Summoning Angels: Judith Ryan on Rilke
Rilke, Modernism and the Poetic Tradition is a study that ‘traces the many ways in which contemporary culture is “constituted and contested” in Rilke’s work’ (3). In doing so, the author, Judith Ryan, breaks down the borders between supposedly separate periods in Rilke’s writing.
In dealing with the Duino Elegies, Ryan compares the treatment of Blake’s prophetic texts in Rudolf Kassner’s Die Mystyk, die Kunstler und das Leben (Mysticism, Artists and Life) to the feeling of Rilke’s elegies, because both are like ‘fragments of ancient epics’ that ‘develop spatial and visual imagery that resists ordinary logical modes of understanding’ (111). Ryan notes that Kassner was an influence on Rilke and that he might have drawn on any number of Kassner’s descriptions of Blake’s work including the visions of fiery angels. Rilke may also have been influenced by Kassner’s discussion of Burne-Jones and William Morris in relation to his vision of angels as ‘self-reflecting mirrors’ (112). Like Rilke, the Pre-Raphaelites were preoccupied with angels in paintings like The Annunciation, The Prioress’ Tale and The Flower of God in which ‘angels, architecture and the aesthetic are linked’ (112). Ryan wonders whether the patron of Rilke was ‘susceptible’ to angelology, ‘the special art of calling on one’s guardian angel’ (112).
Ryan decides to focus on the second elegy with a mind to explaining ‘why the angel appears in this context at all’ and she feels that Rilke’s interest in Blake does not explain it fully (113). Turning to Stefan George, Ryan notes that George describes a period of writer’s block as being cured after a vision of a ‘naked angel’, a figure who instructs the poet ‘to learn his art from the simpler and more straitened lines of gentler landscapes’ (113). Ryan compares George and Rilke and she suggests that there are similarities in ‘the agonised search for a way to express despair; a hope for renewal of the poetic faculty; and the angel as a figure for the aesthetic’ (113). However, unlike George, Rilke is ‘against a simplistic conception of the beautiful’ and he ‘discovers that great art must also take account of all that is ugly, unpleasant and horrifying’ (114).
In addition to the influence of George, Ryan also recalls two poems (written in an earlier work The Life of Mary) life entitled ‘The Annunciation to Mary’ and ‘On Mary’s Death’. Ryan suggests that these poems have similarities with the elegies due to similar ‘unusual vocabulary’ and ‘descriptions of real and psychological space’, and she notes that the episode where Tobias is led by Raphael is omitted from the Mary poems but included in the elegy in order to lament the missing angel. The loss of Raphael in the second elegy represents a loss of protection for the young according to Ryan.
Ryan also sees the influence of medieval mysticism. In Duino Elegies, Rilke ‘reworks this evocation of imaginary space’ that he has already experimented with in other poems in The Life of Mary. Rilke’s angel departs from Pre-Raphaelite representations, because it is ‘disembodied and almost unrepresentable, an abstract figure of the imagination, creativity and the aesthetic’ (115). In contrast, people, at least initially, ‘seem more solid than angels’, yet Rilke figures human beings too in insubstantial imagery (115). Ryan sees ‘continual interchange […] between one human being and another, between human beings and nature, between human beings and the space in which angels move’ (116). The human speaker is ‘overwhelmed by a sense of continual self-dissolution’ and wonders whether in this breakdown, ‘some small part […] might be captured by the angels’ (116).
In contrast, the act of love is eternal like the moment of a smile or the Romantic ‘eternal moment’. In addition, the lovers cannot explain what they experience in human language, just as Rilke cannot encapsulate the angel’s being in plain speech. In contemplating the eternal, Rilke also describes the ‘human gesture /on Attic gravestones’ (qtd. Ryan, 117). Ryan responds by wondering whether Rilke read Keats’ ‘On a Grecian Urn’ and she sees both poems as ‘a meditation on the transience of human existence’ as opposed to the immortalising qualities of art (118).
By the end of the second elegy, Rilke has positioned human beings between the earthly and the divine with an awareness that ‘human emotions’ can ‘transcend the limitations placed on bodily experience’ (119). However the ‘physical’ part of being cannot follow the ‘emotional’ part, so the divine remains distant as ‘a more moderated or balanced version of overwhelming human feeling’ (119). The reference to following the divine with one’s eyes, reminds Ryan of the Orpheus story which was so significant to Rilke’s work and she notes that the first elegy ends with a reference to Linos, Orpheus’ teacher, an allusion that directs the reader back to the origins of elegy in this mythic tradition. While the First Elegy poses the cathartic power of song, the second questions ‘aesthetic representations and religious belief’ (120). While the first elegy directs one away from an embodied angel to the ‘voices that still resonate in nature’, the second elegy ponders the loss in ‘the transience of human life and also that of cultural tradition’ (120). The everyday Biblical communications of the divine are gone and while love might take human beings some way towards further knowledge, neither love nor the aesthetic sphere are adequate replacements.
Ryan notes that critics have tended to ignore the piecemeal form in the Duino Elegies and she suggests that its structure offers ‘a collection of fragments that remain in human consciousness like broken columns from an earlier age’ (120). Similarly the angels themselves seem to be incomplete:
Bodily parts – hands and torsos – seem oddly disconnected, and facial expressions – a smile, an upward glance – appear independent of the body to which they belong. The sheer abstraction of their language brings these elegies closer to allegory, and yet it resists any kind of simplistic decoding that would yield an easily articulated message. It seems to speak to the deepest and most primitive layers of our consciousness, and yet to go beyond any merely human conception of reality. (121)
Ryan, Judith. Rilke, Modernism and the Poetic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.