Sunday, February 19, 2012

On the Duino Elegies

Dear Rilke. If he were not a great poet, he might be one of the most purely annoying figures in the literary pantheon. Few poets have been responsible for as much bilge as Rilke has: he seems to be a magnet for a certain kind of literary narcissism. His invocations to self-insight and solitude can be easily softened into exhortations to mere self-regard or soft-centred spirituality, in the same way that Hollywood celebrities assure themselves that God loves them personally through determinedly vague readings of the Zorah. And Rilke’s moments of self-pity or mere fatuousness can seem to confirm your worst suspicions about the self-indulgence and preciousness of poets.

Not all of this is Rilke’s fault (although some of it is). Moreover, who of us could survive intact the reverent mythologising that has haunted Rilke’s legacy? And how many could survive his naivety? For one of his greatest strengths is his refusal to eschew what William Carlos Williams called “the essential naivety of the poet”. No one, not even a great poet, can survive this naivety without appearing at some point to be a fool. And perhaps only the very best and the very worst poets have the strength of mind to continue with that naivety once the world begins to mock it: the best because they see quite clearly that they have no choice but to seem foolish if they place their faith in poetry, and the worst because the world’s base mockery confirms them in their vain purity.

But I am already flinging around some big words – “faith”, “great”. It seems impossible to think about Rilke without them; but they apply in very contradictory ways. Contradiction, after all, lives in the heart of Rilke’s poetics. As William Gass points out, for a poet who hated organised Christianity, Rilke populated his poetry with enough Virgin Marys and angels to rival the Catholic Church. And I have no doubt that Rilke is a great poet: but what do I mean by that? I think I mean two things: his lack of embarrassment in the face of the numinous, by which I mean a certain courage (the other face of poetic naivety); and his sheerly beautiful language, which enacts the inarticulate vortices of passionate being. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in the ten poems that comprise the Duino Elegies.

The turbulent currents that make the Elegies so enthralling are generated by the dynamic contradictions of a mind acutely conscious of its own movements. There is nothing static in the Duino Elegies: direction, velocity, is all. This is why it is such a mistake to read them as if Rilke were dispensing philosophy, as if a meaning can be accurately paraphrased away from the texture of the language itself. Rilke is not a philosopher, still less a sage: he is a poet. The poems are not “about” life: rather, they are a startling mimesis of its instability and transience.

In my struggle to translate these poems, which seems to have taken longer than it did for Rilke to write them, one thing has come very much to the foreground. The intractability of some lines or images, their often stubborn refusal to resolve into a clarity that I knew existed within the most difficult or obscure of them, depended to an crucial extent on my comprehension of the spatial relations within them. The relationship between the poems’ elements is fluid and in constant motion: everything is above, below, before, behind, within, without. Things and people leave and arrive, approach and depart, climb over or vanish behind each other, restrain or release each other. Every surface is permeable, every physical or psychic state in a process of flux. Even matter itself exists in state of dynamic transformation: Rilke makes you constantly aware of its weight or lightness, its viscosity or airiness or solidity.  This stanza, from The Second Elegy, is not untypical:

For we, when we feel, evaporate; ah, we
breathe ourselves out and away; from ember to ember
giving a fainter smell.  Here perhaps someone might say
yes, you enter my blood, this room, the spring
feels itself with you ... it’s no use, he can’t hold us,
we dwindle in and around him.  And those who are beautiful,
o who holds them back?  Appearance continuously
enters and leaves their gaze.  As dew on the early grass
what is ours rises from us, as the heat of a
steaming dish.  O smile, where do you go?  O upturned glance:
new, warm, vanishing wave of hearts -;
alas, that’s what we are.  Does the universe
in which we dissolve, taste of us?  Do angels capture
only their realness, streaming towards them,
or sometimes, in error, a little
of our being?  Are we only diffused
in their features, like a vagueness in the gaze
of pregnant women?  Unremarked in the vortex
of their recoil to themselves.  (How should they remark it.)

The complexity of the transitions here is not merely a question of the supple turning of the metaphor of feeling as an evaporation of the self. Rilke is constantly interrupting himself, as if – to borrow an image from Mandelstam – a thought in flight evolves in mid-air to something else, in a constant process of improvisation. In this stanza Rilke moves restlessly from an abstract thought to a specific place (“this room”), from first person to third and back again, from an image of dew rising to the domesticity of a hot dish of food; and then, without warning, he flings us into the immense ocean of the cosmos, where the faint traces of our felt life are absorbed into the dynamic vortex of angelic being.

