As a selfish poseur, Rilke can scarcely be matched. (Of course, there are poets—Ezra Pound leaps to mind—whose character was baser and whose work is emptier.) It’s not realistic to claim that has nothing to do with his poetry, but it doesn’t affect my judgment of his achievement. And I am willing to overlook the flaccid sentimentality of his early books. But the high esteem in which his later work is held—especially his two final sequences, The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus—puzzles me. Even in these poems, there are brilliant strokes, and some of the old chestnuts—“The Panther,” say, or “Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes”—still have their gleam and bite. But far too much of The Duino Elegies is pretentiously obscure—obscure, that is, to the point not of fascination but of tedium. Montale can be as hermetic, but his poems always seem grounded in remembered detail. They are like Braille: I can sense it means something, though I can’t understand it. Rilke, on the other hand, is just gassy. What I dislike about so many of his poems is their unattached feeling. His buzzwords—soul, longing, life, gaze, thing, eternal—float aimlessly. Lines like “Does not his passionate oneness with her pure / features derive from your celestial fire?” or this sodden mess—
What we have is World
and always World and never Nowhere-Without-Not:
that pure unguarded element one breathes
and knows endlessly and never craves
Part of the problem, I suspect, is marketing. Rilke is now sold as “wisdom literature.” It is hardly surprising that one of Rilke’s most prominent recent translators, Stephen Mitchell, went on to offer versions of mystical poetry, along with the Tao. There is now a collection called Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties. Rilke as Rumi? Or would it be fairer to wonder if Rilke hasn’t become—or at least isn’t being sold as—the Kahlil Gibran of the intellectual set. For my money, that turn of events seems sadly appropriate.