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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 the reproach that they were really “letters to himself”—served two purposes: they defined, to himself at any rate, his relation with the correspondent, and they were a lifeline—a lifeline to his own genius, a lifeline to the outside world.

Like Baudelaire, Rilke has to be considered an invalid, but unlike Baudelaire, his illness is not his art, is not his neurosis even. It has to be looked on more as the result of a series of accidents which happened to him. Essentially they were all the same accident—the War. For his childhood unhappiness, his adolescence at the military academy, are all prophetic of this appalling collapse in the outside world in 1914 of all the values which made his interior life.

In some years time it will probably seem clear—if it does not already—that certain works of the early part of this century were written because the War affected their authors not just as a public calamity but as a personal affliction. The names that occur to one are Ulysses, The Waste Land, Women in Love, and The Duino Elegies. What these works have in common is the view of modern life as a single event which is a total disaster, requiring a total response of the artist confronting the disaster with the whole of his consciousness—which becomes representative of a traditional consciousness shattered by this time. The writers have it in common that they are exiles from the country of their birth and that they accept their fatality because the burden they are bearing is for all of their contemporaries who understand.

This being the case, when one approaches Rilke one may begin by mocking at the extraordinary fuss by which his hypersensitivity seems surrounded, but one stays to pray, realizing that there is no fuss at all, and that at the center of his agitation there is an extraordinary silence. Silence is what he was looking for, silence is what all the apparent fuss was about.

The goal of all the peregrinations was to discover a place where he could write the masterpiece which he had begun a decade earlier. Switzerland was probably the last place he had in mind for such a task, since he shared that prejudice against the cantons, which is a reaction amongst the European intelligentsia, against the Victorian enthusiasm for the Alps. But his attitude changed as the result of his striking up an acquaintance with a young lady who was his traveling companion on a journey to Zurich in 1919, where he was going to read his poems to the Readers’ Circle. Later he went to Nyon, on the lake of Geneva (from where he started writing letters to the “traveling companion”) and then to Bern, and from Bern, on the recommendation of another friend, to the village of Soglio, where there was at his disposal “an old house complete with inherited furniture, links with the past, a library room where he could work undisturbed, candle-light on the writing-desk, a path through the garden.” Obliged to leave Soglio, he went from place to place for fourteen mouths which included (surprisingly) a reading tour in Switzerland. Before settling down again, his journeyings included Venice. Geneva, Bern, and Paris.

He found seclusion of a kind which was creative first in Berg by the Irschel, and then (bringing ripeness and fulfilment) at the château of Muzot. He seems quite literally to have needed to be enclosed in castle walls in order to begin to write his serious work. His problem, as he told a friend, was “to become his own contemporary,” to fill the vacuum of time lost during the war years of despair and employment as a bureaucrat. At Berg he was “wholeheartedly determined not to see people,” he hardly left the grounds of the château, and he wrote long letters. A strange thing happened. “One evening, as he was sitting at his writing desk in the big drawing-room he suddenly became aware of a figure in a chair by the fireplace, deep in the shadows of the twilit room. It was a gentleman in eighteenth-century dress, gazing silently into the fire, his head supported on his hand.” The gentleman dictated the series of poems called From the Remains of Count W, to Rilke. How far Rilke believed this to be true, it is impossible to say: most probably not at all. The invention was a helpful device for releasing him to write a series of poems at a time when self-distrust and self-criticism would have inhibited him from writing “his own” poetry. One is reminded of the poetic use to which Yeats put such visitations of spirits from another world.

Hospitality at Berg ran out, but Rilke had learned from his preparatory months there what he wanted: “to be alone, for a long, long time, perhaps for ever.” One day on a trip with a friend, he saw in the window of a hair-dresser the photograph of a little castle of the thirteenth century with, in it, the notice “A vendre ou à louer.” After many tribulations, Werner Reinhardt of Wintertur rented Muzot for Rilke.

