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Chapter Three
Rilke in Search of the Uttermost


If Balzac's Poussin was a fictional evocation of unseasoned genius, the young Rainer Maria Rilke was its living embodiment. His letter to the 'dear Master' when he was commissioned to write a monograph on Rodin recalls Poussin's mood when approaching Porbus. Rilke, announcing his forthcoming arrival in Paris, addressed Rodin on 1 August 1902:

It is the most tragic fare of young people who sense that it will be impossible for them to live without being poets or painters or sculptors, that they do not find true counsel, all plunged in an abyss of forsakenness as they are; for in seeking a powerful master, they seek neither words nor information: they ask for an example, a fervent heart, hands that make greatness. It is for you they ask.

A published author and poet, Rilke nevertheless thought of himself as an aspirant poised for a decisive encounter. His pilgrimage to Paris answered the same need to submit to a powerful master as had guided the steps of Poussin. Rilke had read The Unknown Masterpiece years before and, in the days when he was courting his wife Clara Westhoff, he had described it to her. But it was not until 1907, and then only by having passed through the experience of knowing Rodin, that Rilke felt the full impact of Balzac's fable.

Rilke had a way of speaking of the decisive events in his spiritual life as 'turnings'. Each of his signal experiences had had long preparation, as had his meeting with Rodin, and each left a lasting spiritual trace. Two years before his death, Rilke reiterated the importance of Rodin in his life: 'I had the good fortune to meet Rodin in those years when I was ripe for my inner decision and when on the other hand the time had arrived for him to apply with singular freedom the experiences of his art upon everything that can be lived.'

The ripening experiences culminating in Rilke's first visit to Rodin's studio had begun with his extraordinary liaison with Lou Andreas-Salomé. This powerful Russian woman, whose life had already included a chapter of intimacy with Nietzsche, and whose intellectual energy was a source of admiration for many men of genius (the last being Freud), had taken young Rilke in hand when he was a twenty-one-year-old student. In the Spring of 1899, Rilke accompanied her and her husband on his first visit to Russia, a trip he never ceased to recall with the same youthful wonder he had experienced then. Rilke's heightened response to Russia has given rise to many speculations about its source. Some have suggested that his Prague childhood, where he had sympathized with the Slavs who were disdained by


the German bourgeoisie, had prepared him for the overwhelming experience. Others attribute his high-keyed reactions to the presence of the exuberant older woman. It is likely, though, that what stirred Rilke in Russia was his retrieval of a distant culture that had vanished in Europe. His romantic soul - in those days still unbridled - relished Russia for its exoticism. Still in his early twenties, he had not yet developed the hard self-judgment that characterized his later years. In those days he freely engaged in soft romantic visions, and even verged on mysticism. In a letter to Baron Du Prel, written before the Russian voyage, he sounds the vaguely mystical note that he would later come to deplore in Romantic German writing:

Apart from the charm of the mysterious, the domains of spiritualism have for man an important power of attraction because in the recognition of the many idle forces and in the subjugation of their power I see the great liberation of our remote descendants and believe that in particular every artist must struggle through the misty fumes of crass materialism to those spiritual intimations that build for him the golden bridge into shoreless eternities.

Frau Lou, herself given to accesses of extreme romanticism, and avidly assimilating the arguments of the mystical Slavophils, certainly set the tone of their Russian visit. Yet, even taking into consideration Rilke's submission to Lou's perception of Russia, there was a peculiarly personal and lasting meaning in this first visit already visible in Rilke. In May 1899, he wrote from St Petersburg:

At bottom one seeks in everything new (country or person or thing) only an expression that helps some personal confession to greater power and maturity. All things are there in order that they may, in some sense, become pictures for us. And they do not suffer from it, for while they are expressing us more and more clearly, our souls close over them in the same measure. And I feel in these days that Russian things will give me the names for those most timid devoutnesses of my nature which, since my childhood, have been longing to enter into my art!

When Rilke returned with Lou to Germany, they spent the entire summer studying 'things Russian' as if, a friend reported, they had to prepare for a fearful examination. They studied language and history -above all, art history. One suspects that Frau Lou's developing Slavophilism affected the syllabus of this intensive course in things Russian. She was already well acquainted with the artists and literati in Moscow and St Petersburg who had lately rejected Western art and sought to revive traditions long dormant in Russia. From her journals and letters we know that she and Rilke studied the pre-Christian period and the unique church architecture of ancient Kiev and Novgorod-Pskov. They were interested in interior church structures, old enamels and filigree work, miniatures, costumes, furniture and household items, especially of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Following the artists of the late 1880s and early 1890s in Russia, they explored Russian folklore, including old songs and tales of legendary heroes. They also acknowledged the latest tendency among progressive artists in Russia by admiring those who had gone back to native sources, and who, like Ilya Repin (whom Rilke had met), had travelled and learned in Germany, Italy and France, but had finally rejected Western modes.


The following year, from May to August 1900, Rilke and Lou were again in Russia. Rilke's response to the bells and spaces of Moscow, so emotional the previous year, had set his expectations high. His memory of a Moscow Easter with the bells saturating the city remained one of his most cherished images, recalling Kandinsky's paean to the grand aural spaces of the bells of his native city. With the memory of St Basil's rooted in him, Rilke took a hotel directly opposite the Kremlin. Still questing for the primitive origins of things Russian, he made a visit to Abramtsevo where two decades earlier Savva Mamontov had founded an artists' colony with the avowed intentions of reactivating the old traditions of craftsmanship and of honouring the ancient traditions of the communes. The rebels who gathered in Abramtsevo, among them Repin, had already - long before twentieth-century moves to understand the primitive experience - discerned the vitality of the old icons and artifacts. They had consciously divorced themselves from the great cities. They were critical of materialism, technology and 'progress'. Their retreat was an active effort to make tangible the virtues they felt implicit in the ancient and unchanging mores of Russian life. Rilke's emotional need for a comparable experience brought him first to Abramtsevo and then, with considerable excitement, away from Moscow and St Petersburg to the heart of this imagined ancient Russia in May 1900.

He set off with Lou to explore those sites that had stirred him in Russian literature, but also to seek out Tolstoy. They wanted to know at first hand the mores that had been so carefully described in countless Russian novels of the nineteenth century - the slow and, to Rilke, timeless existence no longer familiar to the West. Everywhere Rilke looked he seemed to see with the eyes of previous generations, those who had glorified peasant life and who, like the Narodniki, went out from the cities, donned peasant smocks and tried to fathom the stubbornly static character of rural life. Rilke's preconceptions found confirmation, as for instance when he approached Yasnaya Polyana and noted that groups of women and children were 'only sunny red spots in the even grey covering ground, roofs, and walls, like a very luxuriant kind of moss that has been growing over everything undisturbed for centuries'. Even in his ill-fated visit to Tolstoy, Rilke sought the principle of ancientness and simplicity, rather than any literary nourishment. Rilke and Lou had tactlessly arrived at Yasnaya Polyana without announcing themselves and were greeted by a 'violent, offensive, almost inaccessible' Tolstoy who let Lou in but slammed the door in Rilke's face. Tolstoy disappeared immediately into the interior where sounds of a quarrel and weeping were heard, and his son led Rilke and Lou around the grounds. They reappeared at the house where Tolstoy, apparently resigned to their unwelcome presence, distractedly offered to walk with them through the forest. During the walk he apparently discoursed on life and death, but never addressed himself personally to the pair, each of whom in later years modified his account of the visit.

Rilke's need to believe that there could be a poetic life remote from the sophisticated turbulence of Europe was quite explicit, and found expression in the high hopes he had had for the visit to the village poet Spiridon Drozhin, whose Songs of a Peasant Rilke had partially translated. The visit started well.


Drozhin noted their arrival in his journal: 'I led my dear guests into my log cabin prepared for them and fitted out with the requisite furniture: it was divided into two rooms, and its four windows overlooked my little garden of raspberry, gooseberry and red-currant bushes.' Rilke and Lou rose early the following day, drank 'fresh milk prepared for them by my wife, and went barefoot to the shore meadow to run about in the dew-damp grass'. Rilke wrote the next day to a friend: 'With these days we are completing a great step towards the heart of Russia after long listening to its beat with the feeling that it gave the right measure for our own lives as well.' By the fourth day, after noting the terrible labour of the peasant-poet's wife, and the less enchanting aspects of farm work, both Rilke and Lou began to wonder whether in fact Drozhin's poetry extolling peasant life was not, as Lou later wrote, 'a poetical miscolouring of Russian peasant existence'. The faint disappointment in their peasant-poet did little to dampen their ardour, however, and Rilke continued to believe that somehow things Russian could give the right measure to his life.

