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Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies: In The Light of Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism is an idealistic philosophical and social movement which developed in New England  around 19th century as a reaction to rationalism. They were highly Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy. They rejected the idea of narrow religion and rationality. They it thought that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were the central figures. It is basically the idea that our spirits have deep connection with nature and that our ideas “transcend” (or go beyond) the natural world as we see it. We are more “in tune” with nature and our mood is depicted by nature.

According to Immanuel Kant, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process which governs the nature of experience. This is a system of philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical and material. Transcendentalism declared meaning in everything, and all meaning was good, part of and connected by divine plan.

Transcendentalism declared meaning in everything, and all meaning was good, part of and connected by divine plan. According to the Transcendentalists, everyone has the power to “transcend” the apparent confusion and chaos of the world and see order in nature’s design. All on earth have the divine “spark” within and thus all are part of the whole. This philosophy led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism and the value of the individual over society.They were inspired by  Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, spiritual poetry, haiku etc and examine their own religious assumptions against these scriptures. In their perspective, a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray; there must be truth in these scriptures, too. They believed human existence as a medium of God’s existence.  In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

He celebrated  individualism in the light of humanity and spirituality.

“I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being               circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

          The pursuit of nature was most often a pursuit of the self, or of knowledge of the divine, without and within. Transcendentalist believed that  god or divinity can be found winthin our existence and through five sense.  They perceived a view that human being need awareness to feel the movement of the world and to dance with the rhythm of nature to reach enlightenment of beings.

While reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies are Eligies, poems that are lament over something, one can ask what is it the poet lamenting about, the answer can varied but the poems are mainly about human existence in relation to God and the world. Despite their lamentation represent reconciliation with life, and seek to bear witness to its underlying fountain of joy, the source and spring from which the stream of acceptance and creativity flows that allows us to endure our transient and often painful existence. Lament and joy for Rilke are two sides of the same coin of being, and his main concern is to reveal them in his poetry as aspects of the single whole, the double-realm.( Kline) These spiritual poems, starts with questions and confusions. He talks in great anguish about god, angel and our interpreted world. According to transcendentalist god can be known trough and by human existence. We are parts of god’s existence. Feelings, emotions, love, sorrow these are treasure of human beings to explore if we want to know God.               Rilke often expresses the feeling that his works were given to him and came from outside himself. Rilke is always self-centered, but always has wider relevance, is always personal but has claims to wider universality. He saw his constant task as transformation, of himself into another, of the world into the mind, of external phenomena into internal, things into thoughts, being into consciousness and becoming.( Kline)

Rilke begins the First Elegy with an intense questioning cry. And question how can angels can hear and understand human agony. The Angel seems to represent to Rilke an Idea of perfect internality, beyond human contradictions and limitations. Then he talks about the transformation, the goal towards the angels and then realizes the futility of that goal. Rilke’s reference to the “springtime’s,”  “the star,” “the wave,” “the violin” in the First Elegy in respect of their wish for appreciation and incapacity to respond to them is a fit occasion for his melancholy. When he asks, “But could you accomplish it?” he knows the answer will be negative because we are “always distracted by expectation.”  As if suddenly realizing says “there is no place where we can remain.” His despair is that we are not capable of executing the “mission,” and to find the divine source within our self. He wishfully longs for the blessedness of the early departed who enjoy not only the liberation from mundane miseries and found bliss “those who were carried off early no longer need us: / they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys.”

The Hero is another example of a human role that is re-incarnated through time and human memory, and perpetuated in art. He sacrificed himself through death and act as a statute behind whom the humanity stands. His fate is decided. And the lovers support to hide each other fate becomes the victims. Because we are always trying to be someone else, trying to follow the idol.

The second Elegy has shown us our immediate limitations to become timeless. Rilke talks about the self and the universe at the same time, he is asking to go deeper in to our being to find meaning purpose of life. He declared ~

“But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we

Breathe ourselves out and away; from moment to moment

our emotion grows fainter, like a perfume. Though someone may tell us:

“Yes, you’ve entered my bloodstream, the room, the whole springtime

is filled with you…”—what does it matter? He can’t contain us,

we vanish inside him and around him.” (Third Elegy).

          He offers possibilities for inner growth with spiritual dimensions, even though he often looks for the crucial problem of our beings. Also another transcendentalist element which is dark romanticism is notable in his style, his sensual words creates dark, gothic aura. While describing angels and God he describes something that is fading away like a perfume’s fragrance.

