‘Revelation’ and Rilke’s Tenth Elegy

The heavenly entities that constitute a key recurring motif in Rilke’s Duino Elegies are conjured, and amplified, as a somehow very tangible absence. The amplification of an angelic ‘presence’ is a crescendo that leads to the expansive imagery of the Tenth Elegy: a worldly poem that nonetheless reaches for the stars. In fact, stellar constellations are an important ‘retrospective’ element in this last of the sequence. The poet describes a partial zodiac of figures that supposedly appears in the sky and which comprises a series of symbols drawn from across the sequence of elegies. The youth, the central protagonist of the poem, is shown them by the personification of Die Klage (‘Lament’, in Martyn Crucefix’s translation) near the climax of the journey that the poem traces. It is as if Rilke is responding to the idea of a revealed vision in the manner of the author of the biblical Revelation. We seem, however, to be in a strangely opposed realm from the context where the messages of the seven churches in Asia are dictated, from Chapter 2 of Saint John’s mysterious and harrowing text.

The realm in which Rilke’s elegies are constituted is characterised by psychical entropy; not for the poet’s Weltanschauung is the post-millennial vignette sketched at the conclusion of the biblical apocalypse. In fact, Rilke’s universe seems to be coterminous with fairly recent models of the ‘real’ one, formulated by cosmologists – a trillion-year decline and decay from the spark of the primeval atom. The vast, open silence of the future, ancient, universe becomes an estuary to the entire process of the cosmos, and finally an infinitely deep ocean into which literally all history inevitably flows. Rilke, again, intimates a similar notion. The notes to Martyn Crucefix’s translation of the Duino Elegies suggest that we remain in ignorance of the true source of joy with which the Tenth Elegy’s protagonist becomes acquainted. Certainly its name appears to be withheld. At the base of a precipice, the true source of joy ‘flows’, shining in the light of the moon. Life, therefore, seems to be defined as the Heracleitian flux that often generates the discomfort of change; nowhere more eloquently illustrated than by the fear implied in Revelation, and the hope invested in its time-less vision of heaven.

Rilke does not name the river, because in some sense the nomenclature is obvious: ‘the river of the water of life’, crystal clear – but not as the Bible envisions those waters. For the poet, it is the spring rain, falling – not the rising springs of a renewed Edenic, ‘post-apocalyptic’, paradise – that rings true. The joy of falling towards the next state is the promise at the end of his elegy cycle. Is it at that stage, too, that we might hear an echo of the cry uttered at the beginning of the First Elegy? The tree on an incline (the first ‘place’ described or imagined in the sequence, near the beginning of the first poem) is the budding tree at whose roots we may believe ourselves to have arrived in the last lines of the Tenth Elegy. Perhaps that tree in the first poem is the Hazel tree, where the catkins droop and fall in parallel with the slope where it grows, that makes a promise to eternal cosmic winter in the eight-line ballad that closes Rilke’s funeral song.

Perhaps the change that Revelation seems to fear, and that Rilke embraces, is the change to which Rowan Williams refers when he discusses Rilke in his Hulsean Sermon (‘Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge’, 25 January 2009). Change as a result of the realisation of an objective-subjective reversal – the outside looking in, or, in Dr Williams’s words, ‘you thought you were doing and you find you are being done to’. The universe of the Duino Elegies is one that knows us, not that we come to know: in the diminuendo of the universal song, we are being sung, and can no longer regard ourselves being in the flow of praising the angels.

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About davidlewistonsharpe
Composer, poet, harpsichordist and artist.

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