In 1902, in Paris, after one of his early encounters with Rodin, Rilke wrote to Clara about a stroll he had taken with the master and his small daughter in the garden of the sculptor’s villa. “Once,” he wrote, “she brought a violet. She laid it with her little hand shyly on Rodin’s and wanted to insinuate it into his hand somehow, to fasten it there. But the hand was like stone. Rodin gave it only a perfunctory glance, looked out beyond it, beyond the small shy hand, beyond the violet, beyond the child, beyond this little complete instant of love, with eyes that clung to the things which seemed to be continually taking form in him.” Days before, during his first visit to the house, he had witnessed an unnerving lunchtime scene between Rodin and his wife. Rodin had complained of the lateness of the meal. “Thereupon Madame Rodin got very agitated,” he reported to Clara. “A restlessness possessed her whole body—she began to push all the things about on the table, so that it looked as though the meal were already over. Everything that had been put properly in its place was left lying anywhere as after a meal.”
Rilke, having just left Germany, his wife Clara, and their baby daughter in order to write a monograph on the great sculptor, would not have seen the mirroring difficulties suggested by the Rodin household and his own. Much later, he would. But in 1902 he was twenty-seven, a poor, mildly successful poet who had come to the great man’s city as to a temple. Rilke’s description of Rodin and his daughter, her wish to “insinuate” her gift into her father’s hand, is telling in that Rilke himself was in the position of the daughter. Having come to Paris ostensibly to write a book about Rodin commissioned by a publisher, Rilke was also in search of what, exactly, greatness and strength would mean in an artist, one who was indisputably so, as Rodin was, and alive for the oracular consultation. For Rilke, the initial revelation was Rodin’s detachment. Those eyes “that clung to the things which seemed to be continually taking form in him” suggested a posture that privileged the working life over the life outside of that. Everything was in service to that determination. When Rilke later wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé that Rodin “has left nothing in uncertainty and has realized everything,” he would have understood without any irony that it was Rodin’s life as an artist that had achieved such grandeur. The man was his work, as far as Rilke could see. The concentration on each day’s tasks; the demanding gaze; the lonely absorption that gave the sculptor an almost machinelike anonymity—all this Rilke took from Rodin. The two books that would make up the New Poems, published in 1907 and 1908, manifested the qualities of pinpoint seeing and making that Rilke gleaned from the master. In their cataloguing of things, places, flora, fauna, works of art, and mythical, biblical, and literary figures, the catch-all atmosphere of the books pays a kind of secret homage to what Rilke had seen upon first visiting the studio at Rodin’s villa: “The impression is immense, terrific. You see, even before you have entered, that all these hundreds of lives are one life,—vibrations of one force and one will. Everything is there, everything.” And: “Acres of fragments lie there, one beside the other. Nudes the size of my hand and bigger, but only bits, scarcely one of them whole: often only a piece of arm, a piece of leg.” And: “There are hundreds and hundreds of them, no piece like any other—each one a conception, each one a fragment of love, devotion, goodness, and discovery.”
If Rilke’s early books had been an apprenticeship in the mercurial ways of mood and inspiration, the New Poems signaled a deliberateness that had no need for inspiration to get its work done. The books’ titles tell the story: while New Poems underscored a stark, workmanlike plainness, the earlier titles—Stories of God, The Book of Images, The Book of Hours—bespoke qualities of earnest spirituality and high lyricism. Rodin had come at the right time for Rilke. Against the mannered poetic figure Rilke constructed for himself as a younger man, Rodin introduced a tough physicality. In the New Poems, the best poems have an agility of perception that draws as much from the things perceived as from the poet’s receptivity. The objective world and the world of ego find a perfectly calibrated dynamic, one that renders both self and object glowingly, and impersonally, rich. Mental activity as action distinct from the mess of personality—Rilke saw the economy of this in Rodin. In the many long letters he wrote around this time, in the hagiographical book he eventually wrote on Rodin, and in the new poems themselves, it is a ravishing moment in Rilke’s life for the reader to see and track—the cusp at which he found himself, wherein the energies of solipsism were transformed into the imperatives of strong action. Especially in the letters, his enthusiasm for what Rodin imparted to him has a commensurate hyperbole to the self-whipping passages where he bemoaned how little he worked, how inhospitable the conditions of the world were to his work: “I begin to see anew: already flowers mean so infinitely much to me, and from animals have come strange intimations and promptings. And sometimes I perceive even people so, hands live somewhere, mouths speak, and I see everything more quietly and with greater justice.” The priority of flowers and animals over the vague surrounding people is worth noting here, inasmuch as it continues to speak for the thing-ness that had to be given to the world—and its people—in order for the exemplary artist to grasp it. Rilke, in this instance, embodies the vivid conditions that we’ve come to see as indeed exemplary of the artist: the special solitude, the sensibility that appraises and transforms, the serious detachment that has as its seemingly paradoxical end “love, devotion, goodness, and discovery.”
