Reading Rilke with Denise Levertov
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Reading Rilke with Denise Levertov

Like this they say: my life, my wife,my dog my child, and know full wellthat all that: life and wife and dog and childare foreign forms, with which they blindlyand with their hands outstretched sometimes collide.Certain of this, of course, are only great ones,the ones who long for eyes.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, “You need not be afraid, God,” The Book of Hours1

We met at Stanford University in the winter of 1982. I was thirty and had just completed a doctorate in German Studies; she was fifty-eight. A close friend of mine, Tree Swenson (a founder, with Sam Hamill, of Copper Canyon Press), told me that Denise Levertov (1923–97) was living on campus. I took a deep breath and phoned her, introducing myself as a friend of friends and a fan of her poetry. Just getting the opportunity to meet her would have seemed to me a gift, so I was stunned when she not only invited me to her apartment for coffee but readily expressed the hope that I might have time to be an occasional tutor who would read Rilke poems with her in German. She left the choice of poems up to me, and I quickly suggested The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch, composed 1899–1903, and published in 1905), partly, perhaps, because I liked the persona of the perceptive Russian monk attempting to speak to God, and partly because I was avoiding the linguistic complexity of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

Germany’s Rilke

When it comes to German poets, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) is a particularly interesting case; born in Prague he came to despise Germany for starting the Great War and died in Switzerland, only to be canonized later as the greatest German-language poet of the twentieth century. Rilke’s reception [End Page 317] in Germany in the twentieth century has been shaped to a large extent by the respective ideological views of his readers. Following closely behind Nietzsche’s late nineteenth-century proclamation that “God is dead,” Rilke cultivated a following during his lifetime that exalted art as a substitute for religion. In the 1930s his late work in particular (i.e., the Elegies and the Sonnets) was interpreted by some readers as traditionally religious, by others as a prophetic alternative to traditional spirituality. For their part, philosophers like Heidegger embraced these poems as the pronouncements of a “philosophical poet.” The ambiguity of Rilke’s message and his apolitical persona suited the Nazis, who permitted Germany’s Insel Verlag (Rilke’s publisher since 1905) to continue issuing his texts. If Rilke inspired a sense of interior freedom in Germans who obeyed every command of the Nazi regime, then these useful citizens were welcome to carry his verses into battle for the Fatherland.

After 1945, Rilke’s reputation as an existentialist poet was reinforced by a fusion with Heideggerean philosophy. Printings of his poetry and prose were in popular demand. In another critical development, the 1950s produced the first reassertion of Rilke’s Elegies as testimonies of genuinely religious experience, by the Catholic philosopher Romano Guardini,2 along with a review of Guardini’s book by Heidegger’s former student, Hans-Georg Gadamer.3 Gadamer insisted, like his teacher, that Rilke’s late works did not contain religious truths, but he also broke with Heidegger’s view that Rilke’s poetry was so relativistic that there was no discernible message in it at all. Gadamer’s “mythopoetic interpretation” (1975)4 of Rilke’s late work, which builds upon Heidegger’s insight that human suffering is mythologized through the transformation of experience into word (literature), sees the clear message that “human beings must learn to survive and endure without religious consolation.”5 [End Page 318]

In March 1956 the relatively new West German news weekly Der Spiegel entered the fray with a long cover story about Rilke, “Lyric Poetry as a Substitute for Religion.”6 The article mocked Rilke as a “girly man” (although this is not a direct translation, the tone of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s derogatory term in our own era seems...


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