Monday, July 23, 2007

Newsweek: Rilke & Banville

In the current issue of Newsweek, Booker-Prize winning novelist John Banville lists the 5 literary works that have been most important to him. Among them are The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Rilke's legendary struggle to complete the great Elegies is captured in Lost Son, including the poet's terror to find himself drafted, at age 40, into the Austrian infantry -- an experience that calls up youthful miseries of his 5 years in military school.

"Is there comfort in knowing that the Fourth Elegy is done? -- does that bring solace while you lie in your numbered bed in the hurtful blackness at day's end, the barracks ashudder with so much sleep? Think on that. Hold it close. It keeps you here in this age to which you've mounted through thick protracted years. Four Elegies done. That won't be changed now, no matter what should happen. And so you are not a boy. Not a boy, alone in his cot in the great unsolitary hall impacted with sleep and bloated nightmare. No, you have traveled long. You have stood at the ramparts above the Gulf of Trieste and have heard what the storm waves said. Princess Marie's old Castle Duino rose up behind you, venerable, unshaken. It had been Dante's brief hostelry some several hundred years ago, or so you'd been told.

Four full Januaries gone since that stormy day above the sea, and an Elegy for each. That is not so paltry. Not at all. Say to yourself now the words of the First:

those wishes no longer wished.
to see everything, all reference points, fluttering loose
in the room.
And this being-dead is arduous
and full of getting-near-again,
that one may catch scent, gradually,
of a little eternity.

Say them, for you are not the boy who lies prostrate in the dark Kadettenschule dormitory. No, your feet now reach to the end of the numbered bed. You have grown. You have grown through years of work and you are a poet to whom a princess attends -- Doctor Serafico, she has dubbed you -- and four marvelous Elegies are finished already. Say the words and roll to sleep now. In but a few hours the reveille will arrive to decimate slumber. After that there will be nothing but marching.


Do not think of what you may be marching toward."

(Thanks to The Elegant Variation for the Banville link.)

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