The complexities Rilke articulates are very particular, and to my mind are at the core of his modernity. Rilke’s modernity is not of the kind that embraced the machine age, and perhaps for that reason has been difficult to recognise. As an aside, it has occurred to me that the Duino Elegies, rather than being thought of in terms of a late Romanticism in uncomfortable collision with modernity, might be more fruitfully imagined as the poetry of a man who thoughtfully observed the kinds of phenomena that are mapped in the complex sciences: cloud formations, the flocking of birds (human beings are not, he says, as “intelligent” as flocking birds), turbulences of air or water: the energies that are traced in fluid dynamics or chaos theory. He is not mapping Platonic abstractions so much as finding ways to express complex, often organic, patterns of flow – eddies, currents, seasons, growth, consciousness.

The urgency this sense of motion generates is reinforced by the Elegies’ mode of insistent address. Again and again Rilke demands: Look! See! Hear!  But, again, the “you” in the poems is under constant, explosive pressure: it may shift mid-line or remain ambiguous: it may conjure the lover, the angel, the father, the child, the seasons, the stars, death, the poet himself. As the addressee is in constant flux, so is the poet: and as the poet transforms, so he demands a concomitant responsiveness in the reader. The elusiveness of these poems doesn’t come from obscurity so much as a quality of speed. And here I admire Rilke’s poise: for this dizzying motion is in dynamic relationship with a great stillness that exists in the very centre of his poems. 

One of the things that prevents the Duino Elegies from disintegrating under their own centrifugal force is their rhythmic power.  From the very first lines of The First Elegy, Rilke grabs the whole of your attention:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme,
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz…

The first translations I read (and still, to my mind, the best I have encountered) were the Spender/Leishman collaborations. They are very beautiful; but when I read the German out loud, I felt a jaggedness, a bitterly disciplined economy, a tough directness, that was obscured in the English. To my ear, the English was too beautiful; sometimes this conception of beauty glossed the precision of Rilke’s movement through the poems, taming the exact unruliness of their dance. On the other hand, translations which render the Elegies into a kind of sudsy prose, leaning on angelic imagery and a faux philosophical weight to carry the poetry’s meanings, do Rilke a much greater disservice: they seem to dispense with poetic beauty altogether. They express an unspoken baggage of apology for the poem’s excesses; perhaps it’s a rather Anglo-Saxon embarrassment towards its intensities of feeling, which are most carnally felt in its rhythms. There’s no doubt that the sonic texture of Rilke’s language is the most difficult quality to render in English, the aspect which most reminds you that translation is an expression of impossible desire, an inevitable appointment with failure. But the beauty and exhilaration of Rilke’s rhythmic variations were probably the major reason I embarked on the folly of translating the Duino Elegies; perhaps it was even more significant than my ardent desire to understand them better.

Given their complexity and precision, the meaning of these poems is irreducible. They mean, as every poem does, exactly what they say: or, perhaps more accurately, exactly what they are.  With this caveat firmly in mind, I’ll briefly attempt to draw some trajectories of meaning out of the turbulence.

Rilke is the consummate poet of faith: no one else describes its compelling and unreasoning force with such clarity as he does in the Duino Elegies. For Rilke, faith is a kind of forgetting, like the flight of a bird lifted by the “heightening seasons”, “almost forgetting / that he is a pitiable animal and not just a single heart / they fling into brightness, into the ardent sky.“ Lovers, with “their long-since groundless ladders, leaning / on only each other, tremulously”, gloriously ignore their own irrationality. Faith is its own groundless reason, lifting itself into its own reality:

Hear, my heart, how otherwise only
the holy hear:  so when the immense cry
lifted them up from the ground, they kept kneeling,
impossibly, more deeply attentive:
such was their listening. 

And yet, this faith, far from being transcendent, is grounded in – even depends on (or from) – the finitudes, the ordinary stench, of physical existence.  I couldn’t disagree more with Robert Hass’s comment that the Duino Elegies are “an argument against our lived, ordinary lives”, that he is “always calling us away” from “the middle of life”. No: rather, the Duino Elegies generate an urgent gravity towards that very middle, towards that very ordinariness: for there is nowhere else to be alive. If anything, Rilke argues himself away from the dizzying universe of the abstract and transcendent, the self-consciousness that hides from us the deeper knowledge of belonging that glows behind human alienation.

