- Reborn as René: The Interplay of Self and Language in a Selection of Rilke’s Late French and German Poems
We rarely think of Rainer Maria Rilke as anything other than a great German poet. As a result, there has been a critical tendency to overlook the fact that Rilke is a great German poet who also wrote no less than four hundred and fifty poems in French, a language he only mastered in his twenties.1 In his monograph The Translingual Imagination, Steven Kellman speaks of such writers as ‘translingual’: “A majority of the world’s population is at least bilingual. Fortunately, few speakers are [End Page 201] writers. Fewer still write well. And rarer are those who write well in a second language.”2 These ‘translingual’ writers, Kellman maintains—his impressive ‘roster’ includes such avant-garde authors in French as Beckett, Ionesco3 and Rilke—have a unique relationship with language and a knack for distancing themselves from the linguistic structures they employ, which makes them “the shock troops of modern literature.”4
Rilke more than qualifies as a translingual poet, and his first published French collection, which starts with an invocation of his French muse, “une voix, presque mienne,” is unmistakably part of French literature.5 Yet, as Paul Valéry describes these poems, “leur forme est juste, ils sont clairs, réguliers, pourtant aucun poète français n’aurait pu les écrire.”6 As part of French literature, these poems still possess the particular strangeness of translingual writing, raising in a new light the question of their strangeness as part of Rilke’s oeuvre. It seems likely that our view of Rilke would become more holistic if we locate his work within the framework of French, as well as German, culture. Yet, what are the consequences of writing in a langue prêtée,7 of the not-quite-ownership of the writer’s most innate instrument that for Rilke transforms into the new and youthful experience of being owned by a language?8 Is the fact that both the French and the German poems were written [End Page 202] by the same hand and conceived by the same brain enough to say that they were authored by the same poet, Rainer Maria Rilke?
One answer to this question, and probably the first, can be traced in Marina Tsvetaeva’s letters to Rilke. Her reaction to any suggestion that a poet may depend on a language for the quality—or indeed qualities —of his work is that of knee-jerk rejection: “keine Sprache ist Muttersprache,” she claims, and “man ist Dichter, weil man kein Franzose ist.”9 The poet, then, is a poet precisely by virtue of not being limited by any national literature; no human idiom has the claim to be his native language because all literary creation (Dichtung) is already translation from his language—‘Angelic’10—into ours.
A truth, perhaps, but is it the entire truth? In this argument of intuitions, an alternative is suggested by Baladine Klossowska; better known to us as Merline, she edited and virtually single-handedly put together the first edition of Vergers. Merline addressed Rilke in French by his given name, René, and who knows, maybe with good reasons.11 There seems to be an echo of this duality in the pun on Rilke’s German name contained in his self-composed epitaph Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch. The contradiction referred to appears to be inherent not only in the poet’s favorite flower (the reason why his French poetry is so often identified with the eponymous cycle Les Roses), but also in his style and identity as a poet.
One—and maybe the most direct—way to approach these intricate questions is biographical. Even living in Paris as Rodin’s secretary some twenty years before the period with which we are concerned, Rilke had experimented with writing in French, just as he experimented with writing in both Russian12 and Italian when he came in contact with these languages. These early [End Page 203] attempts he did not take seriously and showed very little of this work to any of his friends. He would...