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Antagonism: Rainer Maria Rilke

Every trade has its patron saint, and if butchers and silversmiths, why not poets? Since I can remember, poetry’s patron saint—revered and invoked—has been Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s understandable why Rilke is the favorite of fledglings: young poets continue to see in him what they want to see in themselves. Even as a teenager, Rilke had an ardent, if unfocused, sense of literary ambition; he was alternately depressed and exhilarated, or “ill” and in need of both attention and solitude; he was swept by tides of concentration and idleness; he was a snob who liked to walk barefoot, passionate about “spirituality” and “simplicity”; he was a passive and self-pitying sexual predator; he liked to read his work aloud, by the light of flickering candles, to a room of hushed admirers; he was even a vegetarian. Starter poets, their training wheels still attached, thrill to the oppressive gloom of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and to the sententious twaddle of Letters to a Young Poet.

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


(the translations are by Edward Snow) are nearly comic in their portentousness.


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.


Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

Poet, critic, editor, and librettist J.D. McClatchy was born and raised in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He earned his BA at Georgetown University and his PhD in English at Yale University. His poetry is marked by formal adeptness, lyrical control and a wide range of influences—including classical literature, music, and opera....

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  1. March 21, 2007
     David Grefrath

    Rilke was certainly one for broad strokes in the Duino Elegies. The images themselves jangle at times against eachother. However what Rilke allows himself with these passages is an attempt to construct a more lifelike poetry, one not made merely of rhetoric, though rhetoric is inescapable, but one in which thoughts and dreams can actively enter one's mind, as they do during the hours of the day. In this manner, his self-serving and egoistic statements such as, "would they go on, chewing so helplessly on their own frustration?" or "Exposed on the cliffs of the heart" are able to exist alongside other more refined and sculpted images, such as his description of the torso of Apollo, the gazelle or the aforementioned panther, endlessly circling in its small strides.

    Perhaps the pastiche of 'spirtualness' is one in which Rilke indulges too deeply at times. His work often seems to revolve around what he said to Hans Kapus in letter, "almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious." But the terms of love we speak to eachother or to a godhead with are not terms which answer to science or reason. If they do, they are merely a request that the tokens of circumstance be exchanged for another. Terms of love are terms ultimitely of unknowledge, such as when WH Auden says, "'I love you.' very easy to say, 'I'll love you at 4:15 tomorrow,' far more difficult." Particularly as a writer working with the recent shadow of Freud cast over Europe, Rilke is able to synthisize the unintelligible with the concrete in much of his work. In this light, it is heartening to look at Rilke's work in perspective with, say, Wordsworth, for whom the aesthetic is in some ways an escape from reality. Rilke tries to deal with the entirety of his existance through spirituality, a narrow portal through which he continues to push the large stone of the soul.

    This leaves his work subject to criticism for its lack of cogency, but the art wrought from that life was, at times, as haphazardly beautiful, as intrinsicly conflicted, as Rilke himself, which is no more or less than the contradictions we each live with in our lives.

  2. March 21, 2010
     Kim Carlson

    I don't disagree with the criticisms leveled against Rilke here, but I take exception when the criticism is preempted with character-bashing.

    Rilke is taken to task for being alternately exhilarated and depressed? It’s axiomatic that depression is a hallmark of creativity--the list of depressed/alcoholic/suicidal writers is legendary. That he was "ill" and needed attention and solitude? He suffered from a rare form of leukemia that was only diagnosed days before his death, not to mention the fact that his mentor/lover Lou Salome argued to the end that his “illness” was psychosomatic.

    True, he was a snob as well as an indifferent husband and father. He whined, he sulked, he mooched, he wanted things his way. He avoided commitment, curried favor with those who could help him, and deserted those who lent their devotion and support. Because of his self-absorption and selfishness he appears to be the punching bag for indignant critics everywhere. But without that single-mindedness, he may never have achieved the kind of mastery in his work that insures periodic re-evaluations as well as a rekindled appreciation of it.

