Rainer Maria Rilke's writing is a "lens through which the genesis of modernism comes into unusually clear focus", according to Judith Ryan. Ryan examines the ways in which his work expresses the modernist desire to liberate itself from tradition but remains "fraught with nostalgia" for earlier literary modes and "rooted in a profoundly conservative ideology".
Her book charts Rilke's development from his first poem at the age of 16 (his early work is "suitable for a young woman's night table"), through the Neue Gedichte (1907-08) and the great works of the 1920s, the Duineser Elegien and Die Sonette an Orpheus , to his own haiku -like epitaph:
" Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch , Lust/ Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel/ Lidern ." (Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire/ to be nobody's sleep under so many/ eyelids.) Ryan considers an impressive range of works,including the prose work Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and less critically acclaimed poems such as Der Cornet (1899): "a key text for understanding Rilke's professional development".
She adopts a chronological approach, emphasising poetic continuity: "the story of Rilke's complex path towards modernism" begins with his imitation of 19th-century aestheticism and develops through his engagement with poetic tradition and the contemporary visual arts. It is a perceptive addition to Rilke scholarship and the English translations widen the potential readership beyond German studies.
Ryan's aim is to reveal how Rilke's writing is "embedded in the culture of its day" and her study highlights the diversity of his influences: "He was a frequent visitor to art museums, a careful student of architecture and monuments, a knowledgeable writer about the decorative arts; he went through phases of interest in theatre and dance; he read avidly about religious, mystical and occult traditions; he travelled widely and devoured travel guides; he loved history; he was attracted at various times by alternative lifestyles; he was interested in psychology."
The attempt to situate Rilke in this nexus of cultural exchange is successful, as in Ryan's analysis of the extraordinary sonnet on mirrors from the Orpheus cycle: " Spiegel: noch nie hat man wissend beschrieben,/ was ihr in euerem Wesen seid./ Ihr, wie mit lauter Lochern von Sieben/ erfullten Zwischenraume der Zeit ." (Mirrors: the essence of what you are/ no one could knowingly start to define./ Filled as by holes of a colander,/ Nothing but in-between spaces of time.) Her discussion of the "heterogeneous background" against which this poem takes shape engages with Rilke's own 1906 poem about a daguerreotype ("A mirror with a memory") of his father, mirror motifs in symbolist and pre-Raphaelite poetry, Ovid's tale of Narcissus and Echo, and a whimsical letter to the young Balthus.
Ryan's evocative reading of the sonnet casts new light on Rilke's poetic language and reveals the struggle to come to terms with "his desire to mirror the world of concrete reality and his consciousness of the allusive dimension of his poetry".
Rilke's most successful work "recognises that modern poetry is constructed from blocks of material that no longer fit smoothly together. It is not the result of divine inspiration or the bursting forth of emotion into song, but an awkwardly poised agglomeration of disparate elements". In his deftly wrought poetry Rilke strives for a " Sprache wo Sprachen/ enden " (language where languages/ end) and yet his work is deeply rooted in the texts of his own and earlier ages: writing is, after all, always re-writing.
Peter D. Smith is a postdoctoral research fellow in German, University College London.
Rilke, Modernism and Poetic Tradition
Author - Judith Ryan
ISBN - 0 521 66173 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 256