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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 126-130
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Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition
Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition. By Judith Ryan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xi + 256 pp.
This attractive, engagingly written, readable book packs a complete, novel reassessment of Rilke into a manageable 227 pages. Ryan's study spans Rilke's entire corpus, from the early Prague poetry through poems written in the autumn of 1926. She takes detailed looks at many poems, ranging from the most famous to ones that have scarcely received critical notice, and devotes much attention to parallels in modernist literature and art and in the German and European poetic tradition. Deceptively thin, the book is stuffed with new information and insights about Rilke. Highly economical in presentation, not at all weighted down by its plethora of material, it is an exemplary piece of scholarly writing.
Ryan's readings have three main foci: Rilke's sources and parallel cases, his techniques in constructing his poems, and the poetological dimension of his work. In addition, Ryan offers explanations of why the turning points in Rilke's poetic career happened when and how they did.
Ryan's study challenges the traditional image of Rilke as an inspirational poet and replaces it with a Rilke of "consciously artificial techniques" (38). Her Rilke is a made poet, a constructed poet. To be sure, Rilke increasingly thought of and styled himself as "Dottor Serafico" (a designation coined by his friend Marie von Thurn und Taxis)--a poet who relied on inspiration, who "waited for voices to speak in or through him" (219). Ryan regards this "inspiration" severely. She dismisses the celebrated "inspiration" for the First Duino Elegy as amounting to a strong wind at Duino, a dim recollection of Stefan George's angel poem from Der Teppich des Lebens, and thoughts about Rudolf Kassner's discussion of Blake and other English poets. She notes that in the 1912-14 period, when Rilke turned away from the ideal of craftsmanship he had learned from Rodin and started to court inspiration, he also suffered from writing difficulties, which his reliance on inspiration may actually have exacerbated.
Hofmannsthal has long been regarded as a nodal point of influences [End Page 126] and borrowings. Kafka, whose case is less obvious, has been repositioned in the shadow of Flaubert, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and others. But Rilke is much more resistant. Of all the German-language modernists, he seems the least susceptible to being taken apart and ascribed to other people, provided that one begins with the Stundenbuch (1899-1903) and dismisses the Prague poetry as juvenilia. His autobiographical writings point to a poetic aesthetics inspired by the visual arts--by Rodin and Cézanne--in the period of the Neue Gedichte (1907-8); letters in 1921 announce his "discovery" of Paul Valéry. Yet several aspects of Rilke's work militate strongly against our reading him as a derivative poet: his imaginative temperament, palpable in his work; the consistency of his themes; his self-presentation and widespread reception as a poet of "unmediated vision" and inspiration; and his prevailing tone of sincerity. Ryan convincingly breaks down his resistance. Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition shows that his work is full of Eichendorff, Heine, George, Hofmannsthal, Arnim, Montesquiou-Fezensac, Rossetti, Rodenbach, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Ruskin, Gérôme, Gustave Moreau, Jacobsen, Bang, Reventlow, Hölderlin, Klopstock, Goethe, Weininger, Wilde, Blake, Burne-Jones, Schiller, Novalis, Kassner, Mechthild von Magdeburg, Keats, Guérin, Maeterlinck, Shakespeare, Hölty, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom text "The Man Who Was Tired of Life," Novalis, Emerson, Klee, Valéry, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Schiller, and Rachilde--and the list goes on. The book is full of fascinating new finds. Even in the well-trod Valéry-Rilke terrain, Ryan finds a new Valéry source text, which, in an exact parallel to the first sonnet to Orpheus, shows Orpheus creating a temple with his song. In sum, Ryan's work overtly combats the received image of Rilke as an inspired, mystical poet. It also gives only small space to the other persistently...