This podcast episode is one in the series I am calling Conversations With Wisdom. This series is where I pay a fictional visit to various sages and wise ancestors. I imagine a sit down conversation between myself and a poet, artist, writer, great thinker - and I focus on death, grief and impermanence. I use their writings or work as an anchor for this imaginative conversation.
This is a device I am using as a means of discussing death, grief, impermanence and culture. I personally have found strength by going to wisdom literature, poets, artists, creatives and spiritual leaders – the musicians, writers, philosophers, mystics - and nature itself - to help me know where I might be located in life's impermanent mystery. We count on someone like Emily Dickinson to tell us that “dying is the wild night and the new road.” We count on Van Gogh's Wheat Field with Crows to help us see the possible landscape we may be encountering. And I hope you will join me to see what wisdom we can encounter here.
CONVERSATIONS WITH WISDOM - TALKING WITH RAINER MARIA RILKE ABOUT THE NEED OF PRAISE INSIDE OUR GRIEF
To meet with Rainer Maria Rilke, I would be traveling to sit with him in a bitterly cold Château de Muzot in Switzerland in the mid-1920’s.
I would arrive after a long, cold and rugged trip by ground transport. I would arrive having known that Rilke’s life story had been full of bizarre and poetic irony. Born to a Catholic family in Prague, his birth was immediately overshadowed by death. His parents had placed a daughter in her grave just prior to his being born. His mother was deep in grief, so much so that she dressed him as a little girl and called him Sophia… you may know, the Greek word for wisdom...
At age 11, he was sent off to a stern and crushing Prussian military academy. His father who apparently was concerned about his son’s masculinity. When discharged from the military academy due to health concerns, he returned only to find his parents divorced.
Rilke’s early years seemed to be about painful, dislocated extremes.
I know that scholars label him as an existentialist, a humanist, an empath and a pantheist... Upon meeting him, he seems far more complicated than these labels, in part, because he is, first, a poet. Rilke, as a person, seems to have a singularity of purpose for good or for ill - that was to be solely a writer. I can see that he worked briefly in traditional jobs, fraternized in the modern art movement, traveled through Europe. Tried briefly to be a husband and a father. But he appears to be one of those people who was singular in their calling. Solidly, a poet. And because of that, not without critics.
The American poet John Berryman is critical of him, saying: “Rilke was a jerk.” Some biographers are troubled by his lack in practical matters. But, I ask, when did we start asking our poets, our artists and our musicians to be without flaws, perhaps even deep flaws? Regardless, he eclipsed the constrictions of his generation to discover and reveal some of what is hidden behind things.
That ability to move past constriction results in words that can speak to anyone, regardless of their spiritual leanings. For instance, Don Paterson translated Rilke as sort of an atheist’s hymnbook. He recognized that he needed a book of praise from which to move his soul work through.
Rilke's praise is not a cheap and easy praise. For Rilke’s praise is often born out of challenges. It is the secret of being able to praise within hardship. I want to know how to do that. I want to know more.
Rilke would tell me about his writing first three pieces of the Duino Elegies in 1912 and that he abruptly stopped. The bloody horror of the Great War - World War I ensued. Rilke wonders if he picked up a psychic wound that blocked him from writing for around 10 years. He sought solitude, relocating to a freezing chateau in Switzerland. Which is where he and I linger now. This time of focused solitude has just birthed an emerging value of praise - even in a most challenging and unlikely way.
He has spent his time, largely alone, in this drafty chateau in Switzerland, struggling to write more of the elegies. He tells me that he received a letter and then later a parcel. And it was about to change everything.
A friend had written to him, sharing her anguish over the death of her 19 year old daughter, named Wera Knoop. Rilke had enjoyed his friend’s daughter, appreciating her youth and her talent for dance.
Rilke had written back, giving his deepest condolences. And he thought that was all. But then. The grieving mother then sent Wera’s journal that the 19 year old had written during her last days as she was dying of leukemia.