    Should he have worked twelve hours in a coal mine and written his poems by candlelight when he got home? Is he a fiend because he refused to teach or work as a civil servant? Where is it written that a writer must be moral, brave, faithful, selfless, and self-supporting in order for his work to be validated? What if he just couldn't handle life like the average Joe? But he was far from average, and it seems unfair to chastise him for his avoidance of regular employment when he left behind a body of work of staggering beauty. It's not as if he fancied himself as a knight in shining armor. He openly admitted to Lou: I am maladroit in life…it is often just a way station for me…

    When Rilke wasn't swept up in the delirious fever of writing he was hounded by depression and his fear of poverty. His life was foreshortened by his terrible illness, but the fervor with which he wrote and lived was immense, as was his devotion to translating the ineffable worlds inside him. The Duino Elegies may be his most celebrated work, but his New Poems are for me his best work because of their concision and the hypnotic, transcendent images he achieved. These poems bridge the careless, often violent squalor of ordinary life and the sublimely eternal, and in those moments when he is supremely focused, his words are like an eviscerating hymn, as in The Lunatics:

    And they say nothing, since the dividing walls
    inside their minds have been removed,
    and the hours when one would understand them
    approach and slip away unstruck.

    Sometimes at night, when they step to the window:
    suddenly all is well.
    Their hands touch the tangible
    their hearts are full and fit to pray,
    and their eyes gaze restfully

    on the unexpected, oft-distorted
    garden at peace now in its perfect square,
    growing on and on in the reflection
    of foreign worlds and never getting lost.

  3. July 25, 2010
     Michael Brown

    I really can't take this article-- takedown, critique, commentary, "antagonism" (?!)--seriously. I do not mean this in principle, as I am not against the idea of a critique of Rilke's oeuvre, but merely as a question of method and, above all, intent. This article was written by a guy who has a poem entitled "Lines On My Face" from his book "Ten Commandments" featured on this site, whose verses are just as emptily vague (see his poem "The Spanish Hour") and who is just as much as a self-stylized "poseur" as Rilke or Pound ever were (just look at that ridiculous face he's making in his author photo). If this, my "antagonism," seems a little too ad hominem and unfounded, then just remember that I am working in the vein of what Poetry Magazine has already established as valid discourse worth publishing in its pages. If four "sodden" ("badly translated" would be more apt, and much more fair at that) lines taken out of context as to lend legitimacy to what really amounts a base assassination of character are enough to condemn Rilke's ENTIRE body of work, then that's just great. It is my opinion that Rilke fares really badly in translation; his German is really idiosyncratic, and despite the efforts of Edward Snow, Stephen Mitchell and all the other cast of his translators, Rilke reads pretty badly in English. This being said, one really must go to the German when considering Rilke - or any poet for that matter - whether it be to exalt or deride him. I do not know whether Herr McClatchy reads German or not, and it might be that the instances he takes recourse to Rilke's biography to make a statement about or support his attack on the work that are for want of a greater, more essential understanding of Rilke's language, which one most certainly cannot discuss seriously in translation, at least to come to definitive conclusions about the work or the man. And besides, like I said, I'll even agree (as a native German speaker) that Rilke is to a certain extent unreadable in English. In the end, the sentiment of this piece is totally the vogue; its very fashionable to snipe at the idols, to disavow oneself from having to really deal with them meaningfully, and thus create some imaginative space for the present, no matter how falsely and cheaply won.

  4. March 12, 2015

    Oh, this is such a mean-spiritied, bitter, and ugly 'critique' of Rilke. How
    tragic that the poetry foundation could publish this. How very tragic.

  5. March 25, 2015
     Kelly Thompson

    I was surprised to read this critique of Rilke. It seems so easily tossed off, dismissive of a body of work scarcely examined. I'm guessing this writer is a "rationally minded" sort, someone who can't grasp the non-rational. His loss.

  6. September 10, 2015

    Ah yes, trite character assassinations of a significant poets by
    insignificant ones -- how quaint.