No other poem by Rilke stirs me to such joy as his sonnet “Blue Hydrangea.” There are greater poems in the New Poems, and greater poems in the whole body of his work, but “Blue Hydrangea” has an intricacy that provokes, in my own mind, an intricacy of responses that begins with the pleasure of conjuring up the plant itself, then an acknowledgment of the economy of means by which the poem gains its amplitude, and finally an apprehension of the depth-charged signification the poem carries, the plant and the poem turned into something “too deep for tears”:
These leaves are like the last green
in the paint pots—dried up, dull, and rough,
behind the flowered umbels whose blue
is not their own, only mirrored from far away.
In their mirror it is vague and tear-stained,
as if deep down they wished to lose it;
and as with blue writing paper
there is yellow in them, violet and gray;
washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
no longer worn things, which nothing can befall:
how one feels a small life’s shortness.
But suddenly the blue seems to revive
in one of the umbels, and one sees
a touching blue’s rejoicing in green.
The poem is about perception and description, about metaphor and its associative coalescings, about thematic material and its wrestle with formal limit, about mortality and renewal, about lyric self-making. More plainly, the poem is about this, too: a speaker happens onto a hydrangea plant, is moved to describe its characteristics by way of melancholy analogies, and experiences—if we see the plant’s rejuvenation as indicative of the speaker’s own—a sudden self-awareness. In another poem, this self-awareness led to a directive: “You must change your life.” In “Blue Hydrangea,” however, the happy change in self remains wholly entwined with the thing observed, so that instead of extrapolating the “You” of the self from the object—as happens dramatically in “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—the self in “Blue Hydrangea” seems to fall headlong into the life of the object, to be effaced there in its bright revival.
In the German, each stanza is closed, a room of considered perception; each line observes a pentameter regularity, and there is a musical web of rhyming that is at the same time formal and freshly conceived. In Edward Snow’s characteristically graceful translation, we notice that the poem builds three stanzas of visual and lyrical exposition, followed by a final stanza that releases the poem’s accrued holdings and swerves the poem into a newly clarified visual and emotional space. Three speculative gestures are responded to by a statement of startled, if not also plainspoken, observation about the plant’s condition. Notwithstanding the personifying verbs revive and rejoicing attributed to the plant, the final stanza is where the plant itself comes to light as a plant, against the background of metaphoric activity that had been conducted in attendance of it. The first three stanzas are busy—thematically, syntactically, compositionally. But the final stanza is lucidly simple. As though two differently colored electrical wires had been made to touch, a blue part of the plant touches a green part of the plant, resulting in a kind of match-struck moment wherein the plant and the perceiving speaker rejoice. When Rilke completed the volume that would be the 1907 New Poems, he considered giving the book the title Blue Hydrangea—a title that, by referring to the Romantic atmosphere he had previously worked within, belied the brave new art he discovered in the new poems. Nevertheless, his musing on the possible title suggests the significance he gave the poem.
Written in the summer of 1906, “Blue Hydrangea” came at the height of a period flooded with these new poems. A noteworthy number of these were sonnets, and Rilke’s reliance on the form must have been owed to its compressed mechanisms of expansiveness and intimacy, argument and song. By now the sonnet as a form has had such a long history that it has acquired a palimpsestic density. The expository octave followed by the divinatory sestet; the rhetorical bricks of three quatrains followed by a pithy, ribbonlike couplet; present-day “American” sonnets wherein rhyme and meter and definable rhetorical structure have been left out, with only the requisite count of fourteen lines retained—the form has an adaptability that is all the more remarkable for the form’s being more or less the same. Think of Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s novel, changing titles and pursuits and genders as the novel progresses through the span of English history, but remaining essentially himself and herself: a desiring consciousness that survives each permutation. Anthony Hecht has written about the way in which the architectural proportions of the sonnet are ultimately congruent with human anatomical proportions—the way in which the pleasing symmetries of natural form somehow inform what we find pleasing in the symmetries of made forms. In its brevity, the sonnet—like the small plaster cast of a tiger that Rilke admired in Rodin’s studio—feels portable and talismanic, all the more so in its capacity to hold, in its small space, the most unruly passions. In its musicality and its architectural made-ness, the sonnet speaks for the way we’ve given civilized management to that unruliness.
