Dear Rilke. If he were not a great poet, he might be one of the most purely annoying figures in the literary pantheon. Few poets have been responsible for as much bilge as Rilke has: he seems to be a magnet for a certain kind of literary narcissism. His invocations to self-insight and solitude can be easily softened into exhortations to mere self-regard or soft-centred spirituality, in the same way that Hollywood celebrities assure themselves that God loves them personally through determinedly vague readings of the Zorah. And Rilke’s moments of self-pity or mere fatuousness can seem to confirm your worst suspicions about the self-indulgence and preciousness of poets.
Not all of this is Rilke’s fault (although some of it is). Moreover, who of us could survive intact the reverent mythologising that has haunted Rilke’s legacy? And how many could survive his naivety? For one of his greatest strengths is his refusal to eschew what William Carlos Williams called “the essential naivety of the poet”. No one, not even a great poet, can survive this naivety without appearing at some point to be a fool. And perhaps only the very best and the very worst poets have the strength of mind to continue with that naivety once the world begins to mock it: the best because they see quite clearly that they have no choice but to seem foolish if they place their faith in poetry, and the worst because the world’s base mockery confirms them in their vain purity.
But I am already flinging around some big words – “faith”, “great”. It seems impossible to think about Rilke without them; but they apply in very contradictory ways. Contradiction, after all, lives in the heart of Rilke’s poetics. As William Gass points out, for a poet who hated organised Christianity, Rilke populated his poetry with enough Virgin Marys and angels to rival the Catholic Church. And I have no doubt that Rilke is a great poet: but what do I mean by that? I think I mean two things: his lack of embarrassment in the face of the numinous, by which I mean a certain courage (the other face of poetic naivety); and his sheerly beautiful language, which enacts the inarticulate vortices of passionate being. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in the ten poems that comprise the Duino Elegies.