I had read a few of Rilke’s poems in various anthologies before getting to this collection, and as I very much enjoyed them, I thought that his collected poetry was certainly worthy of a place upon my Classics Club list. Rather than purchase the gorgeous Modern Library edition pictured, I read a free copy of the work, downloaded from Project Gutenberg and translated by Jessie Lemont.
The well-penned introduction to the volume muses about the ideas and concepts of art and nature, and influences upon Rilke himself, whilst also setting out his background. The elements of the introduction which discussed his craft were of the most interest to me: ‘Not until later was he to reach the height of an impersonal objectivity in his art. What distinguishes these early poems from similar adolescent productions is the restraint in the presentation, the economy and intensity of expression and that quality of listening to the inner voice of things which renders the poet the seer of mankind’. It goes on to speak of the way in which, ‘In the first decade of the new century Rilke reached the height of his art and with a few exceptions the poems represented in this volume are selected from the poems which were published between the years 1900 and 1908’. Poems therefore contains work from several of Rilke’s previous collections – First Poems, The Book of Pictures, New Poems and The Book of Hours.
Throughout, many different themes are touched upon, and influences made use of – religion, the power of nature, grief, loss, solitude, love, history, war and royalty, amongst others. One of the most fascinating aspects of Rilke’s work for me was the way in which he continually relates himself, or his protagonists, to the world at large, constantly asserting the tenuous and fragile places which they hold in the grand scheme of things. He also personifies different elements marvellously, from entire seasons to viewing things from the perspective of Death.
Rilke is fabulous at conjuring different places and times in just a single stanza. This is particularly prominent in ‘The Knight’, which contains the following lines:
‘The Knight rides forth in coat of mail
Into the roar of the world.
And here is life: the vines in the vale
And friend and foe, and the feast in the hall,
And May and the maid, and the gun and the grail, God’s flags afloat on every wall
In a thousand streets unfurled’.
Considering its relative shortness, this is a rather varied collection, which has been beautifully written and carefully translated. Occasionally a feeling of simplicity settles upon whole stanzas, but I feel that this is a deliberate act on Rilke’s part. He has such control over everything which he writes about, and is certainly at the peak of his craft here. Poems serves as a wonderful introductory piece to Rilke’s work, and is a collection which I would heartily recommend.