angel that was secular, divorced from religious doctrine and embodied a tremendous transcendental beauty. In this, however, Rilke commented that he was greatly influenced by the depiction of angels found in Islam.:p.327 For Rilke, the symbol of the angel represents a perfection that is "beyond human contradictions and limitations" in a "higher level of reality in the invisible." Where there is incongruity that adds to mankind's despair and anxiety is due to human nature keeping us clinging to the visible and the familiar. As mankind encounters the invisible and unknown higher levels represented by these angels, the experience of the invisible will be "terrifying" (in German, schrecklich).
As mankind comes in contact with this terrifying beauty represented by these angels, Rilke is concerned with the experience of existential angst in trying to come to terms with the coexistence of the spiritual and earthly. He portrays human beings as alone in a universe where God is abstract and possibly non-existent, "where memory and patterns of intuition raise the sensitive consciousness to a realization of solitude." Rilke depicts the alternative, a spiritually fulfilling possibility beyond human limitations in the form of angels. Beginning with the first line of the collection, Rilke's despairing speaker calls upon the angels to notice human suffering and to intervene. There is a deeply felt despair and unresolvable tension in that no matter man's striving, the limitation of human and earthly existence renders humanity unable to reach out to the angels. The narrative voice Rilke employs in the Duino Elegies strives "to achieve in human consciousness the angel's presumed plenitude of being" (i.e. being, or existence, in German: Dasein).
Rilke uses the images of love and of lovers as a way of showing mankind's potential and humanity's failures in achieving the transcendent understanding embodied by the angels. In the Second Elegy, Rilke writes that "Lovers, if they knew how, might utter / wondrous things in the midnight air." (Liebende könnten, verstünden sie's, in der Nachtluft / wunderlich reden.) He depicts "the inadequacy of ordinary lovers" and contrasts a feminine form of "sublime love" and a masculine "blind animal passion.":p.96 At the time the first elegies were written, Rilke often "expressed a longing for human companionship and affection, and then, often immediately afterwards, asking whether he could really respond to such companionship if it were offered to him ...":p.91 He notices a "decline in the lives of lovers ... when they began to receive, they also began to lose the power of giving.":p.103 Later, during World War I, he would lament that "the world has fallen into the hands of men.":p.97 In the face of death, life and love is not cheap and meaningless and Rilke asserted that great lovers are able to recognize all three (life, love, and death) as part of a unity.:p.105 Rilke asserted that the true meaning of love could be understood through death providing love a meaning in this unity—that "the nature of every ultimate love ... is only able to reach the loved one in the infinite.":pp.103,122:p.125
In a 1923 letter to Nanny von Escher, Rilke confided:
"Two inner experiences were necessary for the creation of these books (The Sonnets to Orpheus and The Duino Elegies). One is the increasingly conscious decision to hold life open to death. The other is the spiritual imperative to present, in this wider context, the transformations of love that are not possible in a narrower circle where Death is simply excluded as The Other.
The Fifth Elegy is largely inspired by Pablo Picasso's 1905 Rose Period painting, Les Saltimbanques ("The Acrobats", also known as "The Family of Saltimbanques") in which Picasso depicts six figures pictured "in the middle of a desert landscape and it is impossible to say whether they are arriving or departing, beginning or ending their performance.":p.102 Rilke depicted the six artists about to begin their performance, and that they were used as a symbol of "human activity ... always travelling and with no fixed abode, they are even a shade more fleeting than the rest of us, whose fleetingness was lamented." Further, Rilke in the poem described these figures as standing on a "threadbare carpet" to suggest "the ultimate loneliness and isolation of Man in this incomprehensible world, practicing their profession from childhood to death as playthings of an unknown will ... before their 'pure too-little' had passed into 'empty too-much.'":p.102–103
Because of the profound impact that the war had on him, Rilke expressed a hope in an 1919 letter that the task of the intellectual in a post-war world would be to render the world right. It would be "to prepare in men's hearts the way for those gentle, mysterious, trembling transformations from which alone the understandings and harmonies of a serener future will proceed.":p.165 Rilke envisioned his Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus as part of his contribution.:p.14
Rilke's reputation in the English-speaking world rests largely on the popularity of Duino Elegies. The collection has been translated into English over twenty times since it was first published in 1931 by London's Hogarth Press in England as Duineser Elegien: Elegies from the Castle of Duino in a translation by Edward and Vita Sackville-West. It was first translated for the American market in 1939 in a translation by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender published by New York's W. W. Norton & Company. Other translations have included those by poet David Young (1978), Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (1989), poet Galway Kinnell with Hannah Liebmann (1999), Stephen Cohn (1989), poet Alfred Poulin (1975), and poet Gary Miranda (1981).
In the United States, Rilke is one of the more popular, best-selling poets—along with thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Rumi (1207–1273), and 20th century Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931). In popular culture, Rilke is frequently quoted or referenced in television programs, motion pictures, music and other works when these works discuss the subject of love or angels. Because of his work being described as "mystical," Rilke's works have also been appropriated for use by the New Age community and in self-help books. Rilke has been reinterpreted "as a master who can lead us to a more fulfilled and less anxious life."
Rilke's work, and specifically, the Duino Elegies have been claimed as a deep influence by several poets and writers, including Galway Kinnell, Sidney Keyes, Stephen Spender, Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, novelist Thomas Pynchon and philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Critics and scholars have discussed Pynchon’s use of Rilke’s lyricism and concepts of transformation in his novel Gravity's Rainbow. The first lines of Gravity's Rainbow mirror the first lines of first elegy, portraying the screaming descent of a V-2 rocket in 1944 London, and the novel has been described as a "serio-comic variation on Rilke's Duino Elegies and their German Romantic echoes in Nazi culture." The British poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973) has been described as "Rilke's most influential English disciple" and he frequently "paid homage to him" or used the imagery of angels in his work. In the 1936 poem cycle Sonnets from China, Auden directly alluded to Rilke's writing of the Duino Elegies.
Tonight in China let me think of one
Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all.
And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great old animal
The reference here to stroking "that little tower" is derived from a series of letters written while Rilke was completing the Elegies including a letter he wrote to Klossowska, and one to his former lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé. In the letter to Andreas-Salomé, he writes "I went out and stroked the little Muzot, which protected it and me and finally granted it, like a large old animal."
In later years, Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus influenced Hans-Georg Gadamer’s theories of hermeneutics—understanding how an observer (i.e. reader, listener, or viewer) interprets cultural artifacts (i.e. works of literature, music, or art) as a series of distinct encounters. Gadamer, using examples of Rilke's poetry in his writings, interprets these works as an experience of a divine "totality" that we must approach with a childlike innocence and ignorance—that only through interpreting and reinterpreting can we cope with or solve the existential problems of humanity’s significance and impermanence. Gadamer points out that man is in a condition influenced by an anonymous, alienated, and mechanical world that has evolved to stand as an obstacle to his ability to make sense of such experiences.
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