Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rainer Maria Rilke on Genesis

Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian humanist poet of great sensitivity, lived from December 1875 to December 1926. He died of leukemia. Given all he suffered in his life and the turmoil of his time, he inspires through his steadfast regard for beauty and hope. His writings are full of classical pagan and biblical allusions.

Renate Hannaford has written:
Rilke proclaimed the poet's saintly need to accept reality in all its aspects, meanwhile welcoming only those parts of the world for which he could compose and ennobling description. He was venomous about organized religion, yet there are more Virgin Marys, Saints and Angels in his work than in many cathedrals. And he hid inside The Poet he eventually became, both secure there and scared, empty and fulfilled; the inspired author of the Duino Elegies, sensitive, insightful, gifted nearly beyond compare; a man with many devoted and distant friends, many extraordinary though frequently fatuous enthusiasms, but still a lonely unloving homeless boy as well, with fears words couldn't wave away, a self-pity there were rarely buckets enough to contain; yet a persistence in the pursuit of his goals, a courage, that overcame weakness and worry and made them into lyrics that love, however pure or passionate or sacrificial, could never have achieved by itself…lines only frailty, terror, emotional duplicity even, could accomplish--an honesty bitter about weakness from which it took its strength.

Writing for the New York Sun, Eric Ormsby notes:

In the Garden of Eden Adam's first task was to give everything a name. Whenever God created a new animal or plant, he showed it to Adam and, according to the Book of Genesis, "whatever he called each living creature, that was its name." In the variant version of the Koran, God "taught Adam all the names." The biblical Adam is the original poet, capturing the essence of a thing in words. His Koranic counterpart is more of a decipherer, discerning the secret nature of things through the word hidden inside them. In both instances, the conferral of names is a human prerogative; a thing remains unknowable until a human voice sounds out its distinctive moniker. Even God needs Adam to give names the breath of life.

Until recently that Edenic innocence still existed between things and their names. In the ninth "Duino Elegy," Rainer Maria Rilke could ask:

Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window—possibly: Pillar, Tower?

Of course for Rilke this isn't just mouthing names but involves "such saying as never the things themselves / hoped so intensely to be.” In his view, things, when invoked, if not conjured, become more fully themselves. This is a magical notion, and a deeply appealing one, but can anyone still believe in it?

This observation about Rilke suggests something of his complex nature, since he was a great realist. He wrote, “How good life is. How fair, how incorruptible, how impossible to deceive: not even by strength, not even by willpower, and not even by courage. How everything remains what it is and has only this choice: to come true, or to exaggerate and push too far.”

His realist approach to life and his artistic temperament contributed to his non-conventional approach to the Bible.

Benjamin Ivry notes this in Rilke’s interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son:

In his semi-autobiographical “Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge” (1910) writer Rainer Maria Rilke, (1875–1926) argues that the story of the prodigal son is about a young man "who did not want to be loved," and who therefore rejects suffocating family affection in order to express his own personality: "Shall he stay and pretend to live the sort of life they ascribe to him, and grow to resemble them in his whole appearance?” By fleeing family smothering, Rilke's prodigal son obtains special powers: "I believe that the strength of his transformation consisted in his no longer being the son of anyone in particular. This, in the end, is the strength of all young people who have gone away."

Rilke wasn’t a practitioner of Christianity, (he preferred Islam) yet much of his work deals with religion. He wrote: "Religion is something infinitely simple, ingenuous. It is not knowledge, not content of feeling (for all content is admitted from the start, where a man comes to terms with life), it is not duty and not renunciation, it is not restriction: but in the infinite extent of the universe it is a direction of the heart.” (Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke)

The following poems (translated by Albert Ernest Flemming) reveal Rilke’s artistic interpretation of Genesis themes.

In the Beginning

Ever since those wondrous days of Creation
our Lord God sleeps: we are His sleep.
And He accepted this in His indulgence,
resigned to rest among the distant stars.

Our actions stopped Him from reacting,
for His fist-tight hand is numbed by sleep,
and the times brought in the age of heroes
during which our dark hearts plundered Him.

Sometimes He appears as if tormented,
and His body jerks as if plagued by pain;
but these spells are always outweighed by the
number of His countless other worlds.


High above he stands, beside the many
saintly figures fronting the cathedral's
gothic tympanum, close by the window
called the rose, and looks astonished at his

own deification which placed him there.
Erect and proud he smiles, and quite enjoys
this feat of his survival, willed by choice.

As labourer in the fields he made his start
and through his efforts brought to full fruition
the garden God named Eden. But where was
the hidden path that led to the New Earth?

God would not listen to his endless pleas.
Instead, He threatened him that he shall die.
Yet Adam stood his ground: Eve shall give birth.


Look how she stands, high on the steep facade
of the cathedral, near the window-rose,
simply, holding in her hand the apple,
judged for all time as the guiltless-guilty

for the growing fruit her body held
which she gave birth to after parting from
the circle of eternities. She left
to face the strange New Earth, so young in years.

Oh, how she would have loved to stay a little
longer in that enchanted garden, where
the peaceful gentle beasts grazed side by side.

But Adam was resolved to leave, to go
out into this New Earth, and facing death
she followed him. God she had hardly known.

Other Rilke poems may be found here.

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