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The Poet’s Metaphysical Role

Rilke thought that the point of poetry was to immortalize that which is transitory. Peter Rickman explains.

“Why have to be human?” the poet Rilke asks in the first sentence of his 9th Duino Elegy. He answers in the next sentence: “Because being here amounts to so much, because all this here and now so fleeting seems to require us and strangely concerns us.” A little later he elucidates this claim. “Are we perhaps here just for saying: house, bridge, window…? But for saying, remember, oh for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be” and just a little later “here is the time for the sayable. Here is its home. Speak and proclaim”, and continues a little later: “Earth isn’t this what you want: an invisible re-arising in us? Is it not your dream to be one day invisible? Earth! … Invisible! … Earth, beloved, I will.”

There is no mystery about some aspects of this. To talk to and then receive messages, from what we normally do not consider partners to conversation is a familiar poetic device. Larks, mice and ancient urns have been so addressed: outside poetry, we do so only playfully as when we talk to the cat or urge the kettle to boil. It has been suggested that all this harks back to the times when all nature was thought to be animated: nymphs in the streams and the sun driven by a God.

The idea that poetry immortalises is also familiar from poems ranging from Horace to Shakespeare. It is clear from the poem – though my quotations are selective – that Rilke sees the function of a poet in immortalising what is transitory. Nor is it obscure how earth is made invisible. In a poem about a rose we are presented with words instead of an object we can see, touch and smell. The rose in the poem is then not bound by time and space and does not fade. All this does not really explain why things should ‘require’ us, or the earth, should want the poet to translate it into words. Is this just a sentimental effusion in self-justification on Rilke’s part, or is it, as I want to argue, a thought-through expression of a metaphysical project assigning a special role to the poet in the scheme of things?

What makes – I am convinced – R.M.Rilke one of the major poets of modern Europe, is that he combined an extraordinary ear for rhymes, rhythms and a gift for bold imaginative metaphors with serious reflection on life and human destiny. Here in passing are just two examples of his intellectual alertness. An important insight of modern psychiatry is succinctly represented in his line, “anxiety is but the gesture, and longing is its meaning’’, and it is surely relevant to, and indeed prophetic of much that has happened in our time when he writes in the Duino Elegies “Every sudden turn of the age has such disinherited ones to whom neither the past nor the future belongs.” He constantly developed original ideas, which can best be described as philosophical, though of course, they did not figure in logical chains of arguments. There is, for example, little doubt that he anticipated and possibly influenced some of Heidegger’s ideas. I must confess that I do not know how much Rilke knew of technical philosophy. Where I make cross-references to academic philosophy I am offering interpretations of what could provide a meaningful context for his assertions and do not claim specific influences. Had Rilke read Kant? Had he been told about Immanuel Kant’s ideas by friends, or did these ideas reach him more indirectly? I have no answers to these questions.

We are still on firm ground if we can clarify what Rilke meant by the earth. He clearly was not referring to the planet as against other planets such as Mars and Jupiter. Still less did he refer merely to the ground we tread on. We are closer when we identify it with nature, the whole natural world. More interesting and challenging is the link he made to God. He extensively retells, embroiders and interprets biblical stories. There are poems on the Annunciation, Jesus in the garden of olives and a whole cycle of poems on the Virgin Mary. His Book of Hours, by its very title suggests the poems it contains are a collection of prayers. In them God is referred to in a deluge of metaphors. God is the tower around which the speaker circles, the forest in which he walks, the wheel, the spokes of which periodically come close to him, the battering ram in a siege, the shadow that falls over the book that she reads and so forth. God appears not so much as a person but as the pervasive object of Rilke’s passionate aspirations. It appears to be pantheism rather than monotheism. We glimpse the identification of God with nature.

There is some interesting evidence for his treating God as the pervasive object of his passion rather than a personal God. When he was involved in a fervent affair with Lou Salomé he sent her a passionate poem. He would come to her even without feet, he would harbour her in his heart, and if it were torn out, he would harbour her in his brain, and if that were on fire he would carry her in his blood. Well, that same poem figures, as addressed to God, in The Book of Hours.

To this incomplete paraphrase of the poem in The Book of Hours I add a quotation from the same source thematically linked to the passages with which I started. “For God everything is inside him, he only lost the songs. Then I come to his knees and the songs slowly flow back into him.” There are other poems that reflect Rilke’s view of the interaction between poetry and the world. So if we discard dreams of vanity on the poet’s part and recognise him as a serious thinker (even if we do not necessarily agree with his conclusions) what makes sense of earth’s need for the poet’s service? My thesis is that Kant’s transcendental idealism, or more precisely, the derivatives from it, will do the job.

