|My brother Pat on the Cliffs of Moher, June, 2008|
|Another view of the Cliffs of Moher, June Bank Holiday, 2008|
Exposed On The Cliffs Of The HeartI am not going to even suggest what this poem might be about, because to do so is a travesty. All one can do is quote the words of the great American poet, writer and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982) who that a poem should not mean, but rather be. In other words paraphrases of poems are definitely out, as well as long-winded explanations. If the poem can be improved by its author's explanations, it should never have been published in the first place, he averred. MacLeish is associated with the Modernist school of poetry, and he received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work. His poems, too, are beautifully crafted modernist.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,
look: the last village of words and, higher,
(but how tiny) still one last
farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?
Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground
under your hands. Even here, though,
something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge
an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.
But the one who knows? Ah, he began to know
and is quiet now, exposed on the cliffs of the heart.
While, with their full awareness,
many sure-footed mountain animals pass
or linger. And the great sheltered bird flies, slowly
circling, around the peak's pure denial.--But
without a shelter, here on the cliffs of the heart...
Enough to note here the predominance of images from nature in Rilke's poem. I have already indicated in a previous post that he falls in a transitional period or era between Romanticism and Modernism. The image of cliff and mountain I have noted also in a previous post because these images indicate heights and indeed depths which taken together or singly, depending on perspective, refer to the spaciousness, indeed the very lonely frightening spaces of the self. Such frightening spaces have resonances with the "Pensées" of Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) and a well-known poem by Robert Frost about the frightening spaces of the mind. I love especially Rilke's metaphor "the cliffs of the heart" and the fact that the self/soul/psyche can often lie totally exposed on this cliff - one feels the sheer frightening drop to the jagged rocks below whose edges are in no way blunted by the foamy waves that break over them. Then, there is the mystery or enigma of "the great sheltered bird." What an image! Is it foreboding danger like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Then the image of "the peak's pure denial" is also stark and startling. Let's not ask what these images mean. Let's savour them as we would a good wine or good food. Truly poems like these are food for the soul and sustenance for a heart grown weary of the world.