March 12, 2011

The Loner

 Plaster Sculpture of Balzac by Rodin
photographed in moonlight
by Edward Steichen

Like one who has traveled distant oceans
am I among those who are forever at home.
The crowded days are spread across their tables,
but to me the far-off holds more life.

Behind my face stretches a world
no more lived in, perhaps, than the moon.
But the others leave no feeling alone
and all their words are inhabited.

The things I brought back with me
seem strange here and out of place.
In their own land they moved like animals,
but here they hold their breath in shame.

Book of Images


  1. I don't know which world Rilke is in, and which he left behind, in this poem. I relate to it, having lived in Istanbul, and come back to the U.S. But he no doubt speaks of inner worlds, not geographical ones. When you are alone and feel that no one understands what is in your mind or heart, that can be loneliness, not the lovely solitude he talks of in other places.

  2. Agreed, Ruth. I don't think Rilke could have come to prize solitude until he had felt this most intense loneliness. If anything, that loneliness he had to both surrender to and master in order to become one in whom solitude was an act of devotion. There was a mighty change in the poet, like a change of magnetic poles, when the great without became, at some point in his development (after he left Paris, I think), the greater within. Again, Rilke learned much by stretching his contradictions as wide apart as possible, so that those "far-off places" have an infinite value here compared to what's "behind my face," which was so bourgeois and commonplace. In the Elegies Rilke reconnoiters that vast distance but he does so introspectively, as if the starry heavens were a looking-glass. Think how small his poetry would have been had he not experienced that tectonic shift. Anyone want to venture why or how it happened? Perhaps by contemplating the rose? - Brendan

  3. Yes, I agree that Rilke is talking about inner worlds here, but what intrigues me most are the final lines of the second stanza: "But the others leave no feeling alone/and all their words are inhabited."

    Has he been so far away, in his loneliness, that he cannot feel; therefore his words are empty? The beasts of his imagination are shamed...
    Yet the far-off holds more life for him. Is this the sea-change in his poetry--the realization that he is no longer able to write in an "accepted" fashion? So he turns to the terrifying angels? Is this when he writes "Requiem"?

    Only questions. This one is chilling.
    I am not sure, but Brendan, wasn't that rose the last thing he saw before he died?

  4. Rodin's sculpture of Balzac is the most haunting piece in the garden of his museum/house. I've never been able to forget it.

  5. Thanks DS - The way I read that stanza you question is that R. had a lot of scorn for middle-class attitudes, and felt that those cheapened interiority by becoming tourists of feelings, consumers of them, their knowledge of them water-logged with popular convention. For so popular a lyric poet of his age, he must have struggled against his own commercialization, of bourgeois readings of what he felt must exceed. I do think the terrifying angels were part of his polar shift; they did mediate an inward space that went far far under the personal.

    Consider the Third Elegy, where he speaks to the mother / beloved of the lover who obeys a deeper instinct than mere personal feeling:

    ... What does she know of the lord of desire, who often,
    from the depths of his solitude,
    even before she could soothe him, as though she didn't exist,
    held his head, ah, dripping with the unknown,
    erect, and summoned the night to an endless uproar.
    Oh the Neptune in our blood, with his appalling trident.
    On the dark wind from his breast out of that spiraled conch
    Listen to the night as it makes itself hollow. (Mitchell transl.)

    And yes, the rose ("o pure contradiction") was Rilke's final poem - or rather, it was his epitaph. They were also an object of fascination for him over the years. He wrote a marvelous series of poems in French titled "The Roses" each of which sniffs deep the fragrance of that which survives by not surviving, heaven on earth in the partial, fragmentary moment. Here's one:


    Rose, so cherished by our own customs,
    dedicated to our dearest memories,
    become almost imaginary
    for being so linked to our dreams-
    silent while becoming air, rose
    eclipsing all the canticles,
    that is triumphant in the rose
    window, and between two lovers dies. (transl. A. Poulin Jr.)

    Thanks for the conversation - Brendan


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!