Saturday, December 04, 2010

Letters from a Poet's Soul 2

Santry Wood, 28/11/2010
Rainer Maria Rilke was very much a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.  Born in 1875 in Prague, the then capital of Bohemia ( which was part of Austria-Hungary at the time, now the Czech Republic) he became one of the greatest poets in the German language. His childhood and youth in Prague were not especially happy. His father, Josef Rilke (1838–1906) was a railway official for most of his life, having first had an unsuccessful military career. Rilke's poems are very much transitional and in content and style occupy very much a middle ground between the conventions of tradition and the sheer freedom and abandon of modernism.  Hence, his haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion or real communication/connection with the ineffable (the mysterious or the divine order of things) in an age of growing disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety.  Rilke lived in the time period between the old and the new, so there is always a healthy tension between the two.  Here I wish to return to his rather "soul-ful" letters to the young man who is asking for his advice on the vocation of being a poet.

As I have said Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to the young poet, Mr Kappus (he names him here in the fourth letter) are like his poems - they dwell in that transitional inner space between the traditional or Romantic and the Modern (full of anxiety and angst, from which modern existentialism would grow.)  As a true Romantic at heart, Rilke appeals to the power of nature over the poet, to the inner mystery of the human soul, to the "unsayable" mystery at its core which is itself somehow captured or reflected in the mystery of nature.  Let us return to his advice in this letter to the young man who wishes to pursue the poetic vocation:

Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable. But even so, I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things that are like the ones my eyes are now resting upon. If you trust in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.  See this link here: Letter 4 RMR
(Please note, it is the author of this blog who italicized some of the sentences in the extract given above for emphasis.)  In the same letter he goes on to contrast surface fact with profound or deep truth:

Footprints in the snow: Santry Wood, same day.
Don't be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law. And those who live the mystery falsely and badly (and they are very many) lose it only for themselves and nevertheless pass it on like a sealed letter, without knowing it. And don't be puzzled by how many names there are and how complex each life seems. Perhaps above them all there is a great motherhood, in the form of a communal yearning. The beauty of the girl, a being who (as you so beautifully say) "has not yet achieved anything," is motherhood that has a presentiment of itself and begins to prepare, becomes anxious, yearns. And the mother's beauty is motherhood that serves, and in the old woman there is a great remembering. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and mental; his engendering is also a kind of birthing, and it is birthing when he creates out of his innermost fullness. (See same link above.)
Like the great twentieth century psychiatrist, Dr Anthony Storr, Rilke advocates the very potency of solitude to the creative act:

Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you for those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast. And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can't take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don't torment them with your doubts and don't frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn't be able to comprehend. (Ibid.)
There is much wisdom in Rilke's words indeed.  We cannot bring another along the path to personal growth that we ourselves have walked - for it is truly own very own, individual path - unique and unrepeatable in certain particulars.  He also tells his reader to be patient and understanding with people - young or old - who do not trust the essential aloneness or solitude of both the creative and spiritual paths.

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