This week I’ve been spending time in Ranier Maria Rilke’s The Book of Images. When I picked this book up at the Borders going-out-of-business sale, I really only had two motivations in mind:
1. The cover. I mean, look at it.
2. I love that Rilke quote you see on greeting cards: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
That quote came to me at a critical moment in my intellectual development as I was learning to accept ambiguity and take things for what they were, not what they should be. It still informs my tendency not to trust anyone who claims to have life pretty much figured out.
That being said, this was about the extent of my relationship with Rilke. Sure, I’d read a few poems of his during school, I’d flipped through some of his prose in libraries, but I hadn’t really spent any time on him to see if his poetry held the same magic as that quote. So when I finally sat down to read The Book of Images, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The translator of my edition, Edward Snow, writes about the scattered, quite heterogeneous nature of this book. Unlike the famous Book of Hours, The Book of Images was written over the course of eight years (1898-1906). Rilke was my age, 26, when he published the first edition. Snow tells us that The Book of Images tracks many phases in the young writer’s development as an artist. There are sections full of sprawling poem cycles about medieval kings and princesses, a series of laments from society’s castoffs, pleasant poems that carry on for pages and pages. Then there are the poems of five or ten lines that hit home like nothing else. For example, we see the same idea from my greeting card quote pop up again in “Initial” (Second Book Part 1):
Let your beauty manifest itself
without talking and calculation
The most immediately captivating verses, for me, are the ones in the book’s first section, part two. Here Rilke is short, sweet, and to the point. He writes boldly and bleakly and beautifully. Images, surely, are important to him, as are things or objects, tangibility. The overall thesis is the loveliness we find in sadness, in change, in watching the days slip away.
As it is Autumn, and I have been reading Rilke on crisp, sunny afternoons in the green and gold and black of dying afternoons (photo above taken on my parents’ back porch this afternoon). I think his series of fall poems are therefore the most apt to share. There’s “Autumn,” which begins:
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far off,
as if in the heavens distant gardens withered;
they fall with gestures that say “no.”
We also have “End of Autumn,” in which we have more withering gardens and he tells us that “something rises and acts/and kills and causes grief.” Like the leaves in the above lines, “the solemn ponderous relentlessly denying sky” haunts Rilke in this poem. Fall, it is clear, puts a stop to things.
My favorite of the three Autumn poems, “Autumn Day” similarly marches us away from the warmth of summer toward the frozen winter.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go free.
Command the last fruits to be full;
give them just two more southern days,
urge them on to completion and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, will never build one.
Who is alone now, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lines streets, when the leaves are drifting.
For some reason this poem sums up perfectly my feelings as we turn our clocks back and settle in for the dark winter. “The summer was immense,” and that is comfort enough for a while. Aloneness, restlessness don’t seem as much a punishment as an inevitability. Darkness isn’t something to shrink from as much as wonder at, a home to deep reserves of meaning. Rilke writes in “On the Edge of Night” a few poems later:
…I am a string,
stretched tightly over wide
Things are violin-bodies
full of murmuring darkness
“Murmuring darkness” intrigues me. I am sitting in my room this evening with only a small light to stave off the early night. I hate this time of year—leaving for work in the dark, leaving the office in the dark, driving packed roads full of harsh headlights and coming home to a cold, dark house. It’s hard not to feel sad sometimes. It is with this anxiety I have approached Rilke this week, and it is here where I see The Book of Images speaking to me. Just as the greeting card tells us to “live the questions,” I read from Rilke’s poems that we are to live the darkness, the fall and winter, and tune into the possibilities therein.