- A (Nearly Geometric) Parable. On Rilke's The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke
One of the poems in Rilke's French cycle Les fenêtres reads:
N'es tu pas notre géometrie,Fenêtre, très simple formeQui sans effort circonscrisNotre vie énorme?(Rilke, Werke 2: 587)1
Are you not our geometry,Window, so very simple a formThat effortlessly circumscribesOur enormous life?
The depiction of windows as delimiting and framing our perspective on the outside world, ultimately determining the measure of existence itself, is a distinctive feature of the reflection on time through space that pervades Rilke's thought:
Our dealings with the vastness are intrinsically dependent upon the mediation of the window—out there it is sheer might, a superior force, without any relation whatsoever to us, despite its overwhelming influence—; the window, however, places us in a relation, elle nous mesure notre part de cet avenir dans l'instant-même qu'est l'espace … / [it measures our share of that future in the very moment that is space].(Briefe 315)2 [End Page 625]
Mediation—the premise of every relation to the unmeasurable—here equals circumscription of the edges and boundaries of human life. Geometry, originally the measuring of the earth, the elementary knowledge of lines, points and planes, depends solely on how we direct sight: as it embodies the science of space, the window is itself "our geometry" inasmuch as it allows us to unravel our own experience of time.
This analogy harkens back to a marginal remark on an early work whose prominence weighed on Rilke for decades, forcing him to reexamine the volatile and unyielding traits of poetic creation as such: The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke [Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke].
In August 1924, Rilke, writing to Hermann Pongs, recalls how he conceived The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke in 1899:
The Cornet was the unsuspected gift of a single night, an autumn night, written down in one go by the light of two candles flickering in the night wind; it was brought about by the drifting of the clouds over the moon, after the incentive to take on the subject had been instilled in me a few weeks before, when I first learned of a number of family papers I had inherited.(Rilke, Weise 158)3
Despite the shifting feelings he had toward his prose poem, Rilke remained faithful to this myth of poetic creation as the result of a sudden, supreme inspiration. It remained a matter of principle for him to insist on the space-time continuum of the "single night" during which his work was conceived as if chiseled from a single block.
In truth, three versions of the text have been preserved, each bearing a different title: Aus einer Chronik/Der Cornet/—1664 [From a Chronicle—The Standard Carrier—1664], written in 1899 in Berlin-Schmargendorf; Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Otto Rilke [The Lay of Love and Death of the Cornet Otto Rilke], 1904, published in the journal Deutsche Arbeit; and finally, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke [The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke], completed in June 1906 and published shortly afterwards. The first version consists of 29 short chapters, the second of 28, and the third of 26, with an epilogue. [End Page 626]
In all three versions, the narrative is based on a succession of living pictures: on the eve of his first battle, the young Christoph Rilke, who has been appointed Cornet, rides on horseback to join his regiment; before his eyes—or in his memory—appear the mental images that compose the various scenes or episodes of the poem: his longing for his homeland, childhood games, conversations with his comrades, the horrors and anguish of war. Later, when the castle where he meets his mistress, a Countess, is attacked and set on fire by the Turks, the Cornet throws himself (and his flag) in their midst and is slaughtered by the enemy.