Monday, August 15, 2005

Falling Through Rilke's Arms

Some poets are explicitly religious, using their verse to express their spiritual convictions or even to instruct. George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, and Gerard Manley Hopkins come to mind. Other poets such as R.S. Thomas, Geoffrey Hill, and Emily Dickinson have significant religious content, but cannot truly be classified as religious or Christian poets. A major figure in 20th century literature whose poetry is suffused with religious and spiritual imagery, but who stood apart from organized religion is Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).

Born in Prague, but of German ancestry, his slight body of work has had a profound influence upon poets and thoughtful people ever since the publication of his first volume of poems, Leben und Lieder (1894), but especially after the publication of his later works, Book of Hours, Sonnets to Orpheus, and the Duino Elegies. What attracts me to his work are the themes of loneliness, spiritual disillusionment, and yet a hunger for love and for a reality which transcends time and space. Many of his poems are addressed to God, like "Autumn Day," "What Will You Do God?," and most poignantly, "You Mustn't Be Afraid, God."

In the sixth of his Letters To A Young Poet, to a young man who fears he has lost his childhood faith, Rilke writes, "Do you think a child can hold him [God], him whom men can bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the aged ones? Do you think that the one possessing him could lose him like a stone?...and if you, with great dismay, feel that he does not exist, even during this hour, while we are speaking of him, what right have you then to miss him, like someone out of the past, him, who never existed, and to seek him as though he were lost? Why don't you think of him as the coming one, who has been at hand since eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree, with us as its leaves?"

For brevity's sake, one poem will suffice to demonstrate Rilke's spirituality, which despite his suspicion of religious institutions, was inherently hopeful.


The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
as though above were withering farthest gardens;
they fall with a denying attitude.

And night by night, down into solitude,
the heavy earth falls far from every star.

We are all falling. This hand's falling too -
all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

And yet there's One whose gently-holding hands
this universal falling can't fall through.

Rilke's life was cut short by leukemia. Having a passion for roses, he pricked his finger on a thorn, which induced an infection his compromised immune system could not overcome. He was buried in the churchyard of Raron, France. His self-composed epitaph:

Rose, oh the pure contradiction,
delight, of being no one's sleep under
so many lids.


Blogger Stacey said...

Ah, I love Rilke. Thanks for posting this lovely poem.

10:16 PM  
Blogger the2ndchipmunk said...

Like your blog...

5:40 AM  
Blogger the2ndchipmunk said...

Like your blog...

5:41 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

thanks stacey & 2nd chipmunk! (twice!)

8:36 AM  

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