Wednesday, May 22, 2013

white, dripping, and confused - red, dead, and open - Rilke witnesses the birth of Venus

Maybe I should put a warning label on this post.  Graphic Poetic Content.

I guess “The Birth of Venus,” another of Rilke’s New Poems, counts as a story.  It is a mythological event, it has a character.  It allows Rilke to be almost purely descriptive, though.  First, the birth:

In the morning after that night which fearfully
had passed in outcry, tumult, uproar, -
the sea split open once again and screamed.
And as the sea slowly closed up
and from the sky’s pale light and brightness
fell back into the fishes’ chasm –:
the sea gave birth.

Two characters, then, the newborn Venus ("white, dripping, and confused"), and the sea, who is given all of the trauma of childbirth.  The next seven stanzas do nothing but look at Venus, who is nude and described with a physical, sexual language, mitigated by the distance of metaphor:

Beneath [the navel] the small wave rose lightly
and lapped continuously toward the loins,
where now and then there was a silent ripple.

Much of this seems to describe the concept of Venus more than the character, but of course this is myth, so the birth of the person is the birth of the concept.

I find some of the metaphors close to ridiculous, but they maintain a connection to the sea, the wind, and perhaps the zodiac.

Now the shoulder’s quick scales already stood
in perfect balance on the upright body,
which rose from the pelvis like a fountain
and fell hesitantly in the long arms
and more swiftly in the hair’s cascade.

The zodiac business is just a guess – Libra and Aquarius are here, with Virgo presumably implied.  I do not see how all of twelve symbols are present in the poem, though, and have no knowledge about how different signs interact with each other.  A wild swing, is what this is, an attempt to stuff fit those metaphors into a system.

Here is the end of the poem, when Rilke finally sets Venus, and the world, in motion:

Behind her,
as she strode swiftly on across the young sands,
all morning long the flowers and grasses
sprang up, warm, confused,
as from embracing.  And she walked and ran.

But at noon, in the heaviest hour,
the sea rose up once more and threw
a dolphin on that selfsame spot.
Dead, red, and open.  [Tot, rot, und offen.]

Kind of a surprise ending there, huh?  Mother sea delivers the placenta of Venus:  primal, violent, horrible.  Yet natural, as natural as the grass and flowers lusting after the new goddess.  Venus walks the earth.  There is no turning back.


  1. Good point Tom about the primal and violent nature of these lines. I find the raw celebration of procreation here a refreshing change from the usual romantic ruminations on this subject.

  2. I suspect that some of Rilke's aesthetic strategies were meant to wrestle with, to contain his deep Romanticism. How to get outside of himself, that was the question.