Every Angel is Terrifying
Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875. At Worpswede, he married Clara Westhoff, a pupil of the sculptor Rodin. Rilke was most productive in Paris, but traveled widely to Russia, Italy, Spain and Egypt as well. In 1919 he went to Switzerland and wrote his final works, the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. He died of leukemia in 1926.
It has become something of a cliche to say so, but Rilke's poetry does indeed seem to be imbued with an indwelling spirit. In his introduction, Robert Hass asserts, "His poems have the feeling of being written from a great depth in himself. . .They seem whispered or crooned into our inmost ear, insinuating us toward the same depth in ourselves. The effect can be hypnotic."
Here is the opening to "The First Elegy" of the Duino Elegies: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' / hierarches? and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed / in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains / to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying."
This is less reassuring than Romantic poet John Keats' formulation, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" from "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In Rilke's poem, the speaker refers to beauty's obliterating power and its indifference. Hass says that the angels are "absolute fulfillment" for Rilke or, if you will, perfected being. Confronted with such unutterable wholeness, one might well be teetering on the void.
On the other hand, in remarkable poems such as "The Panther," in his utter surrender, Rilke seems less to be writing about an animal than inhabiting its coiled essence, seeing through its unshuttered eyes: "It seems to him there are / a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world. // Only at times, the curtain of the pupils / lifts, quietly--. An image enters in, / rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles, / plunges into the heart and is gone."
William Carlos Williams said that "you can't get the news from poetry but men die everyday from the lack of what is found there." Rilke feeds the hunger.
(NOTE: Rilke's poetry is featured prominently in Wim Wenders' excellent film, "Wings of Desire").