Rose, ô pure contradiction,
volupté de n’être le sommeil de personne
sous tant de paupières
Rose, oh pure contradiction
desire to be Nobody’s sleep
under so many lids
The small quote above from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) might surprise poetry readers since Rilke is known for his poetry in German.
I will write down no adjectives to describe Rilke’s poetry in German, because I believe poetry and prose in another language ultimately fails translation. The talented translators amongst us give us mere approximations. Rilke in either language is no exception. The late Mr. Poulin gave us an admirable bilingual text.
As I was saying…I suspect that few readers know that Rilke, the author of the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, numerous other poems, essays and one novel wrote 400 poems in French between 1922 and his death in 1926. A remarkable accomplishment by any standard – in no less a language not his own; that said, however, Rilke’s French is equal to his German and his French poems earned him the praises of of Paul Valéry and André Gide.
In 20th century German prose Thomas Mann (1875-1955) consciously continued the classical spirit of Goethe (1749-1832) and Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), the romantic spirit of Novalis (1772-1801), but in poetry Rilke stands alone. One could argue that Rilke is a modernist because he is fragmentary at times, but that is a rather misleading statement because it is like saying Mann is thoroughly modern because he uses irony in his novels. Mann saw himself as the second Goethe in order to restore honor to German culture in a world that associated Germany with Hitler. Rilke was aware that he was crafting a new form of poetry.
Perhaps Rilke is more an existentialist than a modernist. He is certainly a very different modern poet than T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) who drew his ideas from the French Symbolists, Jules Laforgue (1860-1887) in particular, and other heirs of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). Perhaps Rilke was deeply influenced by Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937), lover of and muse to Nietzsche(1844-1900) and by Nietzsche’s theory of art and inspiration since Rilke developed a poetic voice of interior spaces, internal psychology, and a subjective philosophy about solitude. It is a blanket (but true) statement that all twentieth-century German thinkers, including Mann, had to contend with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (1788-1860); and finally, one could argue that nearly all of them misinterpreted Nietzsche; and I think that there is a danger in romanticizing Rilke. His concepts of solitude and art are not as romantic as they sound in his Letters to a Young Poet; his artistic concept in practice was ruthless and selfish. Rilke, a notorious womanizer contrary to his monastic presentation, abandoned his wife, Clara Westhoff (1878-1954) and daughter, Ruth (1901-1972). Yet in all his German poetry there is a soft guiding voice, a gentleness, but in the end, especially in the Elegies, Rilke is the more terrifying and enigmatic of all the twentieth-century European poets.
And what of these French poems? Rilke’s rose begins almost as a medieval symbol of perfected Love and then transforms, petal by petal, into the ephemeral, again subjective, cruelty of love, loss, and mortality. Repose is a recurring theme in the French poems. Rilke shows you the petals, insinuates the scent and reminds you of the thorns.
It is said that while Rilke was tending to his roses at Muzot in Switzerland he pricked his finger on a thorn. The wound led to sepsis although the official cause of his death was from advanced leukemia. Poetic irony. For a good site on Rilke, please see Cliff Crego’s page and to hear Rilke spoken in German, see youtube Rilke Projekt.
In a small graveyard, on a modest marker, the French lines I quote above were rendered into German as the epitaph for one of the great poets of the 20th century.
ROSE, OH REINER WIDERSPRUCH,
NIEMANDES SCHLAF ZU SEIN
Rose, oh pure contradiction,
to be no-one’s sleep
under so many