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Friday 28 December 2007

A Romantic Story

Blame it on the weight of too much pudding, a fairly nasty chest infection, the soporific effect of wine or the general air of nostalgia that pervades everything at Christmastide, but whatever it was, there I was, doing a sleepy - Oh, so sleepy! - back flip over the years to that far-off time, my school days, when poetry had yet to come alight, being something to be learnt by heart for reasons that had nothing to do with the heart. It was a flat, prosaic plain, was poetry then, about which I have blogged before and will not do so again now, save to say that just once there was offered to me then, a glimpse, a vista of distant peaks, their foothills swathed in mist, and all far beyond my reach and understanding. I simply sensed their power and their importance, and could somehow understand that they represented another world, a mysterious, mystical, mythical world perhaps, certainly not at all like the one I knew. It was all very blurred - and very tantalizing.

And there was a story. It would have been the story that first drew me in, for it struck me as being a romantic story, and I was at an age - and no doubt in the mood - for a romantic tale. And there you have it: nothing whatsoever to do with poetry lessons. The viewpoint from which the ten peaks were seen and gasped at was an art lesson.

The story is set in 1912, sometime just after Christmas.Rainer Maria Rilke was visiting The Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at the Castle Duino. (And can you think of a first sentence more calculated than that to set a teenage boy's romance cells a-buzzing?) Rilke suffered from depression and was in a critical condition. Then, walking beside some cliffs, his mind actually obsessed with various bookkeeping matters, some words came into his head as though from nowhere. (That did it for me: I firmly believed, back then, in the reality of artistic inspiration coming from out of the ether!) Those words must by now be among the most translated in German literature. The translation I like best (and not necessarily the most authentic) is:
"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the
angelic orders?"
Rilke was in awe at the words, and immediately knew them to be the key to something of rare importance. He wrote them down, and then, during the remainder of his stay at Duino, wrote the beginnings of most of his ten Elegies of Duino before completing the first two during the rest of that year, but did not finish the other eight until well after WW1.

For some reason, the best romantic tales are always the unrequited ones, and this, as it happens, is one of those. You know how it is that you sometimes glimpse a place you would like to go back to and get to know, perhaps on holiday, when you did not get the opportunity to explore fully? So it was with me. I promised myself that I would go back when I had more experience. And so I did. Often. But I never again saw what I thought I had seen back in those callow days. Eventually I decided it was something in me and let it go. I shall make it one of my self-appointed tasks to re-engage with them during 2008.

Funny, the things that can happen at Christmas!

Some facts that may or may not prove to be of use:

The theme of the elegies is the nature and the destiny of the individual.
He examines questions such as what kind of experiences must an individual undergo to achieve an intensity of being? and How can he reconcile that intensity with the transience of life, and with death?
Rilke is often portrayed as an intellectual poet, but many see him as coming from the spiritual. Where a Christian might speak of Truth that cannot be known but must be believed, Rilke would speak only of Being which, to a greater or lesser extent, can be participated in.
There is no sin or guilt, only participation or its lack. We do not meet sinners in the world, only failures.
Rilke constantly complained of his childhood having been stolen from him (at his military boarding school) and of his need to "re-perform" it in his poetry.
Almost uniquely among great writers (if you allow that he is one), he hardly ever speaks of Good and Evil.
Rilke's own life experiences were rather circumscribed, but the one through which he considered he most successfully achieved Being was in composing poetry and in the acts of perception and meditation preparatory to composing.

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