Rilke's search in Russia for values that had been concealed in Western Europe was comparable to the explorations of a number of modern Russian artists who themselves had felt the need to know the still-unsullied silences of village life. Wassily Kandinsky had made his own pilgrimage to the Wologda province with similar expectations. Brought up in Moscow, Kandinsky set out on his trip - an anthropological research trip - as though, he said, he were starting out for some other planet. His descriptions of the changes in landscape, the vastnesses he traversed, the aspect and dress of the people, were more than mere ethnographer's reports. They reflected his need, so much like Rilke's, to go back to the origins, to what he imagined to be the simple verities. He was as struck as any foreign tourist by the simple hospitality of the peasants who always kept food for strangers near their icons and who had a natural civility. The self-contained communes did not fail to stir Kandinsky who, like Rilke, had a 'decisive' experience on his voyage to rural Russia:

Here I first learned not to look at a picture only from the outside but to 'enter' it, to move around in it, and mingle with its very life. It happened to me on entering a certain room, and I still remember how I stood spellbound on the threshold gazing in. Before me stood a table, benches, a vast and magnificent stove. The cupboards and dressers were alive with muticoloured and sprawling decoration. All over the walls hung peasant prints, telling vividly of battles, of a legendary knight-at-arms, of a song, rendered in colours.

Kandinsky's experience, which he likened to an 'inner revelation', played a lasting role in the development of his work, not only because it tempered his entire compositional philosophy, but because this exposure to unsophisticated life freed him, as it also freed Rilke, from the grip of European conventions. Both men matured during a period when the social sciences were in the ascendant. Rilke knew the sociologist Georg Simmel and Kandinsky had been a student at Moscow University in ethnography and anthropology. Both men supported the reaction to Slavophile literature with scientific principles, but both were obviously searching for other experiences: those stemming from the intuitive awareness of the importance of old things; of


long, patient experiences such as those of the Russian craftsmen carving lintels, painting their furniture or glass windows, and making saddles - Russian things.

At first, Rilke saw Russia only through the exuberantly literary vision of Lou Andreas-Salomé, but later he made it his own in memory. The specific value of this Russia, with its invented and real aspects inextricably mingled, he was able to describe only twenty years later:

Twenty years ago it was, I spent some time in Russia. An insight prepared only in a very general way by the reading of Dostoyevsky's works developed in that country where I felt so much at home, into a most penetrating clarity; it is hard to formulate. Something like this perhaps: the Russian showed me in so many examples how even a servitude and affliction continually overpowering all forces of resistance need not necessarily bring about the destruction of the soul. There is here, at least for the Slavic soul, a degree of subjection that deserves to be called so consummate that, even under the most ponderous and burdensome oppression, it provides the soul with something like a secret playroom, a fourth dimension of its existence, in which, however crushing conditions become, a new, endless and truly independent freedom begins for it.

Rilke's vision of Russia remained intact. A few months before his death he wrote to his old acquaintance Leonid Pasternak, painter and professor at the Moscow Academy (and father of Boris), to tell him how the memory of old Russia was forever embedded in the substructure of his life, and to console him for changes (the revolution) that sent Pasternak into exile. But, Rilke said, 'the deep, the real, the ever-surviving Russia has only fallen back into its secret root-layer, as once formerly under the Tartarschschina; who may doubt that it is there and, in its darkness, invisible to its own children, slowly, with its sacred slowness, is gathering itself together for a perhaps still distant future?'

Rilke's insistent quest for a purity associated with primitive origins took a Russian turning, but could also be seen as an extension of traditions developed in Europe in the modern era. When Balzac takes a metaphysical look at modern life, he exclaims: 'There is a primitive principle ! Let us surprise it at the point where it acts on itself, where it is one, where it is principle before being creature, cause before being effect, we will see it absolute, without a face, susceptible to a change in all the forms that we see it taking.' During Balzac's epoch, many were acknowledging the 'primitive principle', which they associated with purity and which they translated into aesthetic behaviour. The painters with whom Balzac associated in the 1830s had not forgotten their revolutionary predecessors, known as Les Penseurs or Les Primitifs. These young dissidents from David's studio had taken his classicism to heart and exaggerated it to the point where the master himself threw them out of his studio. Their sect, complete with outer symbols (they wore flowing locks and beards and tunics), advocated a return to the sources, a rejection of modern corruption, a way of life that respected the 'primitive' principle. A quarter of a century later, Gautier and his friends in the Jeunes France group resurrected the garments, if not all the principles, of these purists. They welcomed the messages, drifting in from Germany (partly through their friend Nerval's translations of Goethe), that primitive sources are to be found


in Nature, and that man must see himself as part of Nature. The story does not end with Gautier's and Balzac's period. Later, Cézanne would exclaim: 'I am the primitive of a new art', and Jackson Pollock, when asked about the role of Nature in his paintings, would reply, 'I am Nature.'

All through the nineteenth century there had been strong pantheistic currents in Europe, carrying artists into landscapes in which they hoped to find the primal principles. The current was particularly strong in Germany where many philosophers and even artists, such as Philipp Otto Runge, attempted to define their transcending vision of Nature. The Naturphitosophie , or Naturlyrismus , that motivated the first generation of romantic painters had been nourished by their reading of the early romantic poets, particularly Goethe and Schiller. The aesthetic doctrines of Friedrich von Schelling had acclimated nineteenth-century German romantics to the idea that 'plastic art manifestly occupies the position of an active link between the soul and nature, and can only be comprehended in the living centre between the two of them'. The living centre, Schelling contended, was the key to an art that was not merely an empty, lifeless imitation of Nature. The artist, he argued, must get to the 'unadulterated energy of things'. He must follow the process of Nature. Since 'art springs from the vivid movement of the innermost energies of the mind and spirit', the artist must contemplate Nature for its organic analogies to the movement of his own soul. Moreover, Schelling said, the living centre was capable of great freedom. He spoke of 'the higher necessity which is equally far removed from accident, and from compulsion or external determination, but which is, rather, an inner necessity which springs from the active agent itself'. The phrase 'inner necessity' grew in importance during the century until Kandinsky made it, in the early twentieth century, the cornerstone of his aesthetic theory.

By the late 1890s, there were determined dissidents among German artists who rejected the urban preoccupation with vanguardism. They advocated practising moral resistance in the pure landscapes undefiled by industrial civilization. One of these artists, Heinrich Vogeler, had settled in Worpswede, an artists' colony some ten miles from Bremen. During a visit to Italy in 1898, Rilke met Vogeler who invited him to Worpswede. Perhaps as a result of his visit to Abramtsevo, Rilke decided to accept Vogeler's invitation immediately upon his return from Russia in August 1900. This visit was to represent for Rilke another important turning. It changed, he said, his way of seeing.

All descriptions of Worpswede linger on the moody breadth of the landscape, with its deep and dark canals, its stands of birchwoods, and the infinitely extensive moors. The place immediately appealed to Rilke, as did the company of young artists settled there; and he made arrangements to rent one of the comfortably appointed houses for the winter. No doubt the devout attitudes of the artists, who spent long hours enacting their conviction that only in Nature would they find the living principles of their art, stirred him. The group, despite their belief in working directly from Nature, harboured the metaphysical preoccupations that had long haunted German artists. After the day's work, they would have long, earnest discussions, often about the work of Arnold Böcklin.


Rilke met two young women at Worpswede who were to have an important role in the development of his vision: the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who was preparing to go to Paris to study with Rodin, and the painter Paula Modersohn, whose original views on painting undoubtedly influenced Rilke. Both these young women aroused in Rilke something akin to love, and both seemed to him to answer a spiritual need. He watched as these assiduous young artists worked daily, and sometimes even in the evenings. He was quick to learn, just as Balzac had learned from Boulanger, the specific difference in the way an artist observes. In his journal, Rilke spoke of 'this daily attentiveness, alertness, and readiness of the out-turned senses, this thousandfold looking and always looking away from oneself. . . this being-only-eye'. The new experience served to prepare Rilke for his Rodin turning. Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following spring, was probably the immediate cause of Rilke's undertaking the study of Rodin, but he had been thinking about Rodin even before he met her. His experience of watching Clara modelling aided him in thinking about craftsmanship - the slow, organic development within a work - and about the way a plastic artist must see. By the time he approached the old master in Paris, he had known the dedication of this commune of artists, their deep convictions, and their submission to Nature itself, rather than to the vague feelings Nature had inspired in them.

At first Rilke seemed to be seeking the legendary in Rodin - his endurance and great age - much as he had unsuccessfully sought it in another patriarch, Tolstoy. He craved the vicarious knowledge of the old experience with its living proof of the mysterious power of endurance. In both Tolstoy and Rodin he seemed to imagine an incarnation of the patriarchal peasants whose wisdom is recorded in the nineteenth-century Russian novel. In an early description of Rodin, he wrote: 'Time flows off him, and as he works thus, all the days of his long life, he seems inviolable, sacrosanct, and almost anonymous.'

