One of the Google searches that brought someone to my blog door recently was "rilke idiot". Interesting. I have come to realise that I am one of those people who, given two or more widely-separated dots, cannot resist the challenge of joining them up. Joining the dot "Rilke" with the dot "idiot" might make for a very baroque line indeed, given Rainer Maria's deserved reputation as one of the most profound poetic intelligences of the 20th century.
Of course, to a certain bluff, blokeish cast of mind, all male poets are idiots, not just ones with girl's names, attempted moustaches, and a thing about angels. In fact, anyone whose reading habit extends much beyond a James Patterson once a year on the beach is, to such a mind, pretty suspect.
It's not just a fear of homosexuality, though that is obviously a factor. Ironically, many such hyper-manly men are distinctly homosocial -- a useful distinction -- and awkward in the company of women ("What do they want, for God's sake?"). A distrust of elaborate language games is of a piece with a distrust of mucked-about food, a nervousness about wearing colours not reminiscent of mud, and a fear of fastidious personal grooming. To be mistaken for gay is their anxiety, and the boundaries of masculinity are rigorously policed. Poet? Probable poof.
Rilke, of course, is pretty much Exhibit A in this regard. A less masculine man would be hard to imagine: he barely made it through his brief military service in WW1. Not serving in the trenches alongside young Gefreiter Hitler or Leutnant Wittgenstein, you understand, but as a filing clerk in Vienna. He was discharged after 6 months, following the intervention of influential friends. And yet something about this frail being was irresistible to beautiful, intelligent, strong-minded aristocratic women, and he had more passionate affairs than most broad-shouldered, duelling-scarred types would have regarded as quite proper. Indeed, Rilke could easily be portrayed as a selfish shit, where women were concerned. "Use 'em and lose 'em" is not how he would have put it -- such a coarse rhyme! -- but he was forever packing his bag and heading on down the road to a new berth in a new castle, once the thrill had gone. He was a great and loyal letter-writer, though. "It's not you; it's not me; it's complicated ..."
And a great poet, of course, one of whose major themes was the impossibility of the absolute fulfilment of desire.
Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bilder in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.
Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus - , und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich, -
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die Spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild. - Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?
From: Die Gedichte 1910 bis 1922 (Paris, Winter 1913/14)
My attempted version, with more than a little poetic learner's license:
from the get-go, no-show beloved,
I don’t know your playlist now.
I no longer try, when up comes the wavy fade,
to make you out. All my poster pictures,
the far-off familiar landscape,
towns, and towers and bridges and un-
suspected bends in the road
and all the power of those
once god-knotted lands:
may they signify in me
you, Lady Elusive.
Oh, you are the gardens,
oh, I saw them with such
hope. An open window
in a country house -- so close you came,
lost in thought. I chanced in alleyways --
you’d just walked through them,
and sometimes shop-mirrors were
still dizzy with you and, startled, gave me back
me a little too quickly. Who can say, maybe
the very same bird thrilled us through,
apart, yesterday, in the evening?
But the question remains: Are poets idiots? Well, of course they are, yes. The more idiotic, the better.
N.B. Can someone whose German is better than mine explain the grammar of "im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft", not to mention "steigt zur Bedeutung in mir / deiner, Entgehende, an"? I get the sense but my head hurts when I start to look closely at the genders, the numbers, the cases... And is a "Landhaus" somewhere grand, or something more humble like a "cottage"?