Many years ago, at a time when I was obsessed by Rilke’s poetry, I happened to cut myself shaving, and (looking in the mirror) I thought: “If Rilke cut himself shaving, he would bleed poetry.” Robert Hass, in his long, wide-ranging introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translations, quotes the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva writing to Rilke, when he was dying, in 1926: “You are not the poet I love most. ‘Most’ already implies comparison. You are poetry itself.” Mr. Hass comments: “This is not hyperbole.” He writes:
The Duino Elegies are an argument against our lived, ordinary lives. And it is not surprising that they are. Rilke’s special gift as a poet is that he does not seem to speak from the middle of life, that he is always calling us away from it. His poems have the feeling of being written from a great depth in himself. What makes them so seductive is that they also speak to the reader so intimately. They seem whispered or crooned into our inmost ear, insinuating us toward the same depth in ourselves. The effect can be hypnotic.
“Seductive,” “whispered,” “crooned,” Rilke “insinuating” some “great depth in himself” toward the “same depth in ourselves”—the vocabulary seems suspect, and possibly Mr. Hass half intends it as a warning. This is certainly one aspect of Rilke, the poet speaking out of his own isolation to the reader who is made, through the poetry, to realize a similar isolation in himself. The poetry is essentially the religious utterance of the poet who, although he has absorbed into himself the experience of many religions, considers that the religion in which he was brought up—Roman Catholicism—is, except perhaps in certain remote villages, spiritually bankrupt, its symbolism outworn. Rilke also objected to the idea of Original Sin, and, above all, he abhorred the claim of the Church to stand as mediator, through its priesthood, between the isolated individual and God. He wanted no institution, creed, or dogma to stand between him and that outsideness.
The difficulty of the religious poetry of a poet whose religion is unique to him in his isolation, though present in his poetry, is that poetry itself tends to become religion, while the poem becomes a kind of incarnation of the poet. Poetry is not a Church, and has no communions—whatever people who go to poetry readings may think. It is always a form of communication between one poet and one reader, though this situation may be reproduced a great many times. It is this to which Mr. Hass is referring when he writes of the great depths of Rilke’s self impelling “us” (the reader) toward a corresponding great depth in ourselves. The poet exists in the poem and the poem stimulates in the reader a responding existence, of the poet through the medium of the poem. This situation is extremely attractive to some readers, but may seem repellent to others, who would probably prefer even “ordinary …