Despite the exalted tone of his early notes on Rodin, Rilke was too sensitive to remain long in a vague romantic fever, and quickly set about an attentive study of the works. The year before, he had already noted in his journal the differences in the relationships of Rodin's forms, opposing them to the isolation of traditional statuary. Even then he was on the verge of defining what, after his full experience of Rodin and his work, he would later discern as peculiarly modern about him. From an admiring amateur Rilke became an acute commentator whose writings on the sculptor remain the most penetrating criticism.

Rilke's heightened sensibility is apparent in his very first impression of Rodin's Meudon studio, recorded on 2 September 1902. In the largest atelier he was dazzled by the yard upon yard of fragments - a piece of an arm, a leg, a torso, through which he understood that 'each of these bits is of such an eminent, striking unity, so possible by itself, so not at all needing completion, that one forgets they are only parts '. Only twelve days later he announces to his wife that he has grasped the principle, the fundamental law to which Rodin, in his most brilliant invention, has submitted all his work. When Rodin speaks of le modelé , he tells Clara, 'I know what it means: it is


the character of the surfaces, more or less in contrast to the contour, that which fills out all the contours.' Later, in his book on Rodin, Rilke refines the definition further, speaking of 'infinitely many meetings of light with the object, and it became apparent that each of these meetings was different and each remarkable'.

Once Rilke isolated the underlying principle, he was able to perceive in every aspect how Rodin's work differed from all other sculpture of the period. Prophetically he analysed the characteristically modern impulse to go beyond subject matter, writing to Clara:

Do you understand, for him there is only le modelé . . . in all things, in all bodies; he detaches it from them, makes it, after he has learned it from them, into an independent thing, that is, into sculpture, into a plastic work of art. For this reason a piece of an arm, leg, body is for him a whole, an entity, because he no longer thinks of arm, leg, body (that would seem to him too like subject-matter, do you see, too - novelistic so to speak) but only of a modelé which completes itself, which is, in a certain sense, finished, rounded off.

It was not difficult for Rilke to understand that Rodin's audacity in enunciating this principle of le modelé was grounded in his respect for tradition, particularly of ancient and medieval sculpture. Rilke admired the life that has lost nothing and forgotten nothing, and he naturally seized upon the two literary sources that governed Rodin's spiritual life - Dante and Baudelaire. In Baudelaire, Rilke says, he felt the artist who had preceded him, who had not allowed himself to be deluded by faces, but who sought bodies in which life was greater, more cruel and more restless. Rilke was sensitive to the residue of earlier nineteenth-century speculation in Rodin's thought (Frenhofer, for instance, had a theory of le modelé very close to Rodin's) and his respect for the old titan was fortified by it. His first impression of the enormous volume of Rodin's work became the basis for his most important speculation concerning how such a creator works. What he emphasized in letters and later in the book was the commitment to what he called handwork, which he used both in its ordinary sense, as craft, and in its sense of mysterious, direct translation of feeling. In the ceaseless fashioning of the sculptor Rilke saw a path of artistic development peculiar to the great artist. He often quotes Rodin's 'il faut travailler, rien que travailler', and tells Clara:

The great men have let their lives become overgrown like an old road. . . . Rodin has lived nothing that is not in his work. Thus it grew around him. . . . But to make, to make is the thing. And once something is there, ten or twelve things are there, sixty or seventy little records about one, all made now out of this, now out of that impulse. . .

Nearly a year later, he reflects again on the 'way of looking and living' that Rodin alone represented for him, and meditates on the deeper lessons for his own work. Rilke reconsiders the lessons of Worpswede. Through being a 'handworker', Rodin, he says, attained his capacity to gaze - and with his gaze to make a single thing a world where everything happens. At the time he attained 'the element of his art which is so infinitely simple and unrelated to subject-matter, he attained that great justice, that equilibrium in the face of the world, which wavers before no name'. As Rilke worked and himself gazed attentively at the hundreds of works in Rodin's atelier, he began to


formulate the basis of Rodin's uniqueness in much the way the modem tradition has come to see it. He does not stop at a superficial assessment of the significance of the fragment, but defines the aesthetic that grew out of the vast experience, out of the 'handwork':

Now no movement can confuse him any more, since he knows that even in the rise and fall of a quiet surface this is movement, and since he sees only surfaces and systems of surfaces which define forms accurately and clearly. For there is nothing uncertain for him in an object that serves him as a model: there a thousand little surface elements are fitted into space, and it is his task, when he creates a work of art after it, to fit the thing still more intimately, more firmly, a thousand times better into the breadth of space, so that, as it were, it will not move if it is jolted. The object is definite, the art object must be even more definite: withdrawn from all chance, removed from all obscurity, lifted out of time and given to space, it has become lasting, capable of eternity. The model seems , the art object is .

Underlying Rilke's argument is the growing conviction that craft transformed is the secret of Rodin's art, and perhaps even of his own art of poetry. He admires Rodin, who did not 'put together in advance' while his figures were still ideas, but who 'promptly made things, many things, and only out of them did he form or let grow up the new unity, and so his relationships have been intimate and logical, because not ideas but things have bound themselves together'.

The insistence on 'thingness' or the coming-into-being-of-things (Dingwerdung ) and the uninterrupted gaze in Rilke's thoughts on Rodin became far more lucid when Rilke later came to consider Cézanne. But already he could speak of great concentration as the key to creation. 'Everyone must be able to find in his work the centre of his life and from there to be able to grow out in radiate form as far as he can,' he tells Clara in 1903. 'There is a kind of purity and virginity in it, in this looking away from oneself; it is as when one is drawing, one's gaze is riveted on the object, interwoven with Nature, and the hand goes its way alone, somewhere below, goes and goes, takes fright, falters, is happy again, goes and goes . . .'

For himself as poet, Rilke was drawing firm lessons in his penetration of Rodin's work. He came to understand the 'plastic' abstract purity of the singular sculpture and, through Rodin's counsels, learned to 'see' the unimportance of subject-matter. He extended this 'modern' way of apprehending sculpture to his experience with all sculpture. In Rome he gazed at fragments in the ruins and berated scientists and historians for trying to give them a name and a period. The incomparable value of these rediscovered things, he observed, is that 'one can look at them so entirely as things unknown; one does not have to know their intention, and no subject-matter attaches itself to them (at least for the unscientific), no unessential voice breaks the stillness of their concentrated existence, and their permanence is without retrospect and fear'. Only the experience of Rodin's special view of the fragment could have prepared such a response. As Rilke learned the lesson, he was able to record it in his book on Rodin:

As the human body is to Rodin an entirety only as long as a common action stirs all its parts and forces, so on the other hand portions of different bodies that cling to one


another from an inner necessity merge into one organism. A hand laid on another's shoulder or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it came - from this body and from the object which it touches or seizes, something new originates, a new thing that has no name and belongs to no one.

In isolating the principle of the fragment, and Rodin's 'system of surfaces', Rilke prepares himself for his recoil from the romanticism of his own past work. He feels that he must, like Rodin, find the radical principle - an abstract principle - on which to proceed in his work. 'Somehow I too must manage to make things; written, not plastic things; realities that proceed from handwork. Somehow I too must discover the smallest basic element, the cell of my art, the tangible medium of presentation for everything, irrespective of subject-matter . . .' From the Rodin lessons, carefully hoarded, eventually emerged the poems published as New Poems , the earliest of which, 'The Panther', written in 1902 or 1903, may have been the direct issue of Rodin's suggestion that Rilke go to the zoological gardens and look until he could make a poem of what he was looking at.


Rilke did not experience the full measure of change in the New Poems until the signal encounter with his last great master: his last and lasting model of all that he yearned for, all that he hoped to accomplish. The master to whom he always deferred with the utmost gravity was the painter Cézanne. As early as 1900 Rilke had remarked the paintings of an 'eigentümlichen' Frenchman in a Berlin exhibition. But, as he said years later, this was before he really knew how to look at pictures. By the time he saw the large memorial retrospective at the 1907 Salon d'Automne, he had learned to gaze and find the 'concentrated essences' of works of visual art. As the intense letters on Cézanne spanning three weeks indicate, he put himself to school with Cézanne. His visible descent into the essence is reported day by day to Clara. At first he only mentions that Cézanne, like Goya, painted his studio at Aix with fantasies. Two days later he reports having gone to the Louvre and notes that Cézanne's very peculiar blue has a parentage going back to Chardin. On the third day, he speaks of Cézanne himself, having read Emile Bernard's memoirs in Mercure .

