Rilke’s Last Encounter With an Angel
I saw this tonight from Harper's Magazine (2007), and since it's archangel day, thought I'd post it ....
Rilke’s Last Encounter With an Angel
By Scott Horton
History knows several tales concerning great artists on their death beds, straining with superhuman strength to complete a final last work, a work filled with pathos and a great sense of mortality. The best known of these, perhaps, is the tale of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, KV 626. In the Romantic era, the circumstances surrounding the creation of this work were mystified. Death, it was said, paid a call to Mozart to commission it, and Mozart fully understood the circumstances. He was, it was said, writing his own requiem. Of course, spoil-sport academics have since documented that the piece was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted to pass it off as his own, and who had used a series of cloaked intermediaries to disguise the fact that he was the patron. The Requiem is, nonetheless, a magnificent work, one of Mozart’s greatest. It would have that position with or without the legend. And notwithstanding Count von Walsegg and his artifices, one does have a great sense of reconciliation to death in this work. It is extraordinary in that respect, much like Bach’s great cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (Actus Tragicus, BWV 106).
One has to wonder about Rilke’s last poem, “Komm du” in much the same way. This was found as the last entry in his last notebook. It is accordingly unclear whether Rilke considered the poem to be a finished work or merely something in progress. In fact, there is a notation at the end which may be taken as a note Rilke scribbled to himself:
Verzicht. Das ist nicht so wie Krankheit war
einst in der Kindheit. Aufschub. Vorwand um
größer zu werden. Alles rief und raunte.
Misch nicht in dieses was dich früh erstaunte
Relinquishment. It’s not the way sickness was
once in childhood. Procrastination. A pretense
in order to be greater. Cries and murmurs.
Don’t mix into this the things that surprised you early on.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2, p. 511.
So I don’t take it as a given that the work was brought to fruition in Rilke’s mind. Nevertheless, this poem is amazing. It is one of the greatest poems in the German language, or in any other. And it has the distinctive character of finality about it, not in the sense of being completed, but rather of being a last work. It does not reach to being completed. To the contrary, it aims to be and is transitional, passing from one state to another. That indeed appears in the very first words, “Komm du, du letzter”: a voice summons or beckons. This poem wears the lack of finality like a sort of accomplishment in itself.
Rilke’s poems are notoriously complex and susceptible of differing interpretations. And that is particularly true for this one. Translating the poem is also highly problematic. In fact this was recently the subject of a fascinating series of exchanges in the New York Review of Books in which three different efforts to render the poem into English are discussed. Let’s consider first the voice in which the poem intones. It could of course be seen as the poet’s voice, and the “you” could be death. That may in fact be the most conventional reading. But it doesn’t strike me as the most plausible one.
For several reasons, I see this poem in the background of the Duineser Elegien. Rilke wrote that walking the land around the castle at Duino, he believed he encountered an angel. The incident was recorded in the memoirs of his hostess, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, from January of 1912:
Rilke climbed down to the bastions which, jutting to the east and west, were connected to the foot of the castle by a narrow path along the cliffs. These cliffs fall steeply, for about two hundred feet, into the sea. Rilke paced back and forth, deep in thought, since the reply to the letter so concerned him. Then, all at once, in the midst of his brooding, he halted suddenly, for it seemed to him that in the raging of the storm a voice bad called to him: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?)… He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves without his intervention … Very calmly he climbed back up to his room, set his notebook aside, and replied to the difficult letter. By that evening the entire elegy had been written down.
Throughout human history there are no shortage of tales of poets taking inspiration from angelic figures, and indeed the concept of the poetic “muse” has this derivation. But I’m not aware of another incident in the twentieth century in which an angel appeared and offered the opening lines of a poem—indeed, the first Duinese Elegy, what turns out to be generally recognized as one of the great poems of the century. And while the elegy was dated by various correspondence to a January evening in 1912, Rilke did not in fact put it forward for publication until 1922, just four years before his death, and before the composition of “Komm du.”
