Correlation between the literature of the Romantic era and creative heritage of Rainer Maria Rilke remains the subject of debate. Traditionally, literature critics recognize Rilke as a modernist; however, some of the leading motifs of his early writings may be attributed to Romanticism and even Symbolism. These works possess the characteristic features of Romanticism, namely a sense of the unity of man and nature. Therefore, the paper aims at comparing and contrasting Romantics’ relationship with nature with Rilke’s poems (The Panther, The Swan) as well as depicting common and distinctive features.
Motifs of Nature in Romanticism
Romanticism is the ideological and artistic movement in the European and American culture of the end of the XVIII century – the first half of the XIX century. Its distinctive features include the consolidation of self-worth of the spiritual and artistic life of the person, the image of the strong (rebellious) passions and characters and spiritualized, healing nature.
Unlike the Age of Enlightenment characterized by the cult of reason and civilization based on its principles, Romanticism establishes the cult of nature, sensations, and the natural in man. It was the era of origin of such phenomena as tourism, mountaineering, and picnics, aimed at reestablishing the unity of man and nature. Romanticism opposes interest in folklore, myth, fairy tale, nature, the common man, and the return to the roots to the Enlightenment’s idea of progress and trends to drop everything outdated and obsolete.
The influence of “organic” view of nature extends to all romantic art though its significance in the romanticism of different countries is not the same. The most widespread manifestation of this view is anthropomorphization of natural phenomena. In other words, feelings that are typical of the human soul are attributed to nature in general (as space, landscape, and a single part of the landscape). There took place the transformation of life in art, the aesthetic reality, ideas of intuitionist dialectics, and the general symbolism of nature.
Thus, the Romantics perceived nature symbolically, associating it with human features and, at the same time, idealizing it (Henighan 17). Animation, the humanization of nature in perception, and imagination are some of the favorite motifs of romantic poetry.
Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
There is no doubt that Romanticism has played a huge role in the development of European artistic consciousness. Furthermore, it has determined much of the literature not only of the XIX but also of the XX centuries. Quite indicative in this respect is Rilke’s collection of poems called New Poems, which reflects natural and mythical themes peculiar to romantic writers.
The poem The Panther by Rainer Maria Rilke was written more than 100 years ago and has been translated into hundreds of languages. In the English language, one can find numerous translations of this piece of poetry. The belief that any translation cannot convey the beauty of the original determines such a multiplicity of translations. Consequently, this “inaccessibility” makes artists take on the translation, regardless of the number of attempts made by other authors. Moreover, it also gives hope that new reading will open a new shade of meaning and find its reader.
The central image of Rilke’s poem The Panther is a wild animal driven into the cage and hungry for freedom. Like in dancing, the Panther rushes around, wanting to find a way out and to break free. However, his attempts are futile since “a thousand bars” surround him ("The Panther"). Panther, imprisoned in a cage, serves as a symbol of disharmony and injustice prevailing in the world. Freedom-loving animal, through which veins, despite the despair, still runs “mighty will”, should ultimately suffer and make up its mind with the circumstances that will lead to inevitable death ("The Panther"). The image of the Panther embodies Rilke’s idea about disharmony of the world. Moreover, it symbolizes the suffering of a person kept in a cage of the circumstances of one’s life, being unable to realize the dream of breaking free.
On the one hand, one can see a quite trivial picture, which many people observe in the zoo: a wild animal (in this case – the panther) thrashing about in a narrow cage. On the other hand, this poem somehow leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling, some discomfort, frustration, and pain. The opposition of two principles in this poem, namely the strength and natural power of the animal and the tightness of the space in which it is trapped, causes reader’s discomfort.
Here are a number of themed words symbolizing both elements:
1) Supple step and sturdy pace, dance of strength, mighty will;
2) Weary, can hold no more, no world, the smallest of all circles, standing stunned, soundlessly, the tensioned stillness of the limbs ("The Panther").
In Rilke's life, this image may be associated with his training in the military school, in other words, in the cadet corps, where he spent five years. In his later statements about this period, the writer described it as the worst time of his life and an unbroken chain of physical and moral suffering. The atmosphere of the military training pressed on the delicate psyche of the future poet.
Such a choice of symbolic means of the description of the author’s life situation instead of just rhyming his biographic facts has a simple explanation: different circumstances can provoke such feelings in any other person. The important thing is that people have similar feelings and desires as pictured by the author. The main essence of the poetry of symbolism is to evoke appropriate feelings in the reader, which cannot be passed through the purely verbal way and some abstract symbolic images. Words cannot describe hate, joy, anxiety, and love because every person perceives them individually. The great discovery of the Symbolists is the means of causing feelings through images instead of describing them directly. The artists use associations as connections that occur involuntarily in the mind between a few ideas, images, and thoughts.