In Bernard's description of the old painter Rilke found not only the great perseverence he had admired in Rodin, but also the warring impulses to which he himself was prey. He singles out Cézanne's most indispensable goal, la réatisation , and describes how the furious old painter never felt he had achieved it. In this letter, Rilke sets about finding an adequate definition of Cézanne's réalisation : 'The convincing quality, the becoming a thing, the reality heightened into the indestructible through his own experience of the object.' This insight into Cézanne's relationship to the object grew out of his knowledge of Rodin and strikes a deep chord in Rilke. He probably remembered Rodin again when he quotes Cézanne screaming at a visitor: 'Travailler sans le souci de personne et devenir fort -' Immediately after this allusion to Cézanne's obsessiveness, Rilke retells, with obvious


excitement, the whole incident of The Unknown Masterpiece , altering Bernard's account with his own interpretation:

But in the midst of eating he stood up, when this person told about Frenhofer, the painter whom Balzac, with incredible foresight of coming developments, invented in his short story of Chef-d'œuvre inconnu (about which I once told you) and whom he has go down to destruction over an impossible task, through the discovery that there are actually no contours but rather many vibrating transitions - learning this, the old man stands up from the table in spite of Mme Brémond, who certainly did not favour such irregularities, and, voiceless with excitement, keeps pointing his finger distinctly towards himself and showing himself, himself, himself, painful as that may have been. It was not Zola who understood what the point was; Balzac had sensed long ahead that, in painting, something so tremendous can suddenly present itself, which no one can handle.

Yet, Rilke continues in this letter, Cézanne began again the next day, sur le motif before Mont Sainte-Victoire, with 'all his thousands of tasks'. Cézanne's ability to find the thousand tasks around the single motif moved Rilke immensely. He had long been preoccupied with the kind of patience old men display while seeking the key to their visions. Even before his intense concentration on Cézanne, he had been moved by the old Japanese painter Hokusai. In 1906 he had begun 'The Mountain' about Hokusai with the lines:

Six-and-thirty and a hundred times
did the painter write the mountain peak

But it was not until a year later, after his long communion with Cézanne, that Rilke completed the poem:

sundered from it, driven back to seek
(six-and-thirty and a hundred times)

that incomprehensible volcano,
happy, full of trial, expedientless -
while, forever outlined, it would lay no bridle on
its surging gloriousness

daily in a thousand ways uprearing,
letting each incomparable night
fall away, a being all too tight;
wearing out at once each new appearing,

every shape assumed the shiningmost,
far, opinionless, unsympathising,-
to be suddenly materialising
there behind each crevice like a ghost

Rilke's active learning from Cézanne is evident a week after his first Cézanne letter in his response to a letter from Clara in which she wrote of the autumn landscape at Worpswede. He speaks of the pageant of moor and heath, and the transformations he had once so fully experienced, but he adds:

in those days Nature was still a general incitement for me, an evocation, an instrument on whose strings my fingers found themselves again; I did not yet sit before her . . . How little I could have learned then before Cézanne, before Van Gogh. From the amount Cézanne gives me to do now, I notice how very different I've grown.


For the next few weeks, Rilke's perceptions about the nature of his own tasks mingled with his insights about Cézanne. He approached his 'turning' that would bring him, as it was bringing many other artists in 1907, to a view of art that misprized Romantic Einfühlung . Rilke's quest was to become more demanding, harder, more objective, but a quest it remained. He added to his first insight about Rodin's continuity (with the principle, or 'cell', out of which all work issues) a penetrating observation on Cézanne:

I went to see his pictures again today; it is remarkable what a company they form. Without looking at any single one, standing between the two rooms, one feels their presence joining in a colossal reality One also notices each time how necessary it was to go even beyond love; it is of course natural to love each of these things, when one makes it; but if one shows that, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it . . . this consuming of love in anonymous work, out of which such pure things arise, no one perhaps has so fully achieved as this old man . . .

Then, in the first outright declaration of his own turning, Rilke adds that he has received proofs of his poems (later to be published in New Poems ) and that 'there are instinctive tendencies [in them] towards similar objectivity'. A few days later, he speaks of the 'immense advance' in Cézanne's paintings, remarking, 'It is not the paintings at all that I am studying. . . . It is the turning point in this painting that I recognized because I had just reached it myself in my work.'

This celebrated turning point in Rilke's creative life has been widely misinterpreted, as his translator J. B. Leishman points out. Rilke's critics have said that his need for objectivity led him to fashion poems about things and not feelings, and, as a result, the poems are cold and hard. In fact, Rilke's dawning certainty was more complex and could be compared with Picasso's turning at the same time. Rilke shared with other artists in Paris during those first years of the first decade a desire to sharpen perceptions and to simplify the observed relations among things. When Picasso turned away from his own tremulous feelings so poignantly expressed in the so-called Rose period, he sought the same sharpness in things that Rilke had discovered in Cézanne. There was no question of eschewing feelings. The question was rather to permit an ensemble of meditated observations of forms to be the total bearer of the artist's responses. Picasso regarded his new way of dealing with forms and space as more 'objective' only in the sense that his subject changed and became, itself, subject to the demands of the total ensemble of more or less rationalized forms. Yet his paintings were never coldly 'objective' any more than Rilke's new poems were. 'At the time, everyone talked about how much reality there was in Cubism,' Picasso told William Rubin, 'but they didn't really understand. It's not a reality you can take in your hand. It's more like a perfume - in front of you, behind you, to the sides. The scent is everywhere, but you don't quite know where it comes from.'

Rilke had on the one hand registered the restless idealism of Cézanne (the 'anxiety' that had stirred Picasso) and, on the other, the unique form of Cézanne's sacrifice, his pitiless drive to construct his world while checking constantly against nature, six and thirty and a thousand times. In the letters on Cézanne to Clara, the word 'sachlich', translated into English as 'objective


but perhaps meaning more nearly 'thingish', begins to assume more and more importance. By 1908 he was writing to his publisher Kippenberg about Part II of the New Poems :

If a third volume is to join these two, a similar intensification will still have to be achieved in that ever more objective mastering of reality, out of which emerges, quite spontaneously, the wider significance and clearer validity of all things [immer sachlicheren Bewäiltigen der Realitäit ].

Years later Rilke was still seeking to define more subtly this turning towards the 'sachlich'. Answering charges that the poems were 'impersonal', he explained to a young correspondent:

You see, in order to say what happens to me, I needed not so much an instrument of feelings as I did clay: involuntarily I undertook to make use of lyric poetry to shape (or form) not feelings, but things I had felt ; the whole event of life had to find place in that shaping (forming) independently of the suffering or pleasure it had first brought me. That shaping would have been valueless if it had not gone so far as the trans -shaping (trans -forming) of every passing detail, it was necessary to come through to the essence .

Rilke draws near the true meaning of Cézanne's reiterated need to realize his petite sensation . His emphasis on things he had felt reflected not so much his preoccupation with things as such- any more than apples were mere things for Cézanne - as things that had gained through concourse with humans an intimacy, a history. He was approaching the 'thing' as a repository of human history. In this he was not far from the approach to things taken by Picasso and Braque. Apollinaire felt that the pipes, tobacco packets and wine bottles in their paintings were endowed with a history in much the same way.

In Rilke's New Poems this message of the importance of things is repeatedly transmitted. For instance, in the poem 'Tanagra', completed in July 1906, there is at once an evocation of a thing and a comment on the human significance of the miraculously trans- formed clay:

A little burnt earth, as fired
by an almighty sun
As though the once here-inspired
gesture her hand begun
had suddenly grown external,
reaching for nothing external,
leading but from within
feeling into her feeling
 her own self stealing
 a hand around a chin
ift and keep revolving
re on figure thus;
we're almost near resolving
why they are undissolving,-
yet it's but given us
deeplier and still more clearly
to cling to what once was here
and smile: just a bit more clearly,
maybe than we did last year.

Another poem, begun at the same time but completed in February 1907, after the Cézanne show, is more ambitious. 'The Lace' goes to the heart of


Rilke's long meditation on the nature and meaning of craftsmanship. The value of thingness is rendered subtly, more psychologically. The first line orients us to his motif: 'Humanness: name for wavering possession', and shows how he was now able to slip between things and his feelings for them as mediator. He addresses the lacemaker who probably went blind to fashion this piece of lace-work's fine 'enwovenness', and tells her: through some small chink in destiny she drew her soul from temporality into 'this airy shaping'. Half a year later, in part two, Rilke deepens his theme. He asks: and if one day all our doings should appear strange to us, 'and it were far from clear why we should struggle out of children's shoes merely for that', would not this finely woven length of flowery lace then have sufficient strength to keep us here? 'Sieh: sie ward getan, ' he says. (For look, it all got done.) By stressing the word 'getan' Rilke reverts to his numerous previous efforts to define the experience of the handworker. Both Rodin and Cézanne were models of homo faber at his most enduring; handworkers whose trans -shapings straddled both the real and spiritual boundaries of the imagination. The 'thingness' of Rilke's lace, 'this thing, not easier than life, but quite perfect and oh, so beautiful', is far from being cold or even objective in the ordinary sense. The conviction that, enfolded in things he had 'felt' were experiences of others, transmitted through history only by things, went deep, and was to nourish Rilke's later great cycles of poems, long after he had mastered his encounters with thingness.

