Reflection of the tragedy of a “man-centered pagan night”

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) has been called Germany’s greatest lyric poet since Goethe and Heine. In mirroring his milieu (which had seen the wave of unbelief in his nation reach and pass its crest in Marx and Freud), he constantly deplored the dearth of seed and soil for a spiritual rebirth among his people. But in that culture that had grown hopelessly confused and confusing he was himself caught; and he sought his escape through music, specifically the music of poetry.

The intellectual climate of Germany, imbued as it was with Hegelian idealism, was too much for Rilke’s own faith. Born of Catholic parents in Prague, and a Catholic in his boyhood, Rilke had an ancestry both Czech and German. He was as much a cosmopolitan as Heine, if not more so. But where Heine was to repudiate at the last the pantheism in which he had been trained under Hegel himself, Rilke sacrificed his native Christianity for a belief in Orpheus, as symbol of the everlasting life of song. For, wasted and desecrated as his faith became, he never quite lost the artist’s fire.

Rilke had only the vaguest notion, of course, of the Orphic mysteries. But the thought of Song (and of only the old divinity’s being able to sing it, since song stays though song’s themes come and go, just as poets come and go) haunted him. Thus he wrote of and to “the singing god” in one of the Sonnets to Orpheus:

Over the thrust and throng,

Freer and higher,

Still lasts your prelude song,

God with the lyre.

Sorrows we misunderstand,

Love is still learning,

Death, whence there’s no returning,

No one unveils.

Song alone over the land

Hallows and hails.

(Translation by J. B. Leishman, quoted in E. M. Butler’s Rilke [Cambridge University ...

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