Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Dunio Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke

Source of book: I own this

Rilke had a resurgence in popularity during the so-called New Age Movement - along with Rumi. His often ambiguous, vaguely spiritual, and introspective poems seemed to fit with an ethos of “spirituality” and inspirational self help. It is rather a shame that this happened - for Rumi too, honestly. I believe that in both cases, the poets were more misunderstood than not. Essentially, their works functioned much the way that science works for snake-oil-alternative medicine: as a nice gloss to make hippie consumerism and hucksters seem deep and grounded. And, just as woo in the biological realm continually makes elementary-school level errors about science, woo in the psychological and spiritual realm makes elementary mistakes about mysticism and art. But, that is my opinion. Your mileage may vary. 

But leaving aside the fact that most people will first encounter Rilke and Rumi in less than ideal places, there is actually much to love about their poetry. (You can read my post on Rumi here, if you like.) For someone like me, who has long felt a connection to the more mystical side of Christianity, and who greatly enjoys poetry, poets like Rumi and Rilke and Tagore touch a part of me that resonates with the more universally human search for the Divine - for transcendence. Thus, poets who express spiritual ideas and experiences in a form that isn’t didactic but rooted in those “groanings which cannot be uttered” speak to me in a deeply personal way. This applies across a broad range. So, for example, the poetic parts of the Old Testament I find to be breathtaking. (Isaiah in particular is pure art.) I find certain expressly Christian poets to be wonderful. Milton, Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and especially Rossetti come to mind. But there are others who do not share the specifics of my own faith tradition but who I find to be equally inspired, so to speak. (It is the epitome of arrogance to believe that somehow the Only True Faith™ somehow was revealed to white European and American theologians in the 16th through 19th Centuries - and that nobody else in history or geography had truth revealed to them. It seems more likely that God didn’t in fact love white people more than anyone else, and that there are visions of the truth - “through a glass, darkly” - that have appeared to many around the world and throughout history.) So, for me, I find Sufi Muslim Rumi’s exploration of truth and search for the Divine to be valuable as well. Ditto for the “song offerings” by the Hindu Rabindranath Tagore. 

And then there is Rilke, who was raised Catholic, but whose spirituality was…complicated to say the least. He had a rather unpleasant childhood. His mother was obsessed with his older sister, who died when she was a week old. His mother apparently saw him as a replacement for her, and dressed and treated him like a little girl for years. In a possibly related development, his parents’ marriage broke up eventually. Rilke left the Catholic church for a while and explored the Eastern Orthodox experience while traveling in Russia. One result of this journey was The Book of Hours, which is one of my all time favorite poetry collections. (Particularly in the luminous translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.) 

Later, Rilke would continue to identify as Catholic, but he didn’t really participate in religious observance, and wrote much more like a mystic. In some ways, I feel closer to that sort of a journey these days, having left organized religion. Although I probably have a different overall viewpoint than Rilke, I would say - and closest to that of Tagore, perhaps? 

Anyway, the Dunio Elegies are usually considered, along with the Sonnets to Orpheus, to be Rilke’s greatest works. I found them quite intriguing, although I think The Book of Hours is still my favorite. 

An elegy is often defined as “a poem of serious reflection, usually a lament for the dead,” but that rather misstates the idea in my experience. For example, Donne’s elegies are not always serious, and are far more expansive than a lament for the dead. Likewise, Rilke’s elegies are indeed serious, but are more about contemplation of life, the universe, and everything, than a reflection on any specific dead person. Mortality is certainly a central theme. But the poems are directed toward the living and the question of how we live with our knowledge of our mortality. 

A central figure in the poem is an angel. Although it seems mostly metaphoric and functions as an outsider to the human experience. It is in a sense a messenger from the Divine (a very Christian idea) but not in the literal sense those of us raised in the Evangelical tradition would think of an angel. But as a metaphor for the boundary between beings living in eternity and those living in spacetime, it works quite well. Which is, I think, Rilke’s intent. Again, this is poetry, not theology. The truth lies in the spaces between the literal meaning of the words. 

I’m kind of unsure how to describe the poems themselves beyond that. They are written in a far freer verse than the more traditional Book of Hours. My particular edition contains the original German and the English translation on facing pages - which is really handy for comparing the poetic form. (My German is limited to performance instructions in Wagner and Mahler, so I can only sort of get the meaning once in a while.) Stephen Mitchell was the translator in my edition, and I thought his work was good. 

Since the elegies are all fairly long, I won’t quote any in full. However, there are individual lines which stood out. 

The opening lines of the first elegy are breathtaking - and an excellent portent of what is to follow:

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 that 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.

Rilke plays with the idea that we mortal humans have one difference with the rest of nature: we are aware of our own mortality and fail to become one with the Divine because of our fear and alienation from the rest of creation. Within the world of the poem cycle, this is Rilke’s view of “salvation.” It is wholeness with creation and a return to communion with the Divine. It is a psychological and spiritual healing. It is a light burden, an easy yoke; not rigid beliefs clung to in order to avoid hellfire. Obviously, this idea is anathema to modern Evangelicals - they are wedded to salvation as a legal transaction whereby God commits a brutal human sacrifice so that he can avoid eternally torturing all the flawed humans he made - now he’ll just eternally torture most of them. This is not, to be clear, the view of Christianity in general or the primary historical view. Rather, it is a way of looking at what Saint Paul called a “mystery” that appealed to some influential white European males during the Protestant Reformation. Many of us feel that, however satisfying it was 500 years ago, it rings really hollow now, and seems to reduce what is arguably the most shocking event in religious teaching (god becomes human, and, rather than come in triumph, suffers and is brutally murdered by humans) into a mere transaction. While also sidelining all the references to restoration, healing, the establishment of a kingdom which looks nothing like earthly power, and so on. 