This is Rilke’s naïve assertion: that we are human, and belong in this world. The Duino Elegies argue against the mediations that bar us from that humble threshold, against the smallnesses of spirit – fear of seeming foolish, vanities, cowardice, or the greedy desire merely to possess – that make us deny the simplicities of being:

Being here is magnificent.  You knew it, girls, you also,
sunk in your seeming lack - in evil
city alleys suppurating with open rubbish.
For each there was an hour, maybe not
even an hour, one measure of time barely
measurable between two whiles: there she had
being.  All.  The vein-full being.
But we forget so easily what the laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies. 

Yet, for all its insistence on simplicities, for all its arguments against petty human self-consciousness, there is nothing straightforward about the faith that Rilke describes. It knows itself as nothing more than faith in faith itself, a tautology like the lovers’ ladders. Rilke is too intelligent to deceive himself, and too intelligent again not to see that his undeceived vision is as much a lie as the former illusion, and perhaps more misleading:

Ah and around this
centre, the rose of looking:
blooms and defoliates.  Around this
pestle, the pistil, stricken
by its own blooming pollen again
conceiving illusory fruits of disgust, never
aware of it, - bright with flimsy
surfaces the frail smile-sheen of disgust.

At the furthest point from these flimsy surfaces, at the innermost depths or the dizziest heights, Rilke places his angel. Like everything else in the poems, the angel continuously transforms: perhaps, more than anything, the angel is transformation itself, a catalysing agent of perception and creation. At the beginning of the sequence, the angelic orders are everything that is beyond human finitude, summoning the gargantuan energies of galaxies: terrible, violent, indifferent, amoral, beyond questions of life or death, witnesses to truths beyond the fragmentation of human perception. The angel can seem to be the shape of unmediated desire, unmediated being, the world of the “invisible” that inhabits yet is alienated from the material world.  Yet it can stoop down from its airy dimension and take human form, like the angel at Tobias’ door, seeming only to be a young man humbly at the domestic threshold, “no longer terrible”; or, like a marionettist, animate a puppet with the essence of gesture, a distilled act that is generated from the sheer intensity of attention paid by the spectator.

There is something suspiciously human about Rilke’s angels. Like Blake’s gods, they reside in the human breast. “Who are you?” Rilke asks the angel, and obliquely answers himself: “Early blessings, you coddle creation’s / mountain ranges, the red dawning edges / of all making…” Rilke’s angel is crucially a poet’s angel: a protean, visceral, impersonal, amoral energy closer to Lorca’s idea of duende than to any Christian conception of cherubs or mediating messenger of God (Rilke himself said his angels were drawn from Islam more than Christianity, meaning that the angel was subordinate to the prophet rather than to the Divine). More than anything else, the angel is the force of poeisis.

We approach the angelic through a true, subjective recognition of life’s beauty. Rilke explores a number of means towards this recognition in the Elegies. We come close in the radiant transfiguration of love, but our vision there is obscured by the image of the beloved, who steps before us and blocks the light. Rilke often speaks of lovers with the amazed wonder and envy of an outsider.

Lovers, you, who fulfil yourselves in each other,
I ask about us.  You seize yourselves.  Have you proofs?
See, what happens to me is that my hands
move within one another, or my used
expression considers itself in them.  That gives me a little
sensation.  Yet who would gamble existence on that?

Love also calls up the fraught darkness of sexuality, which coils within the smallest child: at once the place of ampleness, fertility and pleasure, and the source of bloody atrocity. In The Second Elegy, the poet remembers his childish dreams as he slept in his bourgeois bedroom:

He, new, fearful, how he was tangled
in the long vines of inner event
winding already to intricate patterns, to strangling growths, to bestial
predatory forms.  How he gave himself up - .  Loved.
Loved his innerness, his interior wilderness,
these ur-forests within him, on whose mute collapse
stood his greenlit heart.  Loved.  Left it, and went
down to his roots and out to immense beginning
where his small birth was already outlived.  Lovingly
lifted down into older blood, the ravines
where horror lay, gorged with his fathers.  And every
terror knew him, winking, was so understanding.
Yes, atrocity smiled. . .  Seldom
                        have you smiled so tenderly, mother.

The angelic is also summoned within the human desire to make. Again and again Rilke invokes simple objects, and celebrates their transformation into expressiveness – music, architecture, language - through the medium of feeling.

Yet the wanderer brings from the mountain edge
not a handful of speechless earth, but a word
hard-won, absolute, the yellow and blue
gentian.  Perhaps we are here to say:  house,
bridge, spring, gate, jug, fruit-tree, window -
at most:  column, tower ...  But to say, you understand,
oh to say in such a way that these things never
meant so intensely to be.

