Rediscovering Rilke

Like many people, I discovered the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke in college. I took a yearlong Western Civilization class—nine months on history and literature from ancient Greece through Freud—and during the spring term we read Letters to a Young Poet. 

When I remember the course, certain images stand out:

Reading Oedipus Rex on the lawn outside the life sciences building and overhearing a student pronounce “Khomeini” with the same initial sound as “challah” (this would have been a month or so before the taking of American hostages). Getting an A+ (my only one in college) on a paper applying Civilization and Its Discontents to D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Prussian Officer.” Hearing our Milton professor speak of Shakespeare’s “two-backed beast” (what this had to do with Paradise Lost I cannot recall). Covering entire paragraphs of Letters to a Young Poet with my pink highlighter.

Recently, I saw Woody Allen’s latest movie, To Rome With Love, in which the aspiring-actress played by Ellen Page quotes Rilke (“You must change your life!”) as yet one more example of the character’s pretension and shallowness.

But when I was eighteen years old and studying in an empty classroom of the architecture building with my boyfriend, Rilke’s words electrified me. When I read for the first time, sentences such as, “You ask whether your verses are any good,” I held my breath. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had never read anything like that before, and I had reacted to very few assigned readings so viscerally.

I hung onto my pink-highlighted paperback copy, of course, and a few years later my mother bought me a hardcover edition, translated by Stephen Mitchell, with a lovely jacket and matching endpapers, for a birthday gift. I kept the book on my night table, took it with me on retreats, read it when I felt stuck—in life or in writing.

Over the years, other passages have spoken to me with the immediacy of that first encounter. During a particularly painful time, when almost every waking moment terrified me, I came across the dragons and felt myself open up to something larger and wiser and more eternal than my fear.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

I would not have thought in terms of God then, but I do now.

Several months ago, one of my students from the Glen Online wrote to me about discovering Rilke’s Book of Hours. I’d been meaning for years to get my hands on a copy, and so I picked one up.

Odd that with my devotion to Letters and to one of Rilke’s poems about the annunciation, I’d never read Book of Hours. So I began: One poem every morning before centering prayer.

Indeed, many of the poems seem to lead directly into centering prayer. For example, I, 3 (the translation is by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy): “When I lean over the chasm of myself— / it seems / my God is dark / and like a web: a hundred roots / silently drinking.”

Or, from I, 6: “You, God, who live next door— / If at times, through the long night, I trouble you / with my urgent knocking— / this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom…. / As it happens, the wall between us / is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry / from one of us / break it down? It would crumble / easily. / It would barely make a sound.”

I don’t read German, or understand much beyond Ich, Du, Gott and a few simple nouns, but each morning, before reading the English, I speak aloud to myself, quietly, the German original.

I know I’m garbling the pronunciation, but it doesn’t matter. I like the sounds, just as I do when reading Dante aloud. And not only the sounds, I enjoy the anticipation, the holding-my-breath quality of knowing that the English words sit right there, across the gutter of the page.

My glance can slide right over and give me instant comprehension. But I don’t want that, not yet.

Until this morning and writing this post, I’d thought my reason for returning to Rilke lay in my appreciation for the meaning and craft of his poems and for how they speak directly to God.

But now I think, too, of the unspoiled enthusiasm I once felt, the dry-throated awe, as an eighteen-year-old with a pink highlighter in hand. It’s that, too, I want to reclaim. It seems a good posture with which to sit for twenty minutes in silence.

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  • I, too, first read Rilke in college. Dry-throated awe was my reaction as well. So much so that when it came time to christen my website, the only natural choice seemed to be after a Rilke poem, the Ninth Elegy. Every time I read that poem I think of Adam, naming the unnamed, giving voice to what already existed, but had no substance beyond that. And I think about what we do with words, name that which is unnamed, make ideas, concepts, and feelings sayable.

    Thanks for this piece. I love reading the thoughts of others on Rilke.

    • Lindsey Crittenden

      Thanks for writing, Lore. A treat to read your comments here on naming the unnamed. I’ll have to go (re)find the Ninth Elegy now; thanks for the reminder. I’ll look forward to visiting your website, too.

  • Rilke’s words are so powerful, and I love that you’re reclaiming them now in a new way. My favorite passage is the one about living the questions, but I haven’t read his Book of Hours. I’ll have to seek it out.

  • I read an excerpt of this post on Facebook and thought, “That sounds like Lindsey’s writing!” So I clicked to the entire post and as I read and scribbled down quotes I smiled that I was right: It IS you that is writing these words. I loved this: “….read it when I felt stuck – in life or in writing.” And I believe the dragon quote, read for the first time, gave me a “dry throated awe” that I am thankful for. However, your CNF class did the same for me. I am thankful for that, too.

    • Lindsey Crittenden

      Thanks, Katie & Callie. So good to hear from you both. And how nice to have my “voice” recognized! You’ve made me smile (and blush).

  • Brad Winters

    This reminds me of my own profound relationship with his LYP book, now such a memory that I, too, want to go back and reclaim that same primordial experience of reading it (as if) for the first time. I’ve been meaning for years to read his Letters on Cezanne, which I’m told is in some/other ways just as wonderful.

    • Lindsey Crittenden

      Thanks for the reminder of the Cezanne letters, Brad. I do recall coming across a reference to that at some point and filing it in the particularly porous part of my mind. One more book to look for to bring on vacation!

  • robert m. peters

    This is among my favorite quotes by Rilke, again, among my favorites, because it captures the classical verity of enduring and belies questions the false goddess of “victory”:

    “Wer spricht von Siegen? Übersteh’n ist alles!” (Who speaks of victory? Enduring is every thing!”) The Church shall endure, though her victories be naught because her Lord, the Lord of the Story, has already gained the great victory and has overcome death and hell themselves. A similar call to endure is found in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. While he spoke it to the world, we Southerners know, intuitively, that we were the intended audience. In no few cases, although, of course, not all, the stoic mindset is the handmaiden of Christianity.

    • Thanks for writing, Robert. Your comment reminds me of two poems: one I read just this morning, from Book of Hours: “You many unassaulted cities:/Have you never yearned for the enemy?…He who will overcome you/is working in silence” (I, 49). And the other, the title of which I can’t recall, about Jacob and the angel I think, and wrestling with something more powerful.

  • Bill

    Rilke seems to be one of those poets who, like the tenacious hound of heaven, won’t ever let you be once you’ve read him. As an English lit major years ago, I knew very little of him, since English departments seldom dovetail with international poetry. I sort of discovered him by accident–I think from one of those ubiquitous Robert Bly anthologies. At first I was, as you describe in your post, completely astonished at how intimate his poems were, how they seemed to electrify me with a truth that was beyond words. Certain phrases and even isolated words just seemed to lift me up and throw me against the wall. The enigmatic and famous line ‘You must change your life’ took me by surprise after his intricate an detailed description of the god’s torso. Somehow the phrase seemed pretentious and ‘arty’ and ultimately indecipherable, but at the same time it seemed perfect–that the whole poem was perfectly connected and that it would take several readings (and a surrender of a need for rationality and hard reason) for me to understand what Rilke was getting at. There’s something Zen-like about the whole thing. So, after many years I find myself once again reading Rilke and being absolutely astonished at what I’m reading. How fortunate we are to have these glorious poems at our disposal.

  • Zen-like, yes. I’ll be thinking and pondering the poem I mentioned above (in comments to Robert) aoubt “yearning for the enemy” for some time. Thank you for sharing your insights.