Rainer Maria Rilke’s Buch der Bilder is a rich and subtle cycle of poems that has presented difficulties for many Rilke scholars. In this study, I begin by giving a brief overview of some of these difficulties, which are usually rooted in an adherence to biographical readings. I then move on to read key poems in the cycle, including “Auseinem April,” “Fragmente aus verlorenen Tagen,” “Die Engel” and “Der Schutzengel“.
In these poems, there is a theory of poetic language, which I bring out using the back drop of Rilke’s prose works, as well as through comparison with key ideas in his other poetic cycles. I argue that Rilke expresses the complexity of our relationship to the Absolute via poetic language and seeks, to use a phrase from Paul de Man, to create a “conscious poetic language” (de Man 9) and a corresponding, restructured ego that paradoxically shields us from the Absolute and simultaneously connects us to it. We have no direct access to the Absolute, but we are able, through poetry and a very special kind of gesture, to hear its echoes.
As Edward Snow notes in the introduction to his translation of Rilke’s Buch der Bilder, this cycle of poems is one of Rilke’s only pieces written over a long period of time,from 1899 to 1906 (Rilke, The Book of Images, x). This reinforces the view, common among commentators, that there is a collage-like heterogeneity of subjects covered in the cycle.
Rilke’s angels are not only invisible, but that they personifyhuman longing — they exist in pure experience, outside of any language, while humans are onlyallowed words for expression. Yet,
the angels in Rilke’s poetry have their own “angelcondition,” a realm of living simultaneously in both the present and the past and in the real andthe unreal. This condition is terrifyingly a state of both life and death and does not allow theangels to reciprocate or have a voice. So the angels witness and long for the power of human poetry, while humans long to live outside the limits of language
But it is not the heterogeneity of the poems that needs to be emphasized. The lack of coherence in the cycle is only apparent; it is not a ‘lost village of words,’ as Millicent Bellwould have it.
Das Buch der Bilder was composed the way that Rilke wanted to write, but hardly ever could: it is a product of slow and steady labor, at which he chipped away as though at sculpture in Rodin’s workshop, instead of being written in a burst like, for example, the
Rodin, at least Rilke’s idealized version of him, worked with joy and was able to drop quickly into concentration on his sculptures; his work followed the “call of Things,” which means the artist was able to allow the Things themselves to speak and also to speak through him; this calling, though subtle, is like a force of nature, which we see through Rilke’s use of the imagery of the garden.
The sculptures grow like plants,organically, which implies that Rodin’s work is not the product of a rigid imposition of discipline, but an overflowing and surplus of life. It also suggests that the sculptures ‘originate’ like plants, an idea that I will discuss below in relation to the flower in Romanticism.
This overflowing and surplus of life that is present in both the method of working and the works themselves means that the works are never finished and are in continuous transition. Rilke reports a visit to one of Rodin’s workshops:
Ich ging n Gedanken durch die ungeheueren WerkstŠtten und ich sah,da§ alles im Werden war und nichts eilte. Da stand, riesigzusammengeballt, der Denker, in Bronze, vollendet; aber er gehšrte ja inden immer noch wachsenden Zusammenhang des Hšllentors.
Da wuchs daseine Denkmal fur Victor Hugo heran, langsam, immerfort beobachtet, vielleicht noch Abenderungen ausgesetzt, und weiterhin standen dieanderen Entwurfe, werdend (Rilke, Werke 4, 477).
The imagery of the garden is heavily present throughout the Buch der Bilder, and plays a decisive role in Rilke’s essay, in which Rilke speaks of the cultivation of the ‘five gardens’ of the senses.This implies that we are capable of changing and expanding our senses, just as Malte Laurids Brigge is inthe process of learning how to see.
We see here Rilke’s ideal of the process of creative labor. Works are to be always to be im Werden, which corresponds also to Rilke’s idea of the artist, who works constantly. Even the completed Denker belongs to a background that is still in process, still liable to receive ‘amendments’. That poetic language is also ‘im Werden’, in becoming but not in Being, which is the inevitable failure of poetic language is an idea in which the present study will culminate.Because the constellations in the Buch der Bilder are were in process over many years, they are rather large, and are prematurely collapsed by matching lines with biographical details. But because of the perceived autobiographical nature of much of Rilke’s work, it seems to be the consensus among commentators that interpretation means exactly this type of matching. In a very informative dissertation on the Buch der Bilder, Karl Eugene Webb interprets the cycle of poems almost entirely from this standpoint, noting how important the time in which Rilke composed this cycle was:
The period in question is perhaps the most vital of any in Rilke’s life.These years take him from his first extended stay in Italy, through his trips to Russia, the months in Worpswede, his difficult sojourn in Westerwede,and finally to the overwhelming experiences in Paris (Webb 2).Webb goes on to say that the cycle contains poems from all the stages through whichRilke went from Italy to Paris (Webb 3-4). While these stages are interesting and valuablein themselves, emphasizing them fails to allow us to enter the constellations that the workitself presents.Webb himself argues that commentators fail to see the artistry of the Buch der Bilder :
Karin Langenheim, in an unpublished dissertation called “Das Buchder Bilder : Entstehung und Deutung,” comes closer to seeing these artistic qualities: “Das Hauptgewicht der Arbeit liegt auf der fortlaufenden Interpretation der vom Dichter ineiner bestimmten Reihenfolge angeordneten Gedichte” (Langenheim 5).
What she implies is that we need to treat the work as a finished product that Rilke himself arranged and as a unified work, a move that Webb says results in “a lack of clarity” (Webb 9). But poetic “clarity,” as well as poetic time, is not the same as that of the chronicler.
If we are to understand the artistic value of this piece, if we want our analysis to be more than simply informative, we need to enter the consciousness of the poet and understand what sense, clarity, and artistic quality mean to him. We are accordingly better served by pulling parts from Rilke’s poetry and prose works, which give us an idea of what creative labor was for Rilke and his particular orientation to the Absolute.