(Rilke and Clara, 1906)
‘Where to begin? And am I the one to give the Elegies their proper explanation? They pass infinitely beyond me.’ Yes, I’ve been revisiting Rilke, having read a good deal of his work decades ago, and always in translation, but nothing at all recently. In that long interval, though, I often noticed his name cropping up in all sorts of contexts in other books I was reading. Here was Lewis Hyde, writing about Rilke on art as a way of life, referring to his ‘wise blindness’. Then W. H. Auden explaining to Alan Ansen that he wouldn’t mind Yeats’s ‘crazy mythology if he took it more seriously’, or, conversely, tipped a wink at the end to say the whole thing was a hoax; adding: ‘I like really crazy people like Rilke, yes, and D. H. Lawrence.’
There are four versions of Rilke poems in Robert Lowell’s Imitations and, in History, a poem called ‘Rilke Self-Portrait’. In Vernon Watkins’s poem, ‘Discoveries’, ‘Rilke bears all, thinks like a tree, believes,/ Sinks in the hand that bears the falling leaves.’ In the early summer of 1941, Watkins stayed with Dylan Thomas in Laugharne. ‘We had read Rilke’s Duino Elegies to each other in the look-out of Laugharne Castle perched on the wall over the estuary. The poems excited Dylan deeply, though he called Rilke “a very odd boy indeed”.’
Here is Ted Hughes writing to Anne Stevenson in the autumn of 1986, pointing out the very wide range of Sylvia Plath’s reading in modern poetry, particularly European poets. ‘She was saturated with Rilke, of course’, Hughes notes, ‘she was perpetually studying German and used Rilke as a text. She regarded Rilke and [Zbigniew] Herbert as much more her “fellow-countrymen” than other US poets.’
There are almost twenty Rilke translations in Randall Jarrell’s published work:
‘One star in the dark pass of the houses,
Shines as if it were a sign
Set there to point the way to—
But more beautiful, somehow, than what it points to,
So that no one has ever gone on beyond
Except those who could not see it, and went on
To what it pointed to, and could not see that either.’
And then—Guy Davenport. Discussing Eliot’s Four Quartets, he suggests that they are, ‘in one sense Eliot’s emulation, and rivalry, of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies . Both are the greatest poems of our century about time, mortality, and our tragic incomprehension of existence. Both negate time for an eternal present containing the past and the future.’
In his essay on Ezra Pound published a few months after the poet’s death, Davenport recalled, on a visit to Venice, learning that Pound was then reading aloud to Olga Rudge Jean Paul Sartre’s recently published Les Mots. ‘A book less likely to interest Pound cannot be imagined’, Davenport observes, ‘and yet he was always capable of surprising our notions of what he did and didn’t like. His last journey was by yacht to the Schloss Duino. Rilke! Who could have foreseen that act of homage?’
This finds its echo or enlargement in an August 1972 letter from Davenport to Hugh Kenner, in the wonderful edition of their correspondence forthcoming from Counterpoint Press next month: ‘Last report is that Ezra, Olga, and some well-heeled friend with a yacht are off to the Schloss Duino to inspect the ramparts from which Rilke, gazing into the storm, heard the angel cry, or shriek, or whistle. It is news to me that Ezra Pound ever looked into a copy of the Duineser Elegien.’ Edward Burns’ note informs us that Davenport is thinking of ‘the opening of the first elegy’, which Davenport translates as ‘“What eye among the rungs and hordes / of angelkind would turn and find / my long call through the storm of time?”’
J. B. Leishman begins his translation of that first elegy like this:
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
I think, though, that what really jolted me back to Rilke was happening across this translation by Michael Hamburger of a poem, dated ‘October, 1925’, that begins, ‘Jetzt wär es Zeit, daß Götter träten aus / bewohnten Dingen…’
Now it is time that gods came walking out
of things inhabited. . .
And then demolished every wall inside
my house. New page. For nothing but the wind
that would be raised by such a wind in turning
could turn the air as shovel turns a sod:
a brand-new field of air. O gods, you gods,
the often come, who are asleep in things,
cheerfully rise, at wells that we conjecture
wash wide awake their faces and their necks
and add their restedness to that which seems
full as it is, our lives already full.
Another morning make your morning, gods!
We’re the repeaters, only you the source.
Your rising is the world’s, beginning shines
from every crack within our patched-up failure. . . .
