Rainer Maria Rilke: Living is only a part … what of?

13 Oct

Today I am sharing some stanzas from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Requiem” which touched me deeply. If you search for Rilke’s Requiem, you are likely to find the one written for his painter-friend Paula Modersohn-Becker, but for me, this “Requiem” written for Gretel Kottmeyer is more poignant and poetic. On 20 November 1900, in a letter from his future wife Clara Westhoff (he married her in March 1901), Rilke received news of the death of Clara’s friend Gretel Kottmeyer, the “poor girl who has died in the South”. Touched by Clara’s words and compassionate with her sorrow, Rilke at once started composing in his head what will be his first great Requiem, published in his poetry collection “The Book of Images”. The Requiem was dedicated to Clara and Rilke also imagined her to be the one narrating the poem, she is the voice to tell the tale. The verses I have shared here truly make me tremble, both my body and soul, and I love that Rilke views death as something greater, better than life, not something we should dread but something to look forward to as returning to our true selves. This life is an illusion, a dream, it isn’t something to be taken as seriously as we generally do. Gretel died, she didn’t take her own life, although these verses indicate a joyous acceptance of death; she lets it go, Gretel lets life go and opens her eyes from a grey dream to something more, she now knows the truths and mysteries that we yet do not:

Living is thus but a dream of a dream,

but awakeness is elsewhere.

So you let it go.

Greatly you let it go.

And we knew you as small.

From time to time, I love to indulge in thoughts of death. I sink into reveries of being nothing anymore, no future, no past, no chances, no regrets; rotting quietly like flowers in a vase while ivy is wrapping itself around my weak bones. It’s pleasant to imagine the end of all struggles and attachments… Fantasising about death makes me appreciate life more because I become aware of all the beautiful things that I can experience and feel only if I am alive, and when living becomes a matter of my choice and not a burden I am forced to carry, day to day life becomes not only more bearable but also tinged with a certain magic! And I stumbled upon something similar in a book: “… it is precisely in and through imaginations of death – be it in suicidal fantasy or (as in the case of Rilke’s “Requiem”) other means of forging direct contact with the other side – that soul reality distinguishes itself most sharply from mere corporeal existence: “Suicide fantasies provide freedom from the actual and usual view of things, enabling one to meet the realities of the soul.” (Daniel Joseph Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus – RILKE: A Soul History) So, reading this Requiem makes me more accepting of death, but also more joyous about life and its endless beauties while it’s still here. I am full of rapture when I think that this life is a but a dream! Oh what joy! To be living a dream till we awake one day in the real world.

Requiem

 

You know

how the almond trees bloom

and that lakes are blue.

Many things felt only by the woman

who has known first love,

you know. Nature whispered to you

in the South’s late-fading days

beauty so endless

as else only the happy lips

of happy people say, who, two by two,

have one word and one voice –

more gently you sensed all that,-

(o how the unending grim

touched your unending humility)

Your letters came from the South,

warm still with sun, but orphaned,-

at last you yourself followed after

your weary beseeching letters;

for you did not like being in the light,

every colour lay on you like guilt,

and you lived in impatience,

for you knew: This is not the whole.

Living is only a part … what of?

Living is only a tone … what in?

Living has sense only joined with many

circles of far-increasing space,-

Living is thus but a dream of a dream,

but awakeness is elsewhere.

So you let it go.

Greatly you let it go.

And we knew you as small.

(…)

See here,

This wreath is so heavy.

And they will lay it upon you,

This heavy wreath.

Can your coffin endure it?

If it breaks

Under the black weight,

Into the folds of your dress

Will creep

Ivy.

Far up will it twine,

All around you will it twine…

(….)

Even if storm and rage tomorrow,

That will not hurt the flowers much.

They will be brought to you. You have the right

Surely to have them, my child,

And even if tomorrow they are black and bad

And faded long ago.

Fear not for that. You will no longer

Distinguish what rises or falls;

Colors are closed, and tones are empty,

And you won’t even know any longer

Who brings you all the flowers.

Oh sleeper Alexandra / 2018, found here.

2 Responses to “Rainer Maria Rilke: Living is only a part … what of?”

  1. Frank Hudson 13th Oct 2019 at 6:53 pm #

    Oh wow, another great early Rilke poem. And to read this after finishing work on translating his “Autumn Day’ for myself and then eventually to perform. This one is likely too long for either, but still….

    Anyway, gave you a shout-out to Bryon’s Muse for introducing me to “Autumn Days” when I posted my performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 17th Oct 2019 at 8:42 pm #

      Oh wow, you felt inspired to translate Rilke’s poem, that’s wonderful! Thank you for the shout-out 🙂 I’m always very happy to share poetry I love and hopefully others will appreciate it too

      Like

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