...Quite pure of forethought, futureless and free
I mounted suffering’s tangled, criss-crossed pyre,
so sure there was no purchase to acquire
for this heart’s future, all its store now silent.
What burns there, so transmuted? Is that I?
Into this fire I drag no memory.
To be alive, alive: to be outside.
And I ablaze. With no one who knows me.
Rilke’s Last Encounter With an Angel; Scott Horton in Harper's Bazaar (2007)
History knows several tales concerning great artists on their death beds, straining with superhuman strength to complete a final last work, a work filled with pathos and a great sense of mortality. The best known of these, perhaps, is the tale of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, KV 626. In the Romantic era, the circumstances surrounding the creation of this work were mystified. Death, it was said, paid a call to Mozart to commission it, and Mozart fully understood the circumstances. He was, it was said, writing his own requiem. Of course, spoil-sport academics have since documented that the piece was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted to pass it off as his own, and who had used a series of cloaked intermediaries to disguise the fact that he was the patron. The Requiem is, nonetheless, a magnificent work, one of Mozart’s greatest. It would have that position with or without the legend. And notwithstanding Count von Walsegg and his artifices, one does have a great sense of reconciliation to death in this work. It is extraordinary in that respect, much like Bach’s great cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (Actus Tragicus, BWV 106).
One has to wonder about Rilke’s last poem, “Komm du” in much the same way. This was found as the last entry in his last notebook. It is accordingly unclear whether Rilke considered the poem to be a finished work or merely something in progress. In fact, there is a notation at the end which may be taken as a note Rilke scribbled to himself:
Verzicht. Das ist nicht so wie Krankheit war
einst in der Kindheit. Aufschub. Vorwand um
größer zu werden. Alles rief und raunte.
Misch nicht in dieses was dich früh erstaunte
Relinquishment. It’s not the way sickness was
once in childhood. Procrastination. A pretense
in order to be greater. Cries and murmurs.
Don’t mix into this the things that surprised you early on.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2, p. 511.
So I don’t take it as a given that the work was brought to fruition in Rilke’s mind. Nevertheless, this poem is amazing. It is one of the greatest poems in the German language, or in any other. And it has the distinctive character of finality about it, not in the sense of being completed, but rather of being a last work. It does not reach to being completed. To the contrary, it aims to be and is transitional, passing from one state to another. That indeed appears in the very first words, “Komm du, du letzter”: a voice summons or beckons. This poem wears the lack of finality like a sort of accomplishment in itself.
A collection of Taliban Poetry has just been published, with a preface by Faisal Devji, an assistant professor of history at the New School in New York, whose work focuses on Islam, globalisation, ethics, and violence.
Which one of these two should I do?
I should either take up stones or a sickle.
I am afraid to become a fire and be burned.
Due to this crazy world of yours
Craziness is biting at my neck.
In the past, that was the role of
The wild beast, but now humans
Bite humans. They are not content
With their dignity. Out of their
Ingratitude, they bite the sky.
The book's website, hither.
An excerpt from its description:
Their verse is fervent, and very modern in its criticism of human rights abuses by all parties to the war in Afghanistan; whether in describing an air strike on a wedding party or lamenting, “We did all of this to ourselves,” it is concerned not with politics, but with identity, and a full, textured, deeply conflicted humanity.
It is such impassioned descriptions – sorrowfully defeated, triumphant and enraged, bitterly powerless or bitingly satirical – and not the austere arguments of myriad analysts, that will finally come to define the war and endure as a record of the conflict.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rainer Maria Rilke
Waiting for the Restoration (Rapture), Paris, 2010
Cagnacci, Morte di Lucrezia, c. 1655-63
Inferno, Canto V, Second Circle; Lust
And now begin the dolesome notes to grow
Audible unto me; now am I come
There where much lamentation strikes upon me.
I came into a place mute of all light,
Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest,
If by opposing winds ‘t is combated.
The infernal hurricane that never rests
Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;
Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.
When they arrive before the precipice,
There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,
There they blaspheme the puissance divine.
I understood that unto such a torment
The carnal malefactors were condemned,
Who reason subjugate to appetite.
And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.
Whereupon said I: “Master, who are those
People, whom the black air so castigates?”
“The first of those, of whom intelligence
Thou fain wouldst have,” then said he unto me,
“The empress was of many languages.
To sensual vices she was so abandoned,
That lustful she made licit in her law,
To remove the blame to which she had been led.
She is Semiramis, of whom we read
That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.
The next is she who killed herself for love,
And broke faith with the ashes of Sichaeus;
Then Cleopatra the voluptuous.”
Helen I saw, for whom so many ruthless
Seasons revolved; and saw the great Achilles,
Who at the last hour combated with Love.
Paris I saw, Tristan; and more than a thousand
Shades did he name and point out with his finger,
Whom Love had separated from our life.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air. A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face. She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek. Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul, in an outburst of profane joy. He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
..... he doth bear
His part, while the one Spirit’s plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing th’ unwilling dross that checks its flight
To its own likeness, as each mass may bear;
And bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven’s light.
The splendours of the firmament of time
May be eclipsed, but are extinguished not;
Like stars to their appointed height they climb
And death is a low mist which cannot blot
The brightness it may veil. When lofty thought
Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair,
And love and life contend in it, for what
Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there
And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.
The soft sky smiles,—the low wind whispers near;
’Tis Adonais calls! oh, hasten thither,
No more let Life divide what Death can join together
That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!