I am not claiming here that Rilke is a theologian or that he has the pure truth here. Rather, he is expressing a mystical vision of union with the Divine and the salvation of humankind that is a powerful way of looking at things. Once you stop insisting on taking everything literally, you can see such an expansive and holistic vision. To use another metaphor, once you stop insisting on black and white, you can see in color. 

Moving on in the first elegy, here is another line that I loved. 

Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space
gnaws at our faces.

So many times, I have stood out at night and watched the stars. I have stood on a mountain near midnight at 11,000 feet and watched the Perseids fall. I have felt the wind gnaw at my face there. And in the desert on a winter night. Good lord, that is a great line. 

How about the opening to the fourth elegy? 

O trees of life, when does your winter come?
We are not in harmony, our blood does not forewarn us
like migratory birds’. Late, overtaken’
we force ourselves abruptly onto the wind
and fall to earth at some iced-over lake.
Flowering and fading come to us both at once.
And somewhere lions still roam and never know,
in their majestic power, of any weakness.

The fifth elegy was inspired by a painting by Picasso: Les Saltimbanques. The poem addresses itself to each of the characters in the painting - while still focusing on the overarching theme. I won’t quote from it, because it really needs to be read as a unit. Here is the picture, though, because it is a great example from Picasso’s “rose period.” 

This next quote, from the ninth elegy, fascinates me as well. 

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)--: why then
have to be human--and escaping from fate, keep longing for fate? . . .
            Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which 
would exist in the laurel too . . . 
But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. 
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And wee too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

I particularly like the bit about happiness as “too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.” That’s a great line that I might have to steal. 

The tenth elegy is probably my favorite, with its personification of Lament as a race of miners who have fallen out of favor in our modern times when only “happy” emotions are socially acceptable. There are several outstanding lines in this one. This is my favorite passage. 

But how alien, alas, are the streets of the city of grief,
where, in the false silence formed of continual uproar,
the figure cast from the mold of emptiness stoutly
swaggers: the gilded noise, the bursting memorial.
Oh how completely an angel would stamp out their market of solace,
bounded by the church with its ready-made consolations:
clean and disenchanted and shut as a post-office on Sunday.
Farther out, though, the city’s edges are curling with carnival.
Swings of freedom! Divers and jugglers of zeal!
And the shooting-gallery’s targets of prettified happiness,
which jump and kick back with a tinny sound
when hit by some better marksman. From cheers to chance
he goes staggering on, as booths with all sorts of attractions
are wooing, drumming, and bawling. For adults only
there is something special to see: how money multiplies, naked, 
right there on stage, money’s genitals, nothing concealed,
the whole action--, educational, and guaranteed 
to increase your potency . . . . . . . . . 

Hot dang. That’s quite the indictment of capitalist consumer culture. And also an inconvenient truth about organized religion: it has “ready-made consolations” - empty platitudes ready to be whipped out whenever the harsh realities of life bump up against trite dogma. It is one of many reasons that religion is irrelevant for many of my children’s generation. Rilke is one hundred percent correct to link trite religious platitudes with consumer culture too. Also marvelous: describing “prettified happiness” as a carnival game. It’s hard to believe he lived a century before social media “influencers.” And what else? The linking of pornography with the pursuit of wealth is fantastic. The culture of wealth (as exemplified best/worst by the Trump family) is absolutely about “hand” measuring contests and toxic masculinity. As I said, this is my favorite poem in the collection. I encourage you to read the whole thing. 

In my book, the Dunio Elegies also includes a few additional poems in an appendix. The first is a fragment of an elegy that was never published. While it is obviously incomplete, it is pretty good. I like this line:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield; what voice
can outshout the rattle of this metallic age
that is struggling on toward its careening future?

While I don’t think war ever was glorious, poetry about war certainly has been. And Rilke (who was traumatized by WWI) certainly foresaw the brutal impersonality of modern warfare - and indeed the industrial age. 

There is also an early version of the tenth elegy - which is clearly inferior to the later version, although it does contain some interesting ideas which were dropped from the final version. Finally, there is a short poem entitled “Antistrophes,” which is kind of a sexist ode to women. Not Rilke’s best work, to say the least. 

But the elegies themselves are beautiful, moving, and insightful. 


Note on the name: 

Rilke started writing the elgies in 1912, while he was the guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis at Dunio Castle, on the coast at Trieste. The term “castle” is no longer particularly accurate. There was once a castle on the site, built in the 11th Century - the ruins of that building stand next to the current building. The current castle was initially built in the 14th Century and modified periodically thereafter. In its current form, it has far too many outward facing windows to be considered a proper fortress. But the location is, shall we say, spectacular. 

 Rilke didn’t finish the elegies at Dunio. World War One intervened, and the trauma from that experience affected his ability to write. He finally finished them in 1922. 

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