You recall that Rilke’s birth was overshadowed by the death of a little girl, his older sister... well now something was about to be born in him with the death of Wera.
Wera’s death tore into Rilke like lightning bolt. The thunder of his grief found resonance like a homing device that lead him to the great, epic Greek myth of Orpheus. He wrote those Sonnets to Orpheus feverishly in 5 - 6 days... something that might have typically taken him 5-6 years to write.
You may recall the Orpheus story. Orpheus was a musician and poet, so talented he could tame beasts. He and his beautiful young wife, Eurydice lived a great, epic love affair that most would envy. Young Eurydice dies from a snake bite. Orpheus is ...destroyed, he cannot accept her untimely death. He travels the dangerous route to Hades with his music and poetry in hopes to charm the rulers of the Underworld into granting Eurydice passage back to the land of the living.
Now, they granted Orpheus his request... but... with one condition. He had to travel ahead of his beloved on that long and difficult journey and was forbidden to look back at his wife until they both entered the land of the living. So, they made the long trek -- and near the very end, Orpheus turned… and looked back... at his beautiful wife... and in doing so… he watched her disappear... he lost Eurydice forever. Losing her twice.
Interpretations commonly held that it was a mistake that Orpheus looks back. In Rilke’s view, Orpheus absolutely must look back.
I am inserting here Don Paterson’s translation where Rilke is addressing the departed Eurydice...
You knew the old still centre, that clear space
where the lyre was first raised up and rang out true.
For this you tried to shape the ceremony,
to fit the perfect steps that might one day
turn his own around, might turn his face.
For Rilke, I am seeing that Eurydice appears to know what Orpheus did not... that the final steps of the dance between them was already choreographed. And choreographed to end. And the ending yields a gift, a clearer illumination about the connection and beauty... of everything. It yields - praise.
Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.
Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters ... as it rings.
Be. And know as well the need to not be:
let that ground of all that changes
bring you to completion now.
To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.
Central to the pain of parting, we see a dramatic shifting toward praise in this sonnet. Rilke’s painful shift toward praise…
Praise for Rilke might be understood as an awe-struck view of the stunning unity that underlies all of existence, seen and unseen. This is being gobsmacked by proposition that beneath all there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. With Rilke, it is not an easy praise. It is a praise born out of pain and challenge. It is the great secret of being able to praise within hardship. I want to know how to do that. Rilke, in particular, is showing me how to do that.
Rilke is addressing the deepest of my human questions. His union of the simple and the transcendent takes us from the prosaic to the cosmic.
Of the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke tells us it was: “a hurricane of the spirit… howling unbelievably vast commands and receiving signals from cosmic space and booming out to them my immense salvos of welcome.”
In the modern day, Damion Searls has revealed some of the character of Rilke’s solitude that leads to praise pierced by cosmic connection through this translation from German to English:
“What birds hurdle through
is not the intimate sky that raises form and shape within you.
Out in the open, out there
you are denied to yourself and fade fade farther forever.
Our inner sky reaches out from us and translates things.
To know the tree in all it’s being,
fling inner sky around it
from that sky that abides in you.
Encircle it with measure.
Only the pressure in your declaring your self-abandonment
makes it truly known as tree.
In this uncontainable night, be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent Earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.”
It is a striking irony, after my fictional visit, that Rilke died of the same illness that took the 19 year old Wera who inspired the Sonnets to Orpheus - he died of leukemia, on December 29, 1926.
To me, the following poem that we will close with is so much of who he was, as a man who praised in pain…
O tell us, poet, what you do.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous
phase, how do you take it, how resist?
But the anonymous, the nameless maze, how summon it, how call it, poet?
What right is yours, in all these varied ways, under a thousand masks yet true?
And why do stillness and the roaring blaze, both star and storm acknowledge you?
–because - I praise.
On a personal note. I experience that soon after a tragic death, for me the air is more luminous, the sunrises and sunsets more stunningly beautiful, the leaf of a tree more heartbreakingly lovely. Love seems knit into the fabric of everything.
And I praise.