Rilke's view of objectivity - that it was based on the unflinching encounter with things - was akin to Cézanne's, and he had been delighted to read in Bernard that Cézanne had held Baudelaire's poem 'Une Charogne' in such high esteem. He wrote to Clara reminding her of his own passage on 'Une Charogne' in Matte Laurids Brigge : 'I could not help thinking that without this poem the whole development towards objective expression, which we now think we recognize in Cézanne, could not have started; it had to be there first in its inexorability.' The artist, he says, has to deal with everything, even the repulsive; with that which is. 'The creator is no more allowed to discriminate than he is to turn away from anything that exists: a single denial at any time will force him out of the state of grace and make him utterly sinful.' Such turning away he views as an interference with the natural process, which, since his coming to Cézanne, he regards as a key. The continuity between Cézanne's gazing and his shaping is natural, Rilke feels, as can be seen in his interpretation of Cézanne's painting as primarily the intercourse of the colours with one another:

Whoever interrupts, whoever arranges, whoever lets his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility deal with them in any way, has already disturbed and troubled their performance. The painter (any artist whatsoever) should not become conscious of his insights: without taking the way round through his mental processes, his advances, enigmatic even to himself, must enter so swiftly into the work that he is unable to recognize them at the moment of their transition.

Recognizing that the painter, or any artist whatsoever, must not become excessively conscious of his insights, Rilke honoured in Cézanne the very aspect that most attracted subsequent modern painters. His reading of


Cézanne's character as artist corresponds to Picasso's and Braque's, and to their transformations of what they saw in Cézanne. For Cubism, as Picasso said, was not the intellectual, conceptual affair that so many tried to make it, but a natural organic process growing directly out of the act of painting. Rilke's observation that the artist's advances, enigmatic even to himself, must enter so swiftly into the work that he is unable to recognize them at the moment of their transition, admirably describes Picasso's own state of mind during that year of 1907, the year of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon . While he sought to distance himself from the sentiments of the Rose period, he discovered the satisfactions of intent looking, of crafting forms. And yet, in the Demoiselles , and in many other works of that year, his advances were swift, enigmatic, and not very clear even to himself. What he saw in Cézanne was cast in a new vocabulary, but the means, as he insisted, remained the immanent means of painting of all times. He sought, as did almost every artist at that moment, the kind of total structuring implicit in Cézanne's late works, epitomized in Cézanne's mute gesture of bringing his two hands slowly together, and tightly lacing the fingers. To achieve such firmness, as painters well knew, seeing was the key and trans -forming the method. Already in the first rebellion against romanticism, Gautier had spoken of the value of seeing, and stressed even more the importance of making: 'The word poet means literally maker : all that is not well made does not exist.' Gautier had felt the need to 'chisel' his poetry, as Rilke was to do later after his lesson from Rodin, often speaking of his desire to 'chisel' poems, to find his own 'tool', like a hammer. In the 1840s Gautier had been preoccupied with similar problems. In his Salon of 1845, he speaks like a sculptor: 'It is sweet, for a soul not corrupted by the bitter thirst for gain, to chisel in solitude in marble and in verses, these two hard materials gleaming and cold, one's dream of love and beauty.' The modern artist's desire to work swiftly, with firmness, without intervention from the mind, and to work as would the marble sculptor who must always be so precise, is often expressed. Matisse in Jazz opens his text saying: 'To draw with scissors - to cut directly into colour reminds me of the direct carving of sculptors.'

The preoccupation of these artists, from Gautier to Rodin to Cézanne to Rilke to Picasso to Matisse, was with things and thingness in the salutary way proposed by Balzac's Porbus. The emphasis on observation was not set off in brackets, not based on unchallenged modes of mimesis, but rather based on a knowledge of the perils lying on the other side. The obverse that was thing-ness was only thingness because its reverse was nothingness. The abyss was known to artists and became a natural part of their experience in the nineteenth century whether it was known as the abyss, as it was by Balzac, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, or as Nothingness, as Mallarmé, Valéry and Sartre preferred. Rilke might have said, its 'enwovenness' was ineluctable for the modern artist.


Rilke had early known the metaphysical intimation of the abyss and spoke in his letter about 'Russian things' of finding names for it. Even in his early


poems the spatializing impulse is strong. He felt the need to draw a cosmos with vast boundaries. In his meditation on intimations of infinity Rilke entered into discussions with the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Kassner, whom he was to call 'a spiritual child of Kierkegaard', and whose nature he described as a 'brightness in space'. He had met Kassner late in 1909 in Paris and for the next year saw him nearly every day. In 1911 Kassner published a book, Elements of Human Greatness , that Rilke admired. But it was a sentence from one of Kassner's works of the Paris days that stuck in Rilke's mind: 'The road from creative empathy to greatness goes through sacrifice', or, in a slightly different translation: the road from inwardness to greatness goes through sacrifice. He used it as a motto for the important poem 'Turning' and he may well have had it in mind when he dedicated the Eighth Duino Elegy to Kassner. On Kassner's side, as Leishman points out, the admiration was more qualified. Kassner felt that Rilke had not really fathomed his theory and had recalcitrantly remained in what Kassner had defined as an atavistic space-world. Kassner's doctrine of Umkehr had apparently deeply interested Rilke. Although it is far from lucid, the doctrine had many suggestive possibilities for Rilke. Leishman characterizes Umkehr as follows:

The exemplary modern man has been 'converted' from the almost purely eternal, finite, static 'space-world' of God the Father, of number or quantity, of identity, of discontinuity, of magic, of chance, of happiness, to the more internal, more spiritual, infinite, dynamic 'time-world' of the Son of quality, of individuality, of continuity and rhythm, of order and system, of freedom, of sacrifice. 'Conversion,' he writes in Zahl und Gesicht , 'means, lastly, and most profoundly, that we do not construct the world on any identity, whether we call this identity Will, God, Thing in itself, Duration, Primal Cell or anything else. Conversion is thus the centre of an infinite world, of a world in motion. Whoever in his soul revolts against or shocks an identity, whoever in his soul revolts against chance or a coming into existence through chance, is a convert, or feels the necessity of conversion. He is truly in motion.'

Kassner's formulation of an infinite world in motion, consistent with the new scientific image of the world in the early twentieth century, could not have been adequate for the poet who felt the aboriginal world of space corresponded to specific feelings far remote from practical experience. The lure of the abyss described by Balzac continued to attract modern artists, many of whom found it the touchstone for self-respect. If the necessity of cosmos, or form, persists, it is because the spaces through which an artist's spirit must move in order to create things or works cannot, finally, be unnameable, cannot be in eternal flux. The modern artist attracted to the abyss strives to name spaces, whether through forms on canvas or through verbal imagery. Rilke was naturally intimate with such spaces of the imagination.

His problem, and the problem of modern painters, was to give form to the riotous sensations of discrete spaces that occur exclusively in the imagination. Although the painters, particularly Picasso, bridled when the cubist experience was discussed in the terms of non-Euclidian geometry, the geometries in their paintings can hardly be said to conform to Euclid's certainties. Uncertainty was a reality against which form-givers had to struggle. This led many, such as Kandinsky, to cautious flirtations with mysticism. Rilke


himself in 1912 at Duino had taken part in seances with Princess Marie yon Thurn und Taxis Hohenlohe, who was a member of the Society of Psychical Research and whose son Pascha was a medium. Such experiments, which Yeats, Breton, Eluard and others also undertook, fulfilled a practical need to find terms to describe psychological spatializing experiences - those Euclidian geometry cannot address. All the abysses, the infinities, the sliding spaces of dreams, the hypnogogic mobilities, the nothingnesses that haunt modern art and poetry reflect deep need. The 'spiritual', having been under siege for two centuries by rationalism, needed supplies. Despite the assault by the Philosophes, the conflict of spirit and matter had not vanished. Such experiences, as the Surrealists insisted, exist, and therefore need expression. In Séraphita Balzac had described the phenomenon of angelism that was to interest so many subsequent writers:

If some pregnant thought bears away a scholar or a poet on its chimera's wings and removes him from the external circumstances that hedge him in on earth, whirling him through the boundless regions where the vastest collections of facts become abstractions, where the most stupendous works of nature are mere images, woe to him, if some sudden sound strikes upon his senses and recalls his adventurous mind to its prison of flesh and blood!