In the forty-five poems that are his Sonnets to Orpheus, written in a breathless rush in February 1922 alongside the Duino Elegies, Rilke would find a profoundly symphonic use for the form. In the meantime, in the fall and winter of 1906 and 1907, he had done translations of Michelangelo’s sonnets, as well as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. The use of the sonnet for his New Poems extended these deliberations on how the received vessel could give shape to new lyric procedures. Along with “Blue Hydrangea,” “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is among the most riveting of these sonnets. “We never knew his head and all the light / that ripened in his fabled eyes,” the poem begins. Nonetheless, the absence of the sculpture’s head has not dimmed its power: the torso glows like a lamp, it surges with something like a smile, it glistens like fur, and, finally, it bursts “forth from all its contours / like a star.” This astral explosion is irradiating, and throws onto the narrator a light by which he understands that “there is no place / that does not see you.” The light is like a deity’s gaze, exacting from the narrator an outcry that sounds as penitent as it is empowered: “You must change your life.” In the rhetorical economy of the poem, the first twelve and a half lines are concerned wholly with a description of the sculpture. Notice the heavy similes that give increasing warmth to what would otherwise be a marmoreal museum exhibit: like a lamp, like a smile, like fur, like a star. In the final two lines, however, the gaze of the observer is suddenly and vertiginously cast back onto himself, demanding that he make an assessment of himself in light of the sculpture’s vitality. The poem, which Rilke placed as the first poem in the second volume of the New Poems, is justly famous. As a record of his ideas regarding the timeless energy and resource of Antiquity—ideas triggered by Rodin—the poem is a gorgeous exposition. The poem, more brilliantly, also delineates the transaction that occurs between a reader or viewer facing a great work of art. We begin in simple observation; then, if we are sufficiently enticed, we commit to a more meticulous accounting of what’s in front of us; that, in turn, leads to a delighted understanding of just how complex the artwork is; and last, the beauty and implied eternity of the artwork, whether sculpture or painting or poem, makes us aware of our own contingent place, our incompleteness—an incompleteness that becomes a spur for change, toward better loves and ambitions.
What exactly is happening to that hydrangea? To begin with, because of its blue flowers, we know that the plant is in acidic soil, whereas more ordinarily balanced, alkaline soil results in the common white and pink varieties. Perennials, hydrangeas bloom late in season and go dormant for the winter, returning in spring. The bloom of the hydrangea is striking for its big cluster of multiple small petals, something like a head of cauliflower or a pom-pom in shape. The bloom is also fascinating for the way it takes on and changes colors as its life proceeds: the bloom starts green, a lighter green than its leaves; then, beginning from its outer edges, it takes on its blue or pink color; after some weeks this color of its prime is slowly replaced by a chalky gray. In Rilke’s sonnet, the plant seems decidedly in the late phase of its growth. In the first stanza, even the leaves are “dried up, dull, and rough,” uselessly left behind like green paint in the “paint pots”; the blooms have a blue that is no longer their own, “only mirrored from far away,” perhaps mirrored from their earlier blue heyday. In the first two lines of the second stanza, the speaker emphasizes how “vague and tear-stained” the remaining blue is in the flowers—“as if deep down they wished to lose it.” As if, indeed, at the very heart of the enterprise of their blooming is the knowledge of eventually losing their blue color, the dying already built into the process as a personified “wish.” Given the abstraction of those two lines, the speaker then grounds the flowers’ blue to the blue of writing paper. The blue of the flowers—vague, tear-stained, mirrory—also has the tints of yellow, violet, and gray that’s in the paper. The complexity of this blue is lavish. The speaker’s search for the best description of its distinct shade results in the sort of color-mixing that a painter would do, with the dabs of seemingly incongruent pigment eventually adding up to the textured truth. In the third stanza, the fadedness of the blue is further underscored by its being likened to a much-washed child’s dress. Like leftover paint, like unused writing paper, like a child’s outgrown “pinafore,” the plant is emphatically “small” and wasted, and by extension implies that the very season has turned emphatically to fall. The sonnet’s last stanza is thrilling because the speaker notices—and watch the “But” of line twelve asserting the volta’s structural inevitability—that underneath the weight of all that apparent deadness, a deadness encrusted by the speaker’s own metaphoric heavy-handedness, something of the plant is still alive. The plant in this last moment seems to speak for a persistent life of its own—one unmediated by the speaker’s metaphors. The speaker had concluded, implicating the plant and all of earthly life: “how one feels a small life’s shortness.” To which the plant responds, astonishingly, with its blue and green rejoicing.