Rilke’s approach lament relates to pinpointing existential problems. In the Fourth Elegy, he berates the lovers who have reduced their relationship to a charade, which is why they had already incurred  the poet’s displeasure in the Second Elegy as to an exigent need to understand their true self: “lovers, are you the same?”

“We, though, while we are intent on one thing, wholly,

feel the loss of some other. Enmity

is our neighbor.”

          Rilke goes on to diagnose the human condition, and its many limitations, as he sees it. Humans have divided goals, and while trying to complete one task we are already thinking of another, our inability to possess both in the one moment causing a sense of loss and frustration. Conflict and an enmity between goals are always with us, and circumstances may seem hostile simply because of our inability to read life’s depths. Our meaningless effort to struggle, to live life separate us from the cosmic consciousness and we forget the power of human experiences. Death gives life greater significance, because consciousness of it leads to whole vision, and complete transformation.

The fifth elegy talks about human activity, their repetition to reach the final performance, a never achieving goal.  Human being always tries to be perfect, the always try to make their work flawless and to discipline themselves the follows a tedious routine. The lover suffers for their empty soul and meaninglessness. He lament for the pathetic side of human existence and their conflicts.  He searches for innocence.

His lament moves into a metaphysical realm till the Eighth Elegy.

“The creature gazes into openness with all

its eyes. But our eyes are

as if they were reversed, and surround it,

everywhere, like barriers against its free passage.”

      Rilke’s openness is the eternal and infinite nature of reality, into which the creatures gaze, while we set up barriers against it, and seek to contain the world and grasp it. He separate human consciousness from animal consciousness. And talks about human perception and how a child sees the world. How our self awareness and creation makes us outsider in this world.  How we fill our mind and death empties us.

The ninth elegy moves toward the justification of our being. He ask and examine that the world really needs us.

“everything here

apparently needs us,this fleeting world,

 which in some strange way

keeps calling to us……..

But because being here is much, and because all

that’s here seems to need us, the ephemeral, that

strangely concerns us.”

     Rilke seek justification for human conditions, he seems to ask that how do we take this human experience beyond death. Here he weigh the power of human existence, their power to be one with love, to live in the moment even when they are aware of death. Also Rilke says that death is the ultimate transformer of human existence, it takes us to the beyond. Death complete human beings, death is the inspiration to live. Transcendentalism celebrates every single aspects of human life even death. Because it’s the path that complete a life spans. Death justifies all the human condition.

“How we gaze beyond them into duration’s sadness,

to see if they have an end. Though they are nothing but

our winter-suffering foliage, our dark evergreen,

one of the seasons of our inner year – not only

season – : but place, settlement, camp, soil, dwelling.”

         Tenth elegy talks about all the earthy anguish, the pain of the materialistic, the death of the young, the lure of the money and things money can buy he mentions them all. Also describes a ghostly atmosphere full with spirit who died and souls who are suffering in the world.

“And they are astonished by the regal head, that forever,

silently, positioned the human face

in the scale of the stars.”

         Mentioning the Sphinx from Egypt he portray a picture of an wasteland. Rilke shows the importance of death and how death can give meaning to life, can guide humanity by offering different morality. Human beings always judging happiness to be the only goal in life, forgets that underneath joy or sorrow the opposite exists. Because everything is at one, we are just part of the bigger picture, because love contains everything. Human existence with its lament and sadness contains an overpowering flow of happiness, but one must have the courage to take it all at once to transcendent.  Only then one can go beyond. Rilke goes through this alchemic transformation while writing the ten elegies. He describes the value of human existence and how it can be a plane to reach enlightenment.

Work sited

A year with Rilke. http://yearwithrilke.blogspot.com/

Dash, Bibhudutt  “Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Tennyson’s In Memoriam: An Anatomy of Lament ”. Web.

Kline,  A. S. “The Fountain of Joy:A Line-by-Line Commentary on Rilke’s Duino Elegies” 2009.web.

Lewis ,Jone Johnson “What is Transcendentalism?”

Mitchell, Stephen, trans. and ed. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria  Rilke. London:Picador, 1982.

Pettersson, Torsten. “Internalization and Death: A Reinterpretation of Rilke  ‘Duineser Elegien.’” The Modern Language Review, 1999. Vol. 94,No. 3 (Jul., 1999), pp. 731-743.

Rainer Maria Rilke and Solitude. Web.  http://www.hermitary.com/solitude/rilke.html

“Why Mr. Emerson is Your Friend” SERMON FOR UU CHURCH. August 29, 2011. Web.


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