Open-eyed, Rainer Maria Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926. The leukemia which killed him had been almost reluctantly diagnosed, and had struck like a storm, after a period of gathering clouds. Ulcerous sores appeared in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines, he slept a lot when his body let him, his spirit was weighed down by depression, while physically he became as thin and fluttery as a leaf. Since, according to the gloom that naturally descended on him, Rilke's creative life was over, he undertook translations during his last months: of Valery in particular -- "Eupalinos," "The Cemetery by the Sea " -- and composed his epitaph, too, invoking the flower he so devotedly tended.
rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one's sleep beneath so many lids.
The myth concerning the onset of his illness was, even among his myths, the most remarkable. To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well. According to the preferred story, this was the way Rilke's disease announced itself, although Ralph Freedman, his judicious and most recent biographer, puts that melancholy event more than a year earlier.
Roses climb his life as if he were their trellis. Turn the clock back twenty-four years to 1900. Rilke is a guest at Worpswede, an artists' colony near Bremen, and it is there he has made the acquaintance of the painter Paula Becker and his future wife, Clara Westhoff. One bright Sunday morning, in a romantic mood, Rilke brings his new friends a few flowers, and writes about the gesture in his diary:
I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt; only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.
The poet never forgets a metaphor. Nor do his friends forget the poet's passions. Move on to 1907 now, when, in Capri, Rilke composes "The Bowl of Roses," beginning this poem with an abrupt jumble of violent images:
You've seen their anger flare, seen two boys
bunch themselves into a ball of animosity
and roll across the ground
like some dumb animal set upon by bees;
you've seen those carny barkers, mile-high liars,
the careening tangle of bolting horses,
their upturned eyes and flashing teeth,
as if the skull were peeled back from the mouth.
Bullyboys, actors, tellers of tall tales, runaway horses -- fright, force, and falsification -- losing composure, pretending, revealing pain and terror: these are compared to the bowl of roses. Rilke has come from Berlin, where his new publisher, Insel Verlag, has been distressed to discover that Rilke's former publisher plans to bring out The Book of Hours
as well as a revised Cornet
. This does not get the new alliance off to a smooth and trusting start. Moreover, Rilke is broke again. During 1906, the poet had been bankrolled by his friend Karl von der Heydt, who twice generously deposited funds in Rilke's Paris bank, but Rilke's habit of staying in deluxe hotels and eating (modestly) in expensive restaurants, his dependence upon porters and maids and trains, had left him holding nothing more than his ticket to Alice Faehndrich's Villa Discopoli on Capri. Von der Heydt sent him some supplementary funds eventually, but not before making a face. Perhaps these unpleasantries account for the poem's oddly violent and discordant opening.
But now you know how to forget such things,
for now before you stands the bowl of roses,
unforgettable and wholly filled
with unattainable being and promise,
a gift beyond anyone's giving, a presence
that might be ours and our perfection.
More than a bowl was set before him. Though the New Year was approaching, the island was abloom with winter roses, and Rilke's cottage, on the grounds of the villa, was covered with them.
Living in silence, endlessly unfolding,
using space without space being taken
from a space even trinkets diminish;
scarcely the hint there of outline or ground
they are so utterly in, so strangely delicate
and self-lit--to the very edge:
is it possible we know anything like this?
And then like this: that a feeling arises
because now and then the petals kiss?
And this: that one should open like an eye,
to show more lids beneath, each closed
in a sleep as deep as ten, to quench
an inner fire of visionary power.
And this above all: that through these petals
light must make its way. Out of one thousand skies
they slowly drain each drop of darkness
so that this concentrated glow
will bestir the stamens till they stand.
The rose is a distilling eye. It gathers light and filters it until the concentration is powerful and pure, until its stamens become erect. If the rose is not a poem, the poem is surely a rose.
And the movement in the roses, look:
gestures which make such minute vibrations
they'd remain invisible if their rays
did not resolutely ripple out into the wide world.
Look at that white one which has blissfully unfolded
to stand amidst its splay of petals
like Venus boldly balanced on her shell;
look too at the bloom that blushes, bends
toward the one with more composure,
and see how the pale one aloofly withdraws;
and how the cold one stands, closed upon itself,
among those open roses, shedding all.
And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy,
a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask -- it just depends --
and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.
E. M. Butler, whose Rilke of 1941 was the first biography of the poet to appear in English, writes:
"There is no doubt that roses cast a spell upon Rilke. Monique Saint-Helier recounts how he once sent her some fading flowers to die with her [sic
-- Butler means "to die in her company"], because he was going away. His description of a vase of falling roses in Late Poems represents him as keeping them in his room until they were really dead, when he embalmed their petals in books and used them for pot-pourri. Rilke's roses were always explicitly in enclosed spaces: in death-bed chambers, in his study at night, in rose-bowls, bringing summer into a room, bestrewing the chimney-piece as they shed their petals. And even in his garden at Muzot, they seemed to be clad in pink silk boudoir-gowns and red summer dresses, like carefully tended and cherished, fragrant and fragile hothouse blooms."
The poet collects the world inside himself as the rose gathers the light of the skies, and there he intensifies it until the phallic element of the flower dominates the symbol. Eventually the rose bestrews itself. Petals, like poems, leave their tree. The beautiful unity the rose once was now becomes a fall of discoloring shards; yet these petals can help us see to another part of the world as through a stained-glass window.
What can't they be? Was that yellow one,
lying there hollow and open, not the rind
of a fruit in which the very same yellow
was its more intense and darkening juice?
And was this other undone by its opening,
since, so exposed, its ineffable pink
has picked up lilac's bitter aftertaste?
And the cambric, is it not a dress
to which a chemise, light and warm as breath,
still clings, though both were abandoned
amid morning shadows near the old woodland pool?
And this of opalescent porcelain
is a shallow fragile china cup
full of tiny shining butterflies --
and there -- that one's holding nothing but itself.
Later, in the August of an emptied Paris, Rilke will compose a poem about the interior of the rose: it is first an Inside awaiting its Outside, then a bandaged wound, at last a lake full of the sky's reflection. When the rose is blown and the petals part, they fill, as if fueling for the journey, with inner space, finally overflowing into the August days, until summer becomes ein Zimmer in einem Traum -- a room in a dream. But it is "The Bowl of Roses" which remains Rilke's great rose-poem.
And aren't they all that way? just self-containing,
if self-containing means: to transform the world
with its wind and rain and springtime's patience
and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate
and the darkness of evening earth and even
the changing clouds, coming and going,
even the vague intercession of distant stars,
into a handful of inner life.
It now lies free of care in these open roses.
It would be tempting to organize Rilke's biography around such themes, because the themes are there: the significance of the rose, the mirror, the unicorn, the puppet, the fountain, or the pathos (as for Poe) of the death of a young woman; his increasing "belief" in animism (that all things, as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.
Rilke's parents had lost a daughter the year before they begot Rene (as he was christened); hoping for another daughter to replace her, and until he was ready to enter school, his mother, Phia, got him up girlishly, combed his curls, encouraged him to call his good self Sophie, and handled him like a china doll, cooing and cuddling him until such time as he was abruptly put away in a drawer. Later, with a mournful understanding that resembled Gertrude Stein's, Rilke realized that someone else had had to die in order to provide him with a place in life.
Copyright © 1999 by William H. Gass. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.