But the voice that sounded at the cliffs of Duino is, in my mind, the same voice which is speaking in this, Rilke’s last poem. The key for this is a signature image: fire. “Wie ich im Geiste brannte, sieh, ich brenne” (l. 3); “das Holz hat lange widerstrebt,/der Flamme” (l. 4-5); “brenn in die” (l. 6); “unkenntlich brennt” (l. 13). In a celebrated letter from 1925, Rilke told one of his translators that she should not make the mistake of understanding the angel referred to in the elegies as a Christian angel. To the contrary, this angel was quite distinctly drawn from an Islamic tradition. Rilke writes that in the months before his trip to Duino, he had traveled in Spain and had been consumed with reading the Qu’ran and a book on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It seems fairly clear that this occurred under the influence of his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose husband, Friedrich Carl Andreas, was a leading scholar of Islamic culture in the Russian Empire, particularly including Naqshibandiyya. Rilke was absorbed with Islam, and it left traces throughout his poetry, especially in the Duineser Elegien–and in this poem. But to a modern reader, this is bound to seem trite and absurd, all this talk of angels. So we need to start by remembering that the Islamic angel is something quite different from the Hallmark greeting card variety.
In Islam, belief in angels is one of the six articles of faith. By Islamic tradition, angels are composed of light, they are intangible, beings, who lack a free will. Their sole purpose of existence is to serve God. Being made of light, they can assume almost any form, completely real to the human eye, and traverse a distance just as fast as light or faster. One of the angels, Ezra’eil (عزرایل) is associated with death and dying. By legend, he appears to the dying to separate them from their mortal remains. The angel is associated with fire, and is sometimes portrayed as burning (though in Islamic tradition, the quality of fire more properly belongs to the jinn [ جني ] which does have a free will and is seen is something dark and evil). Hence, the use of the metaphor of fire throughout this poem can be seen as a Leitmotiv for the Duino angel. The key role of the angel is its ability to pass between the two worlds and to appear to and be understood by humans, or at least some humans.
Whereas the first elegy is marked by the angel’s challenge, the ninth elegy opens the question of death—and specifically how an artist should live and work with death in prospect. It presents the notion of life in two unclearly defined realms: one being the world of normal human existence, and the other being the ethereal realm of the angel, the unknowable world that exists beyond. The poet, Rilke tells us, obviously lives in the former world, but gains insight from the contemplation of the angel’s world. And in the ninth elegy, Rilke comes back to his angel as death. He calls the angel an “intimate companion.”
So in this final poetic work, Rilke again has heard his angel call to him. It is a time of separation and transition. “Bin ich es noch, der da unkenntlich brennt?” he asks, Is it still I who burns there unrecognizably? Rilke flags the state of transition (the curious word “noch”), he asks on which side of the “great unbounded realm” he stands. And the burning is of course an act of physical transformation; of change from flesh and bones to the Abrahamic dust and ashes.
But why would it be an Islamic angel? And why, if it is an Islamic angel, does Rilke use what his readership will certainly see as Christian images? Hölle (hell) and Geist (spirit), for instance, and the post scriptum’s reference to Verzicht? And why does he develop all of this in a Middle European, and thus Christian, poetical form? I don’t see clear answers to this riddle. In fact, much as I contemplate it, it all continues to be quite mysterious. But a few clear points emerge. Rilke is not satisfied with Christian doctrine and dogma, especially with respect to ontological questions. He finds the Islamic concepts and symbols to be more aesthetically compelling and better suited to his art. And he also holds the Islamic world and its culture in very high regard, and is sickened by the contemptuous attitudes of most Europeans towards Islam. It’s certainly not the case that Rilke is an inner convert to Islam.
But it is the case that he seeks a cultural, or perhaps a spiritual convergence in which Islam and the West are reconciled. (And indeed, from the time of his travels in Spain it was clear that he had the image of the golden age of al-Andalus before him. Spain, and that apogee of Spanish culture, were the reconciliation of Islam and the West.) Rilke’s voyage starts in a castle dramatically perched above the Adriatic Sea, on the soil of the Danubian monarchy. But within six years, that world had perished–and with it the entire social order that Rilke had grown to know. The forces of cultural pessimism were taking a deep political hold over Middle Europe. There was a feeling of despair about the old world and its values. And it is against this background that Rilke undertook his cultural peregrinations into the Islamic mind. It was a search for a different understanding, one closer to the poet’s inate sense of the roles of death and transfiguration. And that very curious message seems wound up in this last poem, just as it weaves its way through the Duineser Elegien. The poet meets death, to be sure. But the poet is also very concerned about cultural reconciliation and is stirred by a very troubled vision of the struggle that Europe and the world have ahead of themselves. These qualities make for a work which is more modern than romantic. This poem is an ultimate act of transcendence.