Friday, April 19, 2013

Suddenly emotion seems to flare - Rilke studies a hydrangea

Rilke’s two volumes of News Poems (1907 and 1908) are worth reading by themselves, as books.  I always say this, I know.  Stephen Mitchell includes a couple dozen greatest hits, and the 2009 Edward Snow collection has seventy or so poems, but Snow also translated the complete texts, published in 1984 and 1987, respectively.

So I will try to say something about how these books work, which will also give an idea of how the poems work.

The titles of the poems reveal Rilke’s concept.  Animals (“The Panther,” “The Gazelle,” “The Unicorn”).  Objects (“The Lute,” “The Carousel,” “The Bowl of Roses”).  Works of art, buildings, places, restaurants (“The Olive Garden”), actions (“Corpse-Washing”), people, and even stories (“Alcestis”).  One of those animals suggests a complication, that many more poems are about artworks than is first apparent.  The scene described in that poem is likely from a painting or tapestry:

But its gaze, intercepted by no object,
cast images far into space
and brought a blue legend-cycle to a close.

The poem is full of descriptive colors (white, ivory, rose-gray), but that use of blue is clue that the poet is describing an object, not an imagined image.

Rilke’s colors frequently show up in odd yet apt places.  “The Carousel” speeds into “A red, a green, a gray sent past” as the animals become blurs.

Blue Hydrangea” is all color, the color of a flower and its leaves.

These leaves are like the last green
in the paint pots – dried up, dull, and rough,
behind  the flowered umbels whose blue
is not their own, but mirrored from afar.

They reflect it tear-stained, vaguely,
as if deep down they hoped to lose it;
and as with old blue writing paper
there’s yellow in them, violet and gray;

Washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
things that are finished with, no longer worn:
the way one feels a small life’s brevity.

But suddenly emotion seems to flare
in one of the umbels, and one sees
a moving blue as it takes joy in green.  (Snow, 2009 version)

This poem is almost typical of New Poems.  The focus is on something outside of the poet.  The poem is objective, taking that perilous word in a philosophical sense.  But although the poet spends most of his effort in an attempt to capture a particular subtle color effect, the interaction between the colors of the leaves and the blooms, the poem is not merely descriptive.  An emotional state is attributed to the blooms (or the leaves?) – they “hoped,” “deep down” to lose the mirrored blue.  How sad.  But then the flowers “take joy” in the color of the leaves.

The poem is obviously then also subjective, about the self (or an imagined self), but hidden behind or displaced into the object, with the poet going so far as to distance himself even from what is clearly a personal response not to the plant but to a metaphor describing it, the worn pinafore, a pure artifact of the poem – “one feels” and “one sees” (“wie fühlt man,” “man sieht”).

Of course, as I saw in “The Spanish Dancer,” the originality of the metaphors can almost be taken for granted.  So one thing New Poems does is what “Blue Hydrangea” does, over and over, but with a variety of objects.

That gets me closer to yet nowhere near a sense of how New Poems works as a book, how the poems connect to each other.  And I am running behind for the week.  Another try tomorrow.


  1. Given what he does with a flower, I can't wait to see Rilke's response to a chain restaurant.

  2. How I wish I had not been joking.

    I thought you might enjoy this translator's choice of "umbel" - in his older version he uses "blooms" or something like that, something less technical but less precise.

  3. I did appreciate the umbel. And question it's accuracy for a hydrangea inflorescence, but I think it is much more evocative than bloom.