Rilke, “The First Elegy”; Tranströmer, “Romanesque Arches”

Perhaps this is a commonplace but the first Duino Elegy reminds me irresistibly of Tomas Tranströmer’s “Romanesque Arches”.

You can find Robin Fulton’s translation of “Romanesque Arches” at . Countless sites give the first Duino elegy as a whole, among them (using Stephen Mitchell’s translation).

The most obvious link is the embrace by the angel. Behind that there‘s the contrast between the human and angelic orders of being, and the sense of the human condition as inherently one of incompleteness.

But the two poems work in vastly different ways. Rilke’s eloquence is splendid and overwhelming. Line after line chants itself in the head or demands to be chanted out loud. It’s all tremendously exciting and memorable, and yet (at least for me) it’s also somehow all too much and as a result of that somehow all too little too. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know the poem well enough, haven’t sufficiently absorbed it emotionally and imaginatively or come properly to grips with the philosophical ideas behind it, or perhaps I’m just not sufficiently in sympathy with the cast of Rilke’s mind. Whatever the reason, the more the eloquent, sweeping assertions, questions and speculations pile up, the more self-involved they seem to me to become, and the less they seem to connect with anything outside themselves. I don’t doubt the sincerity, accuracy and urgency with which Rilke is actively exploring his own feelings so perhaps it’s unfair to say that his cries come to seem more and more purely rhetorical, but they do come to feel hollow in the way rhetoric might. I haven’t got beyond the point of finding something absurd in the level of solipsism implied by a statement like “Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star was waiting for you to notice it”, and something grotesque and inhuman about the idea that “soaring, objectless love” might be a condition to aspire to.

How different “Romanesque Arches” is. It’s almost violently moving in the way it plugs straight into intense, incoherent and inarticulate feelings. It’s not afraid of direct emotional expression, but it couldn’t be less self-regarding. I think that’s part of its greatness. Instead of interposing himself and his own feelings between idea and reader, Tranströmer channels the intrinsic power of the angel’s message with the minimum of interference and leaves his readers to react for themselves. The poem is great partly because it is so spare and concentrated and seems to make so little artistic fuss.

Lack of artistic fuss certainly doesn’t mean lack of art. The writing is packed, brilliantly dramatic, brilliantly physical, and Tranströmer creates tremendous tension and suspense out of the sheer narrative momentum and uncertain direction of the first five lines. First we’re thinking, what’s about to happen? Then, what did the angel whisper? When we know, all the questioning energy that’s been built up within us is released on the angel’s message. Tranströmer doesn’t tell us what to think but he ensures that we will react intensely, both by this build-up of tension and by the physical intensity of the effect on him. Returning to the story, we’re left with our own reactions to the idea resonating within us. And with the multiple resonances of such stunning images as that of “an angel with no face embraced me”. In terms of language and presentation, of artistic means,  this is simple, stark and direct in contrast with Rilke’s eloquent elaborations, but in a deeper sense, in terms of what lies behind the language, in terms of artistic meaning, Tranströmer’s genius shows itself in the crowded, barely lit but endlessly opening vaults and vistas of suggestion that appear at every point in the poem.

Leave a Reply