I realize I’m starting to sound obsessed with The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t resist passing along this section from today’s entry. Rilke’s language is, of course, beautiful, and I hadn’t realized the journey to those words was such a struggle.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations from his Letters to a Young Poet:
“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come…patience is everything.”
Here we go:
“It's the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, (books by this author) born in Prague (1875), who made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. Rilke's room had a view of the gulf of Trieste, which he loved. In a letter from his room he wrote, "I am looking out into the empty sea-space, directly into the universe, you might say."
“It was that winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death, and he started a poem that began with the lines, "And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic / orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me / to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming / presence. Because beauty's nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear, / and we adore it because of the serene scorn / it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying."
“Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. He eventually left the castle, the First World War broke out, and he struggled to write anything for the next decade, while he was slowly beginning to suffer the symptoms of leukemia. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.
“In the Ninth Elegy, Rilke wrote "Maybe we're here only to say: house, / bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window — / at most, pillar, tower... but to say them, remember, / oh, to say them in a way that the things themselves / never dreamed of existing so intensely."