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as if blinded

September 17, 2009

[TLS] …the “Last Appeal” recalls how, in what Andreas-Salomé calls the “Songs of the Monk”, Rilke had once shown himself to be “sound” and healthy. These were later published – “placed in the hands of Lou” in the words of their dedication – in 1905 as the first of the three sections of The Book of Hours (Das Stunden-Buch). The whole collection is newly translated here in fine, faithful versions by Susan Ranson, who captures the sonorities of the verse with apparent ease and handles the difficulties of Rilke’s over-fondness for rhyme very judiciously. The Book of Hours epitomizes the tension between the popular and the learned Rilke. It has been widely read as a straightforward book of structured devotion, in the tradition of its title, and quotations from it adorn gravestones and memorials across Germany. Yet it should also be recognized as a conscious stage in Rilke’s development of an aesthetic in which “working at God” is simultaneously “working at art”. The elegant introduction by Ben Hutchinson brings out clearly what it was that Lou felt was “sound” there. There is a compelling tension in these self-mythologizing poems (written as if by a monk who is also an icon painter and a poet) between narcissistic self-confidence and monastic humility. The religious view of the individual’s physical nullity faced with God is passionately expressed in lines such as “Put out my eyes: I see you still the same; / deaden my ears: I cannot help but hear you”. If the monk needs God to justify his own existence, however, the reverse is also true: “What will you do, God, when I die?” he asks, defiantly claiming “I am your garment and your matter; / you have no meaning once I’m dead”. The complexity of the reciprocal relationship of two creators in this book of verse echoes the growing appreciation of the need for reciprocity in Rilke’s personal life that the letters begin to show at the same time. (read)

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