One of Rilke’s main preoccupations in the Duino Elegies is the way that we human beings cannot feel ‘at home’ in the world; the way that we, with our self-consciousness and our thinking and our reasoning, always (or often) feel ourselves to be standing somehow apart from the world rather than belonging to it. This is expressed most hauntingly in the Eighth Elegy, in which Rilke laments the human predicament of seeing always ‘form’ (‘Gestaltung’) rather than ‘the Open’ (‘das Offne’) which animals and perhaps young children see:
Wir haben nie, nicht einen einzigen Tag,
den reinen Raum vor uns, in den die Blumen
[We never, even for a single day,
have before us that pure space in which flowers
We are never ‘in’ the world as the rest of nature is in it; rather, we stand ‘over against’ it: ‘Dieses heisst Schicksal: gegenüber sein / und nichts als das und immer gegenüber’ [This is what we call fate: to be opposed [the German word ‘gegenüber’ has the stronger, more spatial sense of ‘against-over’] / and nothing but that, and always opposed]. In this Elegy, it seems to be our continual and necessary conceptualising (seeing ‘form’) that sets us over-against the world. Jeff Wainwright expresses the same thought in his poem ‘by categories do we maister [master] the world’ when he writes ‘we are made lonely by our categories / for nothing else owns them’ (Clarity or Death!, Carcanet, 2008, p. 27).
In this context it strikes us all the more powerfully, even joyfully, when we find in the Ninth Elegy what can only, I think, be read as a passionate statement of the value, the necessity even, of poetry, and by extension of human being and language. Rilke begins the elegy by posing the question: why the need to be human? He suggests that it is
…weil Hiersein viel ist, und weil uns scheinbar
alles das Hiesige braucht, dieses Schwindende, das
seltsam uns angeht. …
[because being-here is much, and because it seems that
everything fleetingly here needs us,
addresses itself strangely to us]
Why does the world need us?
… Sind wir vielleicht hier, um zu sagen: Haus,
Brücke, Brunnen, Tor, Krug, Obstbaum, Fenster, –
höchstens: Säule, Turm… aber zu sagen, verstehs,
oh zu sagen so, wie selber die Dinge niemals
innig meinten zu sein. …
[Perhaps we are here in order to say ‘house’,
‘bridge’, ‘fountain’, ‘gate’, ‘jug’, ‘fruit tree’, ‘window’ –
at most ‘column’, ‘tower’… but to speak them, [you] understand,
oh to speak them thus, as things themselves never
intended to be [or perhaps ‘never thought they could be’]]
This ‘speaking things into being’, then, is the answer to the question ‘why the need to be human?’, and Rilke gives it emphatic summation in what can only be read as a moment of revelation, both a credo and an imperative for any poet:
Hier ist des Säglichen Zeit, hier seine Heimat.
Sprich und bekenn.
[Here is the time of the sayable, here is its home.
Speak and make known.]
The sense here of having reached the centre of things, the important and vital and true thing, is so palpable and so solid that it almost seems like a stone you could hold in your hand. There is a huge sense of relief, it seems to me, at having reached down through all the unhappiness and sense of lostness and unbelonging and found at last this genuine reason why we, as human beings, do belong in the world.
More than belonging, in fact: it could be said that we are required by the world; even that we in some sense make the world. Rilke’s statement that ‘here’ (in the world) is both the time and the place, the homeland, of the ‘säglich’, the speakable, the sayable, that-which-can-be-said, seems to me to have Kantian resonances. Kant’s argument in the Critique of Pure Reason is that the world has the shape and form it has because we necessarily experience it in accordance with the fundamental conceptual structures of our thinking and perceiving, fundamental structuring ‘rules’ (such as the concepts of number, causality, and especially time and space) which he terms ‘categories’. Certainly the world exists; it is not a figment of our minds, nor (as in Berkeley’s version of idealism) of God’s mind; but we shape it, we conceptualise and, therefore, speak it into its specificity.
Rilke’s emphasis on the sayable seems to me to ascribe a similarly constitutive role to human, which is to say conceptual and linguistic, being. Despite our seeming so often and so fundamentally at odds with, over-against, the world, in fact the world needs us to bring it into form, to mean, as it were, on its behalf. This is a triumphant reversal of the despairing thought in the Eighth Elegy, that it is our relentless arranging and forming and shaping and reflecting that sets us forever opposed to, unable to live within, the ‘open’, the imagined ‘pure space’ in which the flower blooms. On the contrary, the Ninth Elegy asserts: the flower (like the house, bridge, fountain) can only be brought into its specific, formed being within the time and space of the sayable.
What then is the role of the poet? It is, surely, to ‘make known’; to say how things are. And this is all the more vital because of the essentially ephemeral nature of all things, including of course each one of us, which Rilke sums up in a passage of stunning intensity (following the lines quoted above in which he states that all fleeting things need us):
… Uns, die Schwindendsten. Ein Mal
jedes, nur ein Mal. Ein Mal und nichtmehr. Und wir auch
ein Mal. Nie wieder. Aber dieses
ein Mal gewesen zu sein, wenn auch nur ein Mal :
irdisch gewesen zu sein, scheint nicht widerrüfbar.
[Us, the most fleeting of all. Once only,
just once. Once and no more. And us too,
once. Never again. But to have existed
this once, even if only once: to
have been earthly; this cannot be gainsaid.]
The lines are a kind of crying-out, the poet not merely describing but enacting, through the painful and emphatic repetition of ‘ein Mal’ (‘once’, literally ‘one time’), the devastating Angst (existential anguish) that accompanies our realisation of our own mortality, and the necessarily accompanying sense of responsibility – not just to ourselves but to the world, which needs us, turns (angeht) to us in order that we may give it expression. It is, finally, our role to bear witness to the nature of earthly (irdisch) being:
Preise dem Engel die Welt…
ihm das Einfache, das, von Geschlecht zu Geschlechtern gestaltet,
als ein Unsriges lebt, neben der Hand und im Blick.
Sag ihm die Dinge. Er wird staunender stehn; wie du standest
bei dem Seiler in Rom, oder beim Töpfer am Nil.
[Praise the world to the angel…
him a simple thing, something that, formed from one age to another,
lives as something that is ours, near to hand and within sight.
Speak to him of things. He will stand astonished, as you stood
by the rope-maker in Rome or the potter by the Nile.]
The emphasis here on the ‘simple’ thing, the thing that is ‘near to hand’ and ‘in sight’, a solid and physical thing, surely echoes back to the time Rilke spent watching Rodin at work in his studio, and to the transformative (and characteristically modernist) emphasis in the New Poems on the ‘thing’ – both the object that is the subject of the poem, and the poem itself, as a made thing. It is also of course paradoxical: the apparently simplest of earthly ‘things’ is always at the same time marvellously complex, just as rope-making and pot-making (and sculpting and writing poetry) require skill and thought and painstaking attentiveness. Earthly being, in its infinite variety, is extraordinary, and the Elegy ends on a note of joyful praise:
… Überzahliges Dasein
entspringt mir im Herzen.
springs up in my heart]
‘Sprich und bekenn’: speak, make known. This, this ‘ein Mal’, this once-only earthly life, is the time and the place of the sayable.