An extraordinary poem, an extraordinary translation and, surely, both. All those gods! And angels! Yet, referring to the scepticism of Nietzsche, Charles Tomlinson remarks that it was ‘a disbelief that found its most lasting poetic embodiments in the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke’. And Rilke himself wrote, in the letter first quoted, ‘The angel of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam. . . .) The angel of the Elegies is that Being in whom the transmutation of the Visible into the Invisible, which we seek to achieve, is consummated.’
(Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906)
Drusilla Modjeska Stravinsky’s Lunch, largely devoted to the study of two Australian women painters— Grace Cossington-Smith and Stella Bowen, one of the most important people in the life of Ford Madox Ford—briefly traces in the early pages the life and career of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who painted most of her significant pictures, and eighty in all, in one year, 1906-1907, the year in which she died at the early age of thirty-one. Modjeska mentions that Modersohn-Becker sold only one painting in her lifetime (in fact, it seems to have been three) and that one to her friend Rilke. She was a close friend of the artist Clara Westhoff, who did in fact marry Rilke. After Modersohn-Becker’s death, Rilke wrote a long, remarkable ‘Requiem for a Friend’, though without naming her.
‘Are you still there? Still hiding in some corner? —
You knew so much of all that I’ve been saying,
and could so much too, for you passed through life
open to all things, like a breaking day.
Women suffer: loving means being lonely,
and artists feel at times within their work
the need, where most they love, for transmutation.’
(Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on the 6th Wedding Day, 1906)
Naturally, I became interested in Modersohn-Becker: the recent fine biography of her by Marie Darrieussecq—‘And, through all these gaps, I in turn am writing this story, which is not Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace’—was largely responsible for the major retrospective of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2016, for which Darrieussecq wrote the catalogue texts.
Rilke arrives in Worpswede in Northern Germany in September 1900, initially to visit his friend, the painter Heinrich Vogeler. ‘Rilke thinks that painters know how to live, always. They depict anxiety. In hospital, Van Gogh paints his hospital room. The bodies of painters and sculptors are active. Their work is given over to this movement. He, the poet, doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He doesn’t know how to be alive.’ Then: a painter and a sculptor. Rilke ‘is in two minds. Paula, Clara. His heart is torn. He has a preference for threesomes, which will continue his whole life’ (Being Here 27, 28). In 1901, in preparation for her marriage to Otto Modersohn, Paula Becker is sent to Berlin, to take a cookery course. Rilke is also there and they meet. ‘As soon as she leaves, he writes to her again. It is midnight under his green lamp; he doesn’t touch a thing, in order to retain her presence’ (Being Here 49). They have dinner together for the last time in Paris, 27 July 1906. She dies of an embolism in November 1907: she is thirty-one years old. A year after her death, Rilke will write the ‘Requiem for a Friend’ over ‘three haunted nights in Paris’, at the Hotel Biron, 77 rue de Varenne, ‘a building Clara located for him and which will become the Musée Rodin.’ (Being Here 136).
‘Do not return. If you can bear it, stay
dead with the dead. The dead are occupied.
But help me, as you may without distraction,
as the most distant sometimes helps: in me.’
So yes—intrigued, baffled, astonished, bemused, exhilarated—I am reading Rilke.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902-1926, translated by R. F. C. Hull (London: Macmillan, 1946), 392.
 Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage, 1983), 150.
 Alan Ansen, The Table Talk of W. H Auden, edited by Nicholas Jenkins (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 72.
 Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 273-279, 497.
 Vernon Watkins, ‘Discoveries’. Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 8; Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, edited by Vernon Watkins (London: J. M. Dent and Sons and Faber and Faber, 1957), 105.
 Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 516-517.
 Randall Jarrell, ‘The Evening Star’, The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 485.
 Guy Davenport, ‘Civilization and its Opposite in the 1940s’, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 80: Davenport had the date as 1921 but appears to have been two years out.
 Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 171.
 Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1413; 1447, n.105.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Works. Volume II: Poetry, translated by J. B. Leishman (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 225.
 German Poetry, 1910-1975, an Anthology translated and edited by Michael Hamburger (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1977), 22-23.
 Charles Tomlinson, American Essays: Making It New (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2001), 59.
 Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 6-13.
 Rilke, Poetry, 204.
 Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, translated by Penny Hueston (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2017), 44, 154, n.34.
 Rilke, Poetry, 205.