Baudelaire seriously turned his attention to Swedenborg whom Balzac paraphrased: the angel is the individual in whom the inward being triumphs over the outward being. Rimbaud followed Baudelaire and lamented his prison of flesh and blood. Rilke imagined an angel in the Elegies as 'the creature in whom that transformation of the visible into the invisible we are performing already appears complete . . . The Angel of the Elegies is the being who vouches for the recognition of a higher degree of reality in the invisible - Therefore "terrible" to us, because we, its lovers and transformers, still depend on the visible.' Rilke continued to struggle with the paradox of 'objectivity' transformed, and during the last years of his life, which corresponded to the surge of the Surrealist movement, he tried again to define his attitude towards psychic experiences. Referring back to his evenings with mediums at Duino many years before, he wrote in 1924:

I am convinced that these phenomena, if one accepts them, without taking refuge in them , and remains willing again and again to fit them into the whole of our existence, which is full of no less wonderful mysteries in all its happenings - I am, I say, convinced that these manifestations do not correspond to a false curiosity in us, but in fact indescribably concern us . . . Moreover, it is one of the original inclinations of my disposition to accept the mysterious as such , not as something to be unmasked, but rather as the mystery, that, to its innermost being, and everywhere, is thus mysterious, as a lump of sugar is sugar throughout. . . .

Rilke's experiences had much in common with those characterized by Balzac as stemming from 'second sight', and also those of Breton when he spoke of 'thought's dictation', and those Jung alluded to when he spoke of 'tongues'. One of Rilke's strangest episodes occurred in his final years in Switzerland. He recounted how one evening he was visited by a gentleman in eighteenth-century dress who, he said, became the author of the poems in the cycle 'From the Remains of Count C.W.' Rilke's friend yon Salis tells us


that Rilke always spoke of the author of these poems in the third person, now and then expressing surprise at 'how well he puts it'. Rilke explained these 'strange things, for which I, most agreeably, have no responsibility whatsoever' as the result of his not having been really in the mood or quite fit for his own work. 'I had, it seems, to invent a "pretext" figure, someone to take responsibility for whatever could be formed at this highly insufficient level of concentration: this was Count C.W.' The affair ended, yon Salis tells us, when the voice started dictating to Rilke in Italian, whereupon Rilke revolted and gave him notice.

Not only was Rilke willing to navigate the spaces of the imagination with a willing suspension of disbelief, but he was willing, as he said Rodin was, to seek the almost invisible conjunctions of forms and feelings in these imagined spaces. His shaping impulse led him to seek out the finest, all but invisible, boundaries among things; to abstract with the intensity of Frenhofer. More than once he speaks of the space between the inner tree and the bark, and he wrote excitedly about an old tree on which the ancient bark remained and a new young tree grew within. Learning of silences and the smallest possible measures, Rilke set out to speak of roses; to speak, as he once said, from the experience of in-seeing which is not in-specting. Many new geometries sprang to his mind as he found in roses an incomparable source of metaphor. So gratifying was his concourse with roses that in his last will, where he directs a friend to find an old tombstone ('I detest the geometric art of modern stonemasons'), he offers two lines of verse for the stone:

Rose, O pure contradiction, delight
in being no one's sleep under so many lids.

During the years in Paris when he had set himself the workmanlike tasks of objectivity he had diligently studied roses, seeking the most precise similes. Around the new year in 1907, he wrote the long poem, 'The Bowl of Roses', which opens with a startling image of anger: two fighting boys bunch themselves up into a ball of something that was mere hate, and roll upon the ground like a dumb animal attacked by bees. Then Rilke sets out his still-life, the bowl of roses, standing in extreme contrast:

the unforgettable, entirely filled
with that extremity of being and bending,
proffer beyond all power of giving, presence,
that might be ours: they might be our extreme.

In the next stanza, Rilke embarks on the task he set himself of transformation. He discerns and descries the spaces, so infinitesimal, encompassed by the rose, by the 'presence' that 'might be our extreme':

Living in silence, endless opening out,
space being used, but without space being taken
from that space which the things around diminish;
absence of outline, like untinted groundwork
and mere Within; so much so strangely tender
and self-illumined - to the very verge: -
where do we know of anything like this?


The space, so far, is visible; is even akin to Cézanne's spaces, with their absence of outline, and the strange juxtapositions which minimize depth. In the next stanza, Rilke transforms this still tangible space into inner space:

And this: that one should open like an eyelid,
and lying there beneath it simply eyelids,
all of them dosed, as though they had to slumber
ten-fold to quench some inward power of vision.

The rose, as innerness, remained an important simile for Rilke. Months later, on 2 August 1907, in 'The Rose-Interior' he approaches the most abstract problem implicit in the earlier poem. The first line, reminiscent of Goethe's Nichts ist drinnen, nichts ist draussen: / Denn was innen, das ist aussen (There is naught within, naught without/whatever is within is also without), is a phenomenal description: Wherefore this inner's waiting an outer? To this question there can be no reply, but Rilke suggests in the flow of the poem that the innerness of the rose's architecture is comparable only to the inner-space of dreams.

Themselves their whole endeavour
scarce holds; arid many are willing
to be filled to overflowing
with inner-space and stream
into the days, forever fuller and fuller growing,
till the summer has all become a
chamber within a dream


In Paris, during the years he was learning to be a handworker, Rilke moved about the city observing the spaces fashioned by human beings, sometimes with their own bodies. He was drawn to the spectacles performed by strolling players along the boulevards and, particularly, acrobats. His many days spent in art galleries, turning the leaves of art books, and browsing in the portfolios of print dealers on the rue de Seine provided him with ample background in the long French tradition of portraying the descendants of the commedia dell'arte. The rootlessness and pathos of these wandering performers had challenged poets and painters for almost a century. Already in 1833 Gautier had announced: 'When it comes to artists I esteem only acrobats.' After him came a long, uninterrupted line of eulogists, some responding to the social issues of the déclassé artist, others responding to the aesthetic of the performers, and still others harking back to another century and the mystery of Gilles as portrayed in Watteau's enigmatic painting. In the mid-nineteenth century, enthusiasm mounted to the general adoration of the mime Deburau. This gifted actor had roused Paris with his extraordinary performances. Many poets and painters characterized his Pierrot in terms ranging from pathos to popular joy. The prevalence of this art form in Paris continued to inspire artists well into the twentieth century.

Among the artists who had been inspired by Deburau and related street performance was Daumier. Rilke's first long description of saltimbanques


uggests that he was familiar with the Daumier drawings. One of the most affecting in the series Les Saltimbanques was published in the widely read journal, L'Art , in 1878 and elicited the following response from Henry James:

It exhibits a pair of lean, hungry mountebanks, a clown and a harlequin beating the drum and trying a comic attitude, to attract the crowd at a fair, to a poor booth in front of which a painted canvas, offering to view a simpering fat woman, is suspended. But the crowd does not come, and the battered tumblers, with their furrowed cheeks go through their pranks in a void. The whole thing is symbolic and full of grimness, imagination and pity. . . .

In his description James omits the slender child acrobat seated on a small performance carpet, the child who appears again in a still more celebrated Daumier representation, Mountebanks Changing Place . Here Daumier shows the old clown carrying all the props - rug and chair - as he walks, head lowered, through Paris. He is flanked by his wife holding a tambourine and his small, wizened boy. The child acrobat who moved so many artists appears in several of Daumier's drawings.

In his notebooks, Rilke has a long description of the troupe of Pére Rollin that strongly recalls several painted representations. The scene is set in front of the Luxembourg gardens near the Pantheon: 'The same carpet is lying there, the same overcoats, thick winter coats, taken off and piled on a chair, leaving just enough room for the little son, the old man's grandson, to come and sit down now and then during the intervals.' The old acrobat no longer works. He has been transferred to beating the drum. 'He stands around patiently with his too-far-gone athlete's face, its features sagging in loose confusion, as if a weight has been hung on each of them, stretching it.' Rilke also describes the daughter ('one feels she has it in her blood') and the son-in-law, and then returns to the old man 'beating the drum like fourteen drummers'.