Muzot was more cloistral than Berg. There was no electricity, water had to be got from a well. Rilke’s bedroom looked like “a monk’s cell.” However, he found a wonderful housekeeper, various ladies rallied round and helped with the furnishing, and Rilke shut himself off from the world. After a time he even partly arrested the flow of letters. There were moments when the protective “armour” of his fortress weighed on him; then with Joycean insight he recollected that the name of the boy who did errands between village and castle was “Essayez.” His name was the most important of Essayez’s messages delivered.

And then, finally, after those years of waiting which included the interminable agony of the Great War, his genius spoke, between the 2nd and 20th of February 1922. In three days, the 2nd to the 5th of February, he wrote the cycle of the twenty-five Sonnets to Orpheus suggested by the death of Wera Ouckama Knoop, a young girl whose tragic illness had been described in her mother’s diary, which Rilke had read. And in the ensuing days he completed the work begun ten years previously, at the castle of Duino on the Dalmation coast, The Duino Elegies. Lines from the letter which he wrote to his old friend the Princess Taxis who had lent him Duino are like a postscript to the poem:

Enough, it is there.

I went out in the cold moonlight and stroked little Muzot as if it were a great animal—the old walls which have granted it to me. And Duino, destroyed.

This extraordinary flowering of the genius which had been held back by years of iron frost, is one of the great miracles of modern art. It showed once again that the task of the artist is to demonstrate that the impossible is possible in the work achieved.

After this fulfillment, the story which Von Salis tells is one of descent down the other side of the hill, at first gradual, then precipitous. There was indeed for a time the impression that Rilke was on a high plateau, where he could enjoy his achievement, meet people again, read Valéry’s poetry and translate some of it, reappear in drawing rooms, and journey to Paris, seeking to recapture the lost days of the hero of his early novel Malte Laurids Brigge, and the memories of being Rodin’s secretary.

He enjoyed himself, he wrote his poems in French, but essentially he had nothing to do but die. His view of a life as the fulfillment of vocation, and of death as a further kind of uniqueness—different and ripening in each one of us—makes Rilke’s death, after an illness which he apparently got as the result of pricking his finger with thorns from a rose bush he had been pruning, seem to the reader appropriate—as perhaps it would have done to Rilke himself when he was a young man. But in fact his illness was long drawn out, he had the sense of another and alien thing having entered his body with which, he felt, he had previously been on such good terms, and, dying, he could not bring himself to mention death.

One has the impression that Rilke was a strange man, strange not just because he was a poet of genius, but strange in the world, with a kind of animal strangeness under his courtesy and solitude; that underneath so much given in his letters, something is being covered up, and that his biographers—perhaps because they do not know what it was—loyally help Rilke hide it. I suspect a very deep sensuality, that au fond Rilke was a bit Laurentian (though too cultivated to advertise Laurention solutions), that his life moved on a dark tide of blood. Like Lawrence he was a religious man who set himself against Christianity because he had decided that Christianity was against life. Shortly before his death he made the remark—which seems so odd in the light of what we are told about him—that if there were a new religion it must be phallic.

Professor von Salis’s book, first published in 1936, and now in English for the first time, contains a certain amount of material that looks like padding, but the fact is that the epistolary and descriptive padding is as much part of Rilke as Cromwell’s warts were to Cromwell. He is perhaps a bit too reverential to Rilke, but what else can one do with this poet but revere him? Perhaps it is the misfortune of German poets that they appear to lay down the conditions on which you have to take them, even when these conditions do them a dis-service. Von Salis makes much of the fact that occasionally one could laugh with Rilke, and I am sure this is true. He does not suggest that it was ever possible to laugh at Rilke.

The poems quoted are all in English, translated by J. B. Leishmann. They are laborious, conscientious, well done, but it seems a great pity the German texts could not be printed side by side with them. We are asked on page 275 to consider closely a poem called “Respite,” which is no doubt a careful rendering of the original. But how is one to take a poem which, without the German text, begins in the English with this stanza:

Long since the armorial willow started.
as a question to futurity.
Both, it seemed, the live and the departed,
share the hope of its increscency.

The German could not possibly sound so foreign as this does in English. We would do far better to have it in the original language. No one is so ignorant of German that the German could be more impenetrable. It is time publishers realized that when translations are simply translations and not poems in another language, they should be printed side by side with the original texts.

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