Human perception, human love, invests itself in the things that we make, the objects with which we mark our transitory traces on the world. In the shaping of a pot, or the building of a pyramid, we breathe, like gods, our animation into inanimate clay. The angel is the catalyst, the far light that, while it is neither love nor creation itself, annunciates the human desire to love or to make, and the angel, for all his transcendence, finds the truly marvellous in our tender investment in the material.

Praise the world to the angel, not the unsayable, to him
you can’t brag of magnificent beatitude:  in the world
where he so feelingly feels, you are a novice.  So show
him the simple, formed from generation to generation,
                        which lives as a part of ourselves near the hand and in looking.
Tell him the Things.  He will stand astonished, as you stood
beside the roper in Rome or by the Egyptian potter.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even complaining grief purely decides on a form,
serves as a thing, or dies into a thing, - and beyond
                        approaches the bliss of a violin. 

The animal, the coupling beast, is not simply placed, as might easily be assumed, in polar opposition to the angel: that place of opposition is reserved for the human. The “clever animal” that perceives that we are not “trustingly at home / in our imagined world” is sometimes closer to the angel than we are: the bird, like the angel, possesses flight; the creaturely world perceives, without impediment, the “open”, the freedom of being that the angel consciously inhabits. The animal, like a child released into a moment of total absorption or a person on the point of death, is unaware of its own belonging. Unlike animals, we are aware of our own death;  but like them, we wear the heaviness of our material being. And even in animality, Rilke perceives an inarticulate sense of exile that he construes as exile from the womb: the loneliness of singularity.

And yet in the wakeful warm animal
is the weight and sorrow of a huge dejection.
For it also clings to what often
overwhelms us, - a memory,
that what we thrust after, was formerly
nearer, truer and its connection
                        endlessly tender.

Rilke’s conception of beauty is essentially tragic: beauty exists wholly in the process of human perception, but that very perception makes us agonisingly aware of our own finitude. More than anything else, the Duino Elegies are an extended meditation on death. The poems move inevitably towards a clarity that follows a felt understanding of mortality:

Each thing once,
only once.  Once and no more.  And we also
once.  Never again.  But this
once was real, even if only once:
earthly and real, shining beyond revocation.

The Elegies culminate in an extended encounter with sorrow. In The Tenth Elegy, Rilke invokes sorrow as “our enduring winter leaf, our dark evergreen”, a season that is also a place, a “home”.  He takes us on a tour of the land of pain, which moves ever outwards from an imagined city: first the streets and markets, full of brag and noise, past the church with its ready-made consolation, out to the suburbs,  where a carnival distracts us with its noise and colour. There, unnoticed behind the advertising hoardings with their false promises of immortality, at last he finds the “real”: children, dogs and lovers, who tenderly “follow nature” in the shabby grass. 

From this humble, ordinary place, the poet might be briefly seduced by a Lament, a handmaiden to sorrow; but only the dead can go further. They alone can enter the fantastic hinterland of pain, which Rilke maps with its own mines, mountains, pastures, trees, valleys, stars: even its own aristocracies and economies. And having crossed this realm and witnessed its marvels, at the centre of them the “source of joy”, the dead must climb alone, in silence, the mountains of “primal pain”.

The living, however, can only be where they are: we can only imagine the paths that the dead must tread. The final movement of the poem is not upwards to transcendence, but down, towards the earth. We fall, always, but the compassion wrung from pain graces us, at last, with happiness. No lines in this poem move me more than the penultimate stanza:

But if they awakened a likeness within us, the endlessly dead,
they’d show us perhaps the catkins hanging
from empty hazels, or
would mean rain falling on dark earth in the early year.  -

The stark purity of these lines is hard won. They hold, as in an open hand, the meaning of the whole poem. These wintry miniatures – a glimpse of spring catkins, the sound of rain – are details that so often pass unnoticed and unrecorded, part of the trivial textures of our lives; and yet they are the very things the dead envy us. The maelstrom of Rilke’s longing holds in its still centre the world of concrete, material reality. He leaves us in the middle of our ordinary lives, as human, mortal and full of yearning as we ever were, but momentarily transfigured by being able to see our world in all its fabulous poverty, banality and mystery, neither less nor more than it is.

First published in a special Rilke edition of Agenda Poetry magazine.  Links to the quoted translations are below. (The Sixth Elegy is missing, because I lost it. For real.)

The First Elegy
The Second Elegy
The Third Elegy
The Fourth Elegy
The Fifth Elegy
The Seventh Elegy
The Eighth Elegy
The Ninth Elegy
The Tenth Elegy

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