This experience recalled in 1907 was the immediate stimulus, no doubt, for a poem written a few months later, 'The Group', a compact impression of the crowd from several points of view; a gathering-in of spaces created by human movements:

Like someone gathering a quick posy: so
Chance here is hastily arranging faces,
widens and then contracts their interspaces
seizes two distant, lets a nearer go,

drops this for that, blows weariness away,
rejects, like weed, a dog from the bouquet,
and pulls head foremost what's too low, as through
a maze of stalks and petals, into view,

and binds it in, quite small, upon the hem;
stretches once more to change and separate,
and just has time, for one last look at them,

to spring back to the middle of the mat
on which, in one split second after that,
the glistening lifter's swelling his own weight.


This first issue of Rilke's attentive experience with the saltimbanques was a prelude to the celebrated final form, the Fifth Duino Elegy. But before the Fifth could arrive, he had undergone another change articulated in the poem 'Turning', written 20 June 1914 and dispatched immediately to Lou Andreas-Salomé because, as he writes, it 'depicts the turning which probably must come if I am to live. . .' He begins with the motto from Kassner, 'The road from inwardness to greatness goes through sacrifice', and in the first line describes the results of his previous turning: 'Long he was victorious in gazing.' He says that stars fell to their knees under his 'wrestling glance' and captive lions stared into his open glance as into inconceivable freedom, 'And the rumour that there was one gazing moved those less visible, moved those doubtfully visible.' Then he asks:

Gazing how long?
For how long already with fervour foregoing,
Imploring in the depth of his glance?

He brings up again his long debate between judgment (gazing) and the demands of his heart, 'his nonetheless sensible heart', and comes to the conclusion:

For gazing, see, has a boundary.
And the more gazed upon world
desires to prosper in love.

Then come the lines so often isolated by critics seeking to follow Rilke's turnings in order to draw the line between the sharply observed things in the New Poems and the abstract poems of the end of his life:

Work of sight is achieved
now for some heartwork
on all those pictures, those prisoned creatures within you !
you conquered them; but do not know them as yet.

Rilke's hoard of pictures, those prisoned creatures, was collected over a long period and intensely coloured by the work of visual artists. The spaces Rilke rendered in the New Poems were in many ways derived from the vision of the artists who had particularly moved him. One had only to follow his long concourse with El Greco, enriched with his pilgrimage impressions in Toledo, to reach the eventual starting point of the Duino Elegies. His first encounter with Spain was through the painter Ignacio Zuloaga whom he met in Paris in 1902 and who, he said two years later, was, after Rodin, the person with whom he had had the most important contact. At the time Zuloaga was one of the foremost proselytizers for the recognition of El Greco. In his Paris studio he kept several Greco paintings where Rilke (and probably the young Picasso) had ample time to study them. Six years later Rilke writes to Rodin: 'I am just back from the Salon where I spent an hour before Greco's Toledo . This landscape seems to me more and more astonishing. I must describe it to you as I saw it.' He gives Rodin a meticulous description in purely visual terms and completes the word-picture remarking, 'One should have dreams like that.'


The dreams came little by little, and always marked with the initial pictorial image by E1 Greco. In October 1912, Rilke writes to his publisher Kippenberg that he must go to Toledo. 'You know that Greco is one of the greatest events of my last two or three years.' A month later he writes an ecstatic letter to Princess Marie yon Thurn und Taxis from Toledo. In it the complex spatializing he had begun in his description of Greco's Toledo in his letter to Rodin is still further elaborated:

What it is like here, that, dear friend, I shall never be able to say (it would be the language of angels, their use of it among men), but that it is, that it is , you will just have to believe me. One can describe it to no one, it is full of law, yes, I understand at this moment the legend that when on the fourth day of creation God took the sun and set it, he established it over Toledo: so very star-ish is the nature of this extraordinarily laid out estate, so outward, so into space - I know it forever, the bridges, both bridges, this river, and shifted over beyond it, this open abundance of landscape, surveyable, like something that is still being worked on. . . .

Eleven days later Rilke is still under the spell of his vision, the vision of spaces he had already folded away years before while waiting:

This incomparable city is at pains to keep within its walls the arid, undiminished, unsubdued landscape, the mountain, the pure mountain, the mountain of vision - monstrous the earth issues from it and directly before its gates becomes world, creation, mountain and ravine, Genesis . . . Until yesterday the weather was of the clearest, and the pageant of the evenings proceeded in quiet spaciousness, only today the sky became complicated . . . I have an inkling of what formations the atmosphere here must make use of in order to comport itself appropriately to the picture of the city: menacings rolled themselves up and spread out far away above the bright reliefs of other clouds that innocently held themselves against them, imaginary continents -, all that above the desolation of the landscape sombered by it, but in the depths of the abyss quite a cheerful bit of river (cheerful like Daniel in the lions' den) the great stride of the bridge and then, drawn wholly into the proceedings, the city, in every tone of grey and ochre against the east's open and quite inaccessible blue. . . .

These free-flowing notes of his response to Toledo indicate his increasing preoccupation with his relationship to Nature. A few years later, deeply depressed by the First World War (he wrote 'the world has fallen into the hands of men!), he muses about his attitude to Nature - the attitude he had expressed in the poem 'Turning'. Working after Nature, he wrote in 1915, 'had in such a high degree made that which is into a task for me, that only rarely now, as by mistake, does a thing speak to me, granting and giving without demanding that I reproduce it equivalently and significantly in myself'. In the next sentence he thinks back to his Spanish experience and offers the clearest expression of this long germinating image:

The Spanish landscape (the last I experienced to the utmost) - Toledo - drove this attitude of mine to its extreme: since there the external thing itself - tower, hill, bridge - already possessed the incredible, unsurpassable intensity of the inner equivalents through which one might have been able to represent it. External world and vision everywhere coincided as it were in the object; in each a whole inner world was displayed, as though an angel who embraces space were blind and gazing into himself. This world, seen no longer with the eyes of men, but in the angel, is perhaps my real task. . . .


The coincidence of visions, and of time and space, he had so often sought when he spoke of trans -formation was realized in the Duino Elegies. During the long gestation of the book, Rilke had at times complained that he seemed forever to be looking through a telescope. At other times he spoke of the completeness of fragments, recovering the first insight he had had about Rodin. Looking from near and far, and finally, from within - from those infinitesimal spaces within the rose - Rilke paralleled the experiences of Frenhofer. He was tempted into the invisible where, as Frenhofer had cried, Art is vanquished. His new freedoms - to shuttle to and fro in the most rarefied spaces and in time, and in the most concrete emblems of space and time (paintings and poems) - coalesced in the Elegies. He was not impeded by 'progress'. Images stored for long periods were retrieved, enriched by their repose, and made full in the working. Rilke's objective days were over, at least insofar as his handwork was completed. All the same, the Elegies are replete with allusions to carefully noted experiences - most of all, the Fifth, where once again his experiences with works of visual art were inextricably woven in his handwork.

Scholars argue about Rilke's relationship to Picasso's great painting The Family of Saltimbanques , but the arguments are strictly scholastic. Rilke's habits tell more than enough about his deep reliance on the visual artist's gaze. The yoking of the Fifth Elegy and Picasso's masterpiece of 1905 is less important than seeing in Rilke's poem a confirmation of the latitude available to a great artist. It illustrates the idea that nothing is really synchronous in the history of art; that there are overlappings and thoughts that burrow through to surface finally with a new illumination. At the time Rilke returned to Picasso's painting he had already felt and understood Cézanne's work. He would probably have understood Picasso's later work after Picasso's confrontation with Cézanne. But Rilke was not always in objective focus, and the haunting Picasso of the earlier period was coextensive with his perceptions of more remote spaces and the feelings they engender. His work of sight, he had said, had been done. The heart-work was the new task at the time he was composing the Duino Elegies.

Is it important to know whether it was Rilke's own experience, recorded in 1907, with Père Rollin's troupe (which in itself was tempered by what he remembered of previous pictorial traditions) that was the first inspiration rather than Picasso's painting? Most likely both experiences mingled. It is quite possible that Rilke had known the Picasso painting for a long time. He was acquainted with Wilhelm von Uhde whom he saw in Paris fairly often. Uhde knew Picasso's work well and was a friend of André Level, whose organization, La Peau de l'Ours, had acquired the painting and was eventually to sell it on z March 1914 in an important auction. According to von Salis, Rilke had once prevailed upon Frau Herta Koenig to purchase the painting, and may have been responsible for her decision, later, to acquire it. If Rilke's Fifth Elegy was not inspired by the Picasso painting, why did Rilke dedicate the poem to Frau Koenig? In 1915, when Rilke requested the use of her apartment while he sought the right house in the country, he wrote:


I would beg for a bed in the guestroom for myself, a bed for my housekeeper, the kitchen, and permission to work at your magnificent desk - everything else would remain locked up; at most I would on some afternoon sit for a long time before the Picasso, which gives me courage for this beginning. . . .