As James Merrill noted in an essay on Rilke, “Only by the metamorphosis of the objects he has loved can the poet hold on to them. They rise again within him, are stenciled permanently there.” In “Blue Hydrangea,” the metamorphosis of the plant into its actuality has to proceed through the cocoonlike terms of resemblance that the speaker has used to understand what’s before him. An objective botanical rendering of the plant is, of course, an almost incidental activity of the poem. To describe the minute gradations of its health, the speaker must engage in the very subjective work of seeing the plant in relation to other things so that its own qualities are shown up. It’s at times easy to forget that it is a plant being described at all, because the objects to which it is compared present such strong presences of their own: paint, mirror, paper, pinafore. In the poem, the parts of the flower are given very spare mention—leaves, umbels, flowers—which is to say that our foothold in the objective world of the plant is as tenuous as our foothold in the metaphoric world built by the speaker is firm. In the first sentence of the poem, only the initial two words, “These leaves,” ground us in narrative fact. The rest of the long sentence is in the terrain of metaphor: the leaves are like paint, the flowers are like mirrors. One can imagine Rilke walking in Paris, in a well-tended public garden or past the plantings of a house, noticing the hydrangea plant and standing long and still to observe it. But that orienting posture is not given to us at the start of the poem. We don’t know where the speaker is. Instead, the poem begins for us in that disorienting moment when the plant excites the speaker’s vision, when the fact of the thing hits the curve of the eye like a shock. These leaves, the poem begins, with the speaker still surprised and still in the world. But with the next clause, “are like,” the speaker is drawn inward, into the world of his own grasping. These leaves and flowers are not simply themselves—they have to be “like” something else in order to be apprehended. The first three stanzas exist in a kind of free-falling space wherein juxtaposition between the flower’s qualities and the speaker’s store of associative material is conducted; the first three stanzas give the reader a series of descriptive vertigos. But in the last stanza our falling, and the speaker’s, is stopped by the solidity of the plant itself, its assertive liveliness in contrast to the analogical transparencies the first three stanzas presented. In lines four and five, the presence of “mirror” as verb and noun suggests the Narcissus-like gaze and fall that the poem’s first three stanzas generate. The joy of the speaker in the final stanza is the joy of someone who has landed on solid ground. That joy is also from the speaker’s invigorated realization that life’s cyclical process continues and continues. For every uncertainty, there is an answering certainty. The world keeps dying. But also, the world does not grow old. Like Orlando it keeps renewing itself, despite our human transience.
What we learn from Rilke and his New Poems is that the power of an image is most potent when the image is most in flux. As in the figures of Ovid, the objects Rilke looks at have a rewarding volatility of meaning because they are destabilized, open to connotative slippages, transforming into metaphor or transformed by metaphor. If an image must necessarily begin in service to denotation and to narrative, in its transit to metaphor it takes on the weight of an array of subconscious motives. The image becomes the mind, with the either/or assessments of the mind given tactile graspability. The world is more or less stable; the mind is not. Rilke’s hydrangea is an arena of that combustible engagement. Seamus Heaney, writing about Robert Lowell, noted that Lowell’s use of the sonnet was an attempt “to cage the minute.” Given that cagelike space of the form, Rilke’s sonnet encloses an act of alchemical perceiving that shines well beyond the form’s contours.
