The Last Years of a Poet

Rilke: The Years in Switzerland

by J.R. von Salis
University of California, 322 pp., $7.50

On his slightly built, rather short body, Rilke’s head appeared large, almost top-heavy, and the most striking thing about his face was the contrast between its upper and lower halves. All spirituality seemed concentrated in the magnificent vault of the clear forehead and in the wide-open mauve-blue eyes, while the nose ended in broad nostrils and the mouth was excessively large; a drooping, thin moustache made the fleshiness of the lips less noticeable; the chin was small, a continuation of the curve of the cheeks.

One will hardly get a better portrait of Rilke’s appearance than that, and it is confirmed by a photograph in the present volume. Yet a photograph remains baffling, withholding even more than it strikingly gives. An enigma described in words is already less enigmatic.

The reader would be well advised, I think, to start with one of Professor von Salis’s later chapters—particularly the one from which I have just quoted, “The Man Rilke.” The early chapters, emphasizing the search of the poet for an ideal house, in an ideal country, with an ideal housekeeper, loaned to him by an ideal princess, where he might achieve the ideal loneliness in order to write an ideal poem, rather contribute to the view of Rilke as a German,’ or Central European, Henry James, handling himself with infinite care as though he were some jar of spikenard, and shudderingly confiding to a surprisingly large circle of friends the precautions required, the attentions needed.

It is possible even to regard Rilke’s enormous correspondence with concentric circles of ladies—those on the outermost circle receiving the highest degree of intimacy by virtue of being the ones whom the poet was in least danger of actually having to see—as a practical joke played on posterity by this least communicable of poets, who has left to the world, by way of these ladies, so many volumes of opaque communications.

So reading Professor Von Salis’s opening chapters and learning when I got to page 74 that Rilke was still in 1920 “forever on the urge of departure, a perpetual leave-taker,” and—a few lines later on, in the poet’s own words, “I know that I love Bern, but this time I can’t feel it—yesterday evening when I arrived I was even a little frightened by the hardness in the air—then too by this separateness of sky and earth, and, suddenly again, by the fallow-colored, fragmentary and (alas!) bourgeois appearance of things, their heaviness, their impenetrability, their density,” etc etc, I felt sceptical. But with the next chapter “Healing and New Beginning,” I realized that I was wrong. It was not just that the old magic worked, I was caught once more in the web of Rilke’s noble self-cultivation, but that Von Salis, in this excellent volume, makes it clear that although Rilke had a highly literary style which (like that of Henry James) extended even to telegrams he sent, he was not a literary man, a “writer.” His letters—which certainly lay him open to…

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