On 28 June 1915, he writes to a friend: 'meanwhile I am sitting here in the apartment of friends . . . with the finest Picasso (The Saltimbanques ) in which there is so much Paris that, for moments, I forget.' Finally, on 10 October, he writes: 'I must leave these rooms tomorrow, as the owner is returning from the country, and with them the glorious big Picasso beside which I have been living for almost four months now.'

Unquestionably the painting revived Rilke's memories of Père Rollin's troupe, and his complicated feelings about Paris. By the time he wrote the Fifth Duino Elegy, which came to him, as he said, as a radiant afterstorm of the three-week period during which he had completed the rest of the Duino Elegies, Rilke had long abandoned the 'objective' mood. The chiselled surfaces he had once valued became recessive. Description of equivalents became secondary to perceptions of inter-relationships so complex as to verge on abstraction. A new task - to interiorize like the blind angel in Toledo - assumed the greatest importance. Yet Rilke lost none of the power acquired during the days of gazing. His imagery in the Fifth Elegy does in fact parallel closely the images in Picasso's painting, and the emotional intent is identical. The forsaken atmosphere of Picasso's troupe of grave performers, their expectant stance, the whole group thrown against the timeless sky, correspond to Rilke's vision, to his sentiment. Though there are more figures in the painting, it is conceived, as is Rilke's poem, to suggest not so much subject-matter as penetrating mood. For Rilke, the painting and his early memories were fused (and some of those memories might even have owed something to Picasso's work of the period, for some of his studies of acrobats and their families had been exhibited while Rilke was in Paris). The close parallels in the two artists' conceptions are sometimes uncanny. For instance, Rilke's description of the child acrobat in his 1907 notebook:

He is only a beginner they say, and those headlong leaps to the ground out of high somersaults make his feet sore. He has a large face that can take a swarm of tears, but often they hold back inside the rim of his swollen eyes. Then he has to carry his head carefully, like a cup that is full to the brim.

The child is remembered in the Fifth Elegy:

You, that fall with the thud
only fruits know, unripe,
daily a hundred times from the tree . . .

that man is clapping his hands for the downward spring, and before
a single pain has got within range of your ever-
galloping heart, comes the tingling
in the soles of your feet, ahead of the spring that it springs from,
chasing into your eyes a few physical tears.

The figure of Père Rollin is also drawn from the Paris years when Rilke described him with his too-far-gone athlete's face, 'its features sagging in


loose confusion as if a weight had been hung on each of them, stretching it'. This image recurs frequently in Picasso's studies, where he is sometimes called the buffoon.

There, the withered wrinkled lifter,
old now and only drumming,
shrivelled up in his mighty skin as though it had once contained two men . . .

For Rilke the figure of Père Rollin assumed increasing importance. He had spoken of him in 1907 as he always spoke of artists: 'The strength is still there, young folks, he says to himself; not handy any more, but that's the whole point; it's gone into the roots - it's still there somewhere, the whole lot of it.' Rilke repeatedly urged his admirers to think of art as a slow process, and of artists as trees that grow slowly and patiently from deep roots. This is one of the signal themes in the Fifth Elegy, reflected in the person of Père Rollin. Rilke's long meditation on the nature of art, shaped by his experiences with Rodin and Céanne, finds its fulfilment in the Fifth Elegy. His attraction to the old masters, the romantic old masters who never lost their wonder at their own unending urge to realization, remains and flows into the Fifth Elegy from the very first lines:

But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little
more fleeting than we ourselves, - so urgently, ever since childhood,
wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?)
never-contented will? . . .

There - in the 'oh, for the sake of whom?' - is Rilke's youthful question, posed for Rodin first, and then for Cézanne who, like Hokusai, wrote six and thirty and a hundred times the mountain peak.

Rilke understood certain problems as fundamental for all artists, regardless of their medium. He speaks in the poem of the problem of maintaining the delicate balance between a highly developed skill and deep, immediate feeling. For painters it becomes the problem, as it was understood already in the nineteenth century, of 'finish' as against the quick verity of the rough sketch. Rilke suggests that these acrobats, with their countless repetitions, have perhaps lost the passion and preserved only the perfection of their art:

Where, oh, where in the world is that place in my heart
where they still were far from being  able,  . . .

From the moment Rilke had encountered the myriad fragments in Rodin's studio his reflections had circled this problem. He develops the thoughts inspired by Rodin's ceaseless fashioning and refashioning to their highest point, consummately stated in the lines:

And then, in this wearisome nowhere, all of a sudden,
the ineffable spot where the pure too-little
incomprehensibly changes, - springs round
into the empty too-much?
Where the many-digited sum
solves into zero?

The long pondered work of the hand, in the Fifth Elegy, is no longer seen in terms of simple craftsmanship. The tenuous balance between consummate


craft and heartwork could perhaps never be confidently held, but artists, he always thought, were born to transform. He tells us in a hundred ways of the ineffable spot between the pure too-little and the vacuous too-much. He had extended his understanding of the art of the painter through just such an awareness of Cézanne's reiterated problem, and he often felt, as Balzac had put it in The Unknown Masterpiece , that 'practice and observation are everything to a painter, and that, if rhetoric and poetry quarrel with the brush, we reach the doubting stage'. Rilke's deep respect for the gestures he felt to be pure and 'rooted' (such as the gestures of the lacemaker, the potter of the Tanagra figurine, or of Père Rollin) lay behind his constant concern for a truthful representation. In 1924 he answered a letter about 'influences' by calling himself a disciple of Rodin:

For at bottom of all the arts there operated the one, same challenge which I have never received so purely as through conversations with the powerful master who at that time, although of great age, was still full of living experience. . . But I often ask myself whether that which was in itself unaccented did not exercise the most essential influence on my development and production: the companionship with a dog, the hours I could pass in Rome watching a ropemaker who in his craft repeated one of the oldest gestures in the world . . . exactly like that potter in a little Nile village, to stand beside whose wheel was, in a most mysterious sense, indescribably fruitful for me. . . .

In the Fifth Elegy the threadbare carpet, 'this carpet forlornly lost in the cosmos', is the stage for the ritual repetition of some very old gestures. Picasso incarnates the same feeling by clustering his troupe against a vast, empty landscape where they stand immobile, expectant, pausing before the never-to-be-realized satisfaction that Rilke envisages only in the realm of angels:

Angel: suppose there's a place we know nothing 'about, and there, on some indescribable carpet, lovers showed all that here they're forever unable to manage . . .

Lovers and artists are one, for ever unable to manage, yet indefatigably seeking the perfect experience known only in rare moments. The experience lies always beyond, in the unnameable abyss that Rilke tried again and again to characterize. In his letters and notebooks he returns frequently to recollections of. moments that brought him close to the angelic ideal. In 1914, for instance, he writes to Princess Marie of an early morning in a villa facing a park: 'everything was in tune with me - one of those hours that are not fashioned at all, but only as it were, held in reserve, as though things had drawn together and left space, a space as undisturbed as the interior of a rose, an angelical space, in which one keeps quite still.' These serene spaces to which Rilke gravitated more and more towards the end of his life, experiences that he described as 'content-less', seemed to him to belong 'to some higher unity of events'. All the things, with their human associations, and all the human gestures he consecrated in his poems, would attest to what he once called 'the inexhaustible stratification of our nature'; the Elegies, as he wrote in 1925, show us

this work of the continual conversion to the dear visible and tangible into the invisible vibration and agitation of our own nature, which introduces new vibration-numbers


into the vibration spheres of the universe. (For, since the various materials in the cosmos are only the results of different rates of vibration, we are preparing in this way, not only intensities of a spiritual kind, but - who knows? - new substances, metals, nebulae and stars.)

Rilke shared with many artists in the early twentieth century this urgent need to imagine a whole, a universe beyond what he called the mundane. Both Kandinsky and Klee arrived at the still spaces Rilke so often shaped in his poems through similar chains of thought, and both were tempted in their art to move beyond. Almost at the end of his life, Rilke told yon Salis: 'The terrible thing about art is that the further you go into it the more you are pledged to attempt the uttermost, the almost impossible.'

Aside from this Frenhofer-like need to go the uttermost, Rilke also craved the union, the law, the root, the cell from which to craft his vision. He clarified his necessities first through his comprehension of Rodin's system of le modelé and next through Cézanne's unending system of reciprocity among visible surfaces. From there he moved to the sensed, the invisible, the spaces unknown to us - such as the interior of the rose - but always present to the imagination. His malaise, and the malaise of many twentieth-century artists, was rooted in metaphysical hunger that no amount of rational, scientific analysis of life could assuage. He said it clearly in the first Duino Elegy: We don't feel very securely at home within our interpreted world.


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