I do not consider myself one of the "high-minded" sort that frowns on any diminishment of the esteemed dead poets society. However, I believe all criticism should stick to the art itself and the truth revealed there. As D. H. Lawrence famously put it: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." This goes for poetry as well as prose. Thus, I take issue with J. D. McClatchy's high-handed put-down of Rainer Maria Rilke's personal, idiosyncratic life: "alternately depressed and exhilerated . . . in need of both attention and solitude . . . a snob who liked to walk barefoot. . . . He was even a vegetarian." God forbid! I know nothing of McClatchy's personal life, but his tone barely conceals the superb arrogance of a conservative New England academic.
Rilke lived in a time of overwhelming patriarchal control of European culture. The dying monarchical systems, a dying out that led to the catastrophe of the Great War, unpredictably turned his sensitivity in the direction of the eastern Sufi poets and away from human relationships. It was a time of violence and sacrifice fueled by the Christian idea of death and resurrection. He was conflicted in this gradual turning away from the "false silence formed by continual uproar . . . the gilded noise, the bursting memorial," but in the end he embraced the natural world over the human. Just as Vermeer in his time depicted the insulated peaceful life of women at home, while outside his country raged in continual armed conflict, so Rilke withdrew; his poetry is a protest.
To me Rilke's poetry is clear. One only needs to enter into his mind to know his oft-repeated metaphors. The "Nowhere, Without Not" is a meditative, wordless state. How does one describe this in words? "The World," for him, is the visible, tangible distractions, "curling with carnival." What makes his poetry timeless is that it applies equally to his time and to our computerized, cell-phone-crazed busyness that distracts us from thinking deeply today.
Santa Barbara, California