(From Things that Happen while Reading Rilke)
The fifth letter to Kappus is dated October 1903. Rilke tells the
Young Poet that he’s replying to his last by return of post as it had only
arrived after two months in transit. He is wintering in Rome. Clara, his
semi-detached wife has come with him.
Her education in art is what they most share now, and all roads would lead to
Rome and the glories of Bernini for a young sculptress.
At present, they are staying at a hotel near ‘the finest equestrian statue in Rome – that of Marcus Aurelius’. But he looked forward in a few weeks ‘to be alone in a simple room, an old summerhouse in the depths of a great park, away from the noise and inconsequentiality’. He doesn’t think much of the Eternal City. ‘Oppressively sad, the stifling museum atmosphere… with accidental vestiges of another age, that has nothing to do with our own. There is no more beauty here than elsewhere, but despite the inept and pointless restoration of the past, I admire the lively waterways, and the flights of steps designed by Michelangelo cascading down to where the tourists disturb the peace with their idle chatter... It is possible with patience to find a few things to which everlasting value can be attached, something solitary to love in silence. But, in the main, it’s no different from anywhere else.’
He promises a longer letter to discuss Kappus’s writing. ‘The book containing your work hasn’t arrived. Maybe you sent it to Germany where forwarding abroad is not possible. I’m sorry not to have it, but feel free to send me any verses you’ve written recently. I will read and reread them to get to their heart as best I can.’
Kappus had mentioned in his previous letter his admiration for Richard Dehmel, the rising star of Germany poetry, and Rilke’s bad-boy rival. Dehmel’s Woman and World (1898) was a succés de scandal and Rilke had reason to think that it stole some of his own thunder as the lightning flash of Teutonic Eros. He tells Kappus that Richard Dehmel had ‘written some good things but you were never sure when you turned the page that he wouldn’t spoil the effect, and change the admirable into the unworthy’.
Kappus had described Dehmel as ‘living and writing in heat’. Relieved not to be demeaning himself by indulging in faint praise, Rilke warms to the idea. ‘Not en rut. The immediate erotic, pure and simple, without sin or a Church.’ Common ground can be found in Dehmel’s tendency, if not his handling of it.
The background noises to Rilke’s air of dissatisfaction with Rome (and Clara’s presence) in his letter to Kappus are musical, though like WB Yeats, he found that music didn’t play much of a part in his life. The enfant terrible of German music, Arnold Schoenberg, whose compositions caused riots, had chosen Richard Dehmel’s poems for settings. The leading artists of Expressionism (Kandinsky and friends) had adopted Schoenberg’s compositions as their rallying cry. In Rilke’s mind Dehmel added scandal to dissonance.
Lou Salome sympathised, but unkindly reminded him her poem, ‘The Hymn to Life’, had inspired Nietzsche to set it to music (‘If you have no more joy to give me/ there still remains your pain’). But Rilke must have seen an opportunity let slip for Modernist alignment with Germany’s particular area of eminence, music. So once again Richard Dehmel had stolen a march.
During the decade that Rilke was writing The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and his experimental ‘Thing-poems’, Schoenberg was ‘bursting the bond of a bygone aesthetic’ and ‘changing the face of music’ (Webern). He dismantled traditional tonality, and composed directly from ‘the inborn’, instinctive, primal’ (Berg).
This was an analogist approach to the change of key that Rodin had advised for Rilke, and the fruits thereof, his Der Neuven Gedichte, New Poems (1908), coincided with Schoenberg’s atonal breakthrough in his Opus 15. But the text for it, Der Buch der hangenden Garten (‘The Book of the Hanging Gardens’), was a romantic poem by of all German poets, the venerable Stefan George, an eccentric Symbolist with the right French connections (once a habitué at Mallarmé’s Tuesday evenings). Rilke wouldn’t be alone in finding this text unwieldy for a modernist leap.
‘Tell me on which path
she might pass today
so I can spread
fine silk fabrics
in rose and violet
under her feet.’
This choice of poet still rankled when ten years later Rilke wrote, ‘Music: Breathing of Statues’, which puts the art outside human habitation.
‘Music, the end of language, the pathway towards the heart’s extinction, transforming feeling into inaudible landscapes…A sacred goodbye to melody’s other side, pure ether, boundless. We can’t possibly live in this space growing around us.’
It is the strangest of revenges, a text that only Schoenberg could have set. Listening to Opus 15, I hear the death of Orpheus in Rilke’s apocalyptic words.