Another interesting poem of the poet in respect to the symbolic role of nature is The Swan. Through the central image of the swan, Rilke describes the dual nature of human life. He compares the lumbering swans as they walk on the ground with their grace in the water, when they suddenly transform into the embodiment of elegance. Although on land swans are terribly awkward, on the water, they seem to be the most graceful animals on the earth.
Rilke uses this image to suggest that a person during the lifetime often feels like the clumsy swan. Furthermore, in death, an individual might feel like the swan on the water when he “allows himself to glide”. In addition, the following nuances are also important for Rilke’s figurative language: the way to overcome the complexity of the world and the search for harmony and impossibility to find are is difficult for the swan/poet. However, it is also possible to trace the motif of self-affirmation, persistent self-perfection, and sure standing on the ground, which is constantly slipping away from under the feet.
Thus, the symbolism in Rilke’s poems is obvious. The image of encaged panther reflects the desire to break free from different life circumstances, predestination, and despair. On the other hand, the swan embodies uncertainty of fate and perception of death as a relief and escape from this uncertainty.
Common and Distinctive Features of the Romantics and Rilke
The artistic works of Rilke are traditionally appropriated to modernism while some researchers claim that his early works can be considered romantic. However, the theme of nature and symbolic interpretation of human feelings through natural phenomena are characteristic features of both Romantics and Rainer Maria Rilke. The basic difference between them lies in the mood of the writings. The artists of the Romantic era tend to idealize nature, rendering only “pretty scenery” (Henighan 13). On the contrary, Rilke shows its imperfectness, being guided by the motto that “an artist worthy of the name should express all the truth of nature, not only the exterior truth, but also, and above all, the inner truth” (Fischer). According to Henighan, in romantic poems, “the imagination, the all-too-human creative power, was too easily transformed into a kind of idol, leading man ultimately away from the very nature it began by grounding itself in” (17). As evidenced by the considered poems, Rilke does not turn to the idolatry of self but finds poetic features in any situation, even in trivial one. It is not romanticization and idealization of nature, but its perception by individuals through the prism of their life experiences and thoughts about eternal, life, and death.
As a man endowed with a rich intuition and the ability to penetrate into the essence of the events, the poet keenly felt the loss of integrity and harmony, which overtook his contemporaries at the end of Romanticism epoch. As a result, Rilke experienced discord with himself, the world, God, and nature, as well as an overwhelming sense of inner emptiness. The attention of a poet switches to concrete objects, things, each of which saves, in his opinion, the soul of the master who created it. In addition, invisible threads connect each object with the world. This focus on things resulted in the creation of Dinggedichte (“things-poems”), which stressed upon the dual perception of things (Fischer).
The poet refers to people, animals, and mythical creatures. The poetries The Panther and The Swan, which are full of expressive, poetic images, may serve as examples of this statement. If one tries to erase the boundaries between man and the surrounding things, perhaps people will be able to achieve harmony. After all, everything existent in the world is interconnected. Therefore, and if one makes minor changes in the life of things, they will begin to move, which can positively affect a person’s life.
Thus, to sum up, natural images are peculiar for both the Romantics and Rilke, but the symbolism of the images is quite different. The representatives of Romanticism tend to idealize natural phenomena while Rilke admits their imperfectness and depicts the duality of their perception. The romantic ideology uses nature in statics, as something given while Rilke’s pictures of nature are dynamic. In other words, picturesque sceneries of romantic poems just transfer the inner feeling of a person. On the contrary, Rilke’s images inspire to reflection and action. Romantic description of landscapes transforms into Rilke’s portrayal of things (in this case – animals) with their peculiar features, associated with inner states of human beings. This peculiarity gave rise to a new poetic genre of Dinggedicht. The latter is a kind of poetry, which portrays a tangible object remotely while it acquires symbolic meaning through formal and linguistic means. The lyric component becomes of secondary importance. The form plays the important role.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the feature of the Rilke’s Dinggedichte becomes their intentional objectivity – the poet abandons idealization of images and tends to display the true things. The novelty of the New Poems lies in the new poetic view of things, allowing to portray their true essence. Furthermore, it also manifests itself primarily in the rethinking of the role of the word and its place in reality. Rilke develops a new poetic language to change the “things” through the poetic word.