To make sense of nature’s need for us requires a world, which is not solidly outside of us as realism assumes. The world, nature, must be partly our own creation. Kant was convinced that we bring to empirical experience some ideas, which are not themselves derived from it. For example, if something happens and we are convinced, without needing evidence for it, that something caused it to happen then this justifies us looking for such a cause. What, then, Kant asks, would be the most satisfactory, least extravagant assumption to account for any knowledge that precedes experience? His answer is that formal features of the empirical world are superimposed by the way our minds work in cognition. The usual illustration – though we are not, of course, talking about colours – is in terms of tinted spectacles. If tinted spectacles were irremovably fixed over our eyes then whatever we saw, however strange and new it might be, would have a tinge of green. Put the other way, if we found that we could confidently expect everything we encountered to be greenish we might explain this most simply by the presence of such spectacles. It was in this sense that Kant could claim that our understanding was “the lawgiver of nature”.

This theory, which Kant called his ‘Copernican Revolution’ because it claimed that the nature of objects was partly determined by the state of the observer, revolutionised subsequent intellectual life. Poets in particular were delighted by the idea that the human mind was creative and not just a slate on which experience wrote its letters. Here we do not need to pursue Kant’s theory of the categories, based on logical forms of judgements as structuring experience, because some of his successors took a further step relevant to our present concern. Given that the human mind organises and structures the data given in experience, and we have to hold onto those given data if the world is not to be the mind’s dream, it may be more appropriate to think of our whole system of language, rather than a fixed number of logical categories, as the structuring agent. Not only neo-Kantians like Ernst Cassirer went down this road but also Nietzsche who was somewhat disinclined to acknowledge his debt to Kant. Heidegger called language ‘the house of being’ in which man dwelt. Derrida paradoxically asserted there was nothing outside the text. Linguists and semanticists also pursued the way our language structures our experiences and the interpretations we place on them. Here there is no need to document this trend further as we already have a glimpse of the link to Rilke’s assertions.

Language is, obviously, the medium of the poet, as stone is that of the sculptor and as the latter needs to give close attention to, and shape his medium so too does the poet. Poets have again and again emphasised their responsibility for language. T.S. Eliot speaks of “purifying the language of the tribe.” Yeats describes his persistent effort at poetry as “bringing his thought to a pitch” which mirrors the object as in a glass. Shelley thought of poets as unacknowledged legislators.

Poetry aims at the effective expression of what has not been expressed before, or expressed inadequately. The reader of a good poem is apt to say: yes, that is what I thought or felt, but I could not express it, or express it adequately. The poet is a pioneer in the continuous creation of language through which we catch reality. So if the structure and organisation of the world around us is dependent on our ordering minds then things indeed need us. Without conceptualisation – i.e. invisible arising within us – there would be only, in Kant’s phrase “a rhapsody of impressions, less even than a dream.” If then the poet is in the vanguard of creating, developing and purifying language, it imposes on him the responsibility of providing what nature requires.

In recognising the role of language in structuring nature as we experience it, it throws light on other relations between the two. The two remain recognisably distinct and cannot be merged into each other. Nature is not just a linguistic edifice and language is meaningless if it does not refer beyond itself. We need to preserve the notion of experience as an encounter and of language illuminating that encounter. Once we accept the system of language, rather than Kant’s categories as imposing form on the given, we get an echo of Plato’s forms. Linguistic signs can only effectively serve communication if their meaning is timelessly fixed (or if proper notice is given of any change). Individual horses vary in numerous ways: they all grow old or get sick and die. But when I say “there is a horse galloping down the road” the concepts used do not depend on the time of day and are not subject to flux or change. The word ‘horse’ embodies what makes a horse recognisable as a horse, i.e. the essence of what it is to be a horse. So when the poet celebrates, or conjures up (to use Rilke’s own phrases) objects of the world he not only makes them invisible but timeless. We recapture the pure meaning that we originally superimposed on our data. Here the poet has a special role because he does not merely use language for everyday business of informing, requiring and so on, but focuses directly on language itself as a unique medium.

What I have suggested is not a comprehensive account of Rilke’s complex thought, nor am I denying that Rilke’s metaphysics of the poet’s role is extreme and controversial. One only needs to think of Plato’s violent rejection of the poet’s claim to a central role in the life of the intellect. The idea of the poet as just a dreamer or entertainer dies hard. Dedicated poets such as Rilke argued for a very different view of poetry. I have here developed a line of thought along which their claim might be philosophically supported.

© Prof. Peter Rickman 2002

Peter Rickman is visiting professor of Philosophy at the City University, London.

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