Thursday, May 23, 2013

By which alone the invisible is made complete - Rilke's character harrow Hell, breathe an air elemental, and are killed by God

Familiar stories, surprising touches.  Details, points of view, motivations.  That is what I am enjoying in Rilke’s retellings.

I am going to abandon the New Poems, so I had better give page numbers now.  The Poetry of Rilke, tr. Edward Snow, that’s the book.

The surprise in “The Death of Moses” (535) is that Rilke finds a clever way to explain why God kills Moses – only one angel, the “dark, fallen” one was willing to do the deed, and even he balked at the last minute (“I can’t!”).  So God must take care of it himself.  He first convinces Moses’ soul to die (the soul of Moses is female):

Fulfilled, she
admitted it was time.  Then the old god
slowly bowed his old countenance
to the old man.  With a kiss extracted him
into his own older age.  And with hands of creation
closed up the mountain tomb.  So it would be merely one,
a re-created one, among the mountains of the earth,
indistinguishable to men. 

This includes everything from the end of Deuteronomy yet it altogether gentler.

What’s another good one.  “Christ’s Descent into Hell” (507) begins with Christ’s death leaving him confused and exhausted (“His expelled spirit thought perhaps to bide its time \ in the landscape, inactive.”)  But the earth opens and he hears the cries of the damned.  For Rilke, the harrowing of Hell is the result of Christ’s boundless compassion and his empathy, his ability to imagine their sufferings as his own.  So he plunges in.

I, and also Rilke, make Christ sound a bit like a superhero.  Writing about Rilke’s Orpheus poem, I made the poet sound like Neil Gaiman in Sandman, specifically Sandman Special #1.  I looked that up.  I did not know it offhand.  I swear.  I take this as a testament to Rilke’s imaginative power.

More superpowers – “The Spirit Ariel” (493) has Prospero’s thoughts on his magical servant.  He imagines freeing Ariel (“How sweet and almost tempting \ to let him go”) in order to enjoy his pure friendship “without any strain, nowhere any obligation.”  He imagines himself without his magic and Ariel returning to his element, dissolving in the air:

Powerless, aging, poor
yet breathing him like incomprehensibly far-flung
scattered fragrance by which alone the invisible
is made complete.

This is all quite strange, wonderful and strange, a worthy companion to Robert Browning’s extension of The Tempest in “Caliban Upon Setebos.”

As with the New Poems, this stuff is not what people usually identify with Rilke.  I did not, at least.

A four day weekend approaches, so this will be the last post until next Tuesday.  


  1. It seems like you're getting some of those anonymous, little nice comments hiding links to commercial offers. Those kinds of comments are just like the parasitic Wax-moth's nice words addressed to the bees used to cover up her egg-laying on Kipling's The Mother Hive:

    “If you’d only heard,” said the Wax-moth silkily, “the insolence of the Guard’s tone when she cursed our sister bee here. It aroused the Entire Community.” She laid an egg. She had stolen in for that purpose.
    “There was a bit of a fuss on the Gate,” Melissa chuckled. “You were there, Miss?” She did not know how to address the slim stranger.
    “Don’t call me ‘Miss.’ I’m a sister to all in affliction — just a working-sister. My heart bled for you beneath your burden.” The Wax-moth caressed Melissa with her soft feelers and laid another egg.
    “You mustn’t lay here,” cried Melissa. “You aren’t a Queen.”
    “My dear child, I give you my most solemn word of honour those aren’t eggs. Those are my principles, and I am ready to die for them.”

  2. Well, I cleared out the parasites. That Kipling bit is all too accurate.

  3. Very, Very intriguing that Rilke sees Moses's soul as being female. That is indeed food for thought.

  4. I do not know what Rilke meant by it, but it is interesting.

  5. Is the feminine grammatical? Is "soul" a feminine noun? I don't know, not speaking German.

  6. Yeah, I was just wondering - this could be the translator playing around with something that is more neutral in German, just because of the ordinary gender of the noun. The pronoun for soul maybe should be "it" but Snow thought it would be worthwhile or amusing to emphasize the literal "she." Good point.

  7. Well, the word is grammatically feminine (die Seele) but traditionally the soul is always feminine (or feminized), the bride awaiting God. So there's that, too: the kiss for the bride.

  8. Thank you! That is much clearer.

    What is most amusing, really, or surprising, is that God has to convince not Moses but his soul.