The facts of a biography. There is the well-known fact that Rilke was raised as a girl in his childhood, made to wear dresses and answer to a girl’s name—a fantastical figment of his mother’s denial, who had earlier lost a daughter. There is the other fact that—as a kind of extreme corrective for his earlier upbringing—he was sent to military school, an experience so hateful it haunted him the rest of his life. And there are the smaller facts for which, perhaps more than anything, we read biographies. That he wrote his poems on blue paper. That a postcard reproduction of a painting of Orpheus, pinned over his desk by a lover, was one of the sparks that led him to The Sonnets to Orpheus. In the biography of Rilke by Wolfgang Leppmann, there is the marvelous anecdote of how Lou Andreas-Salomé—Rilke’s first lover and mentor, an older woman of huge intellectual ambition who was a distinct literary figure in her own time—married her husband. In 1887 Friedrich Carl Andreas, a scholar at the University of Berlin, fell in love with Lou. But, Leppmann writes, “When he saw that she could not make up her mind to accept him and kept putting him off with excuses, he stabbed himself in the chest with a knife before her very eyes. It was a gesture—it was meant seriously and came within an inch of costing him his life—that even Lou could not resist.” But Lou would get the concluding word in the drama: “Lou was no sooner married, however, than she refused to sleep with her husband, not only on their wedding night but henceforth and forever. For forty-three years, until his death in 1930, the two lived together in a marriage that must often enough have been hell.”
The atmosphere of European literary culture at the turn of the century has a lushness of which Rilke now seems a particular apotheosis—part exemplary sufferer, part prize orchid. Rilke’s biography is studded with the many names of places where he sought escape and patrons who offered him the means of escape. Tortured and fussy, he sought in each place, and seemingly in each new lover, a confluence of internal and external moods that would allow him to do the always-elusive work at hand. What’s continually remarkable is how much of Rilke’s life came to be subsidized, emotionally and financially, by other people who were always willing to support him. I have to admit to the vague puritanical umbrage that I began to feel with Rilke as I read the biographies of him. One wouldn’t mind being these great men, I thought, though no one should ever have to be their wives or children. More often than not, we accord to our artists the follies of their biographies because, like astronauts and athletes, they report back from areas of extremity that we are unlikely to reach ourselves. Facing that extremity demands the superlative artist’s every will, and a dramatic new wherewithal to orient himself in the landscape of that other side. In a letter from 1907 Rilke wrote, “Surely all great art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.” The gloss of myth that now emanates from Rilke’s reputation is drawn from his having written the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus. These are utterly idiosyncratic works. They delineate a mode of being which can be sublimely redemptive at best, and alien and somehow gothic at worst. In both sequences, it is the life of the artist dramatized to complete fulfillment, a life that has nearly jettisoned the diurnal for the sphere of great art. As Rilke wrote in another letter, “Oh Lou, a poem that turns out right is far more real to me than any sympathy or affection that I may feel.”
In a characteristically agitated essay on Rodin, John Berger makes a case for the problematic psychology behind the sculptor’s work. A man of immoderate ego and consuming sexuality, Rodin is seen as a sculptor who distorts and truncates his figures as though they were “prisoners” under a monstrous warden. “They are physically compressed, imprisoned, forced back,” Berger writes, “by the force of Rodin as dominator. Objectively speaking these works are expressions of his own freedom and imagination. But because clay and flesh are so ambivalently and fatally related in his mind, he is forced to treat them as though they were a challenge to his own authority and potency.” Berger points out that in one of the nude sketches for what would be the monumental Balzac, which Rodin considered his masterpiece, the figure’s right hand grips the hard penis. Rilke returned to Paris in 1905 to act as a secretary to the sculptor; in 1906 his employment and friendship with Rodin ended. It is difficult to liken the moony, meticulous Rilke to the brusque, masculine Rodin, and it seems more likely that Rilke would have disregarded Rodin’s glowering sexuality, or seen it as the symptomatic fires of “freedom and imagination.” Rilke had many loves, but his bearing toward them in his letters is akin to the bearing he found in writing his many poems about flowers—generously praising, open-hearted, but always from arm’s length, more keen on the aesthetic than the emotional. In Rilke’s work there are very few love poems, poems directed to a discernibly human beloved. The swooningly beautiful “Eastern Aubade” in the first volume of New Poems, and the guiltily lush elegy to Paula Modersohn-Becker, “Requiem for a Friend,” come to mind as clear exceptions. But for the most part the you that appears in Rilke’s poems is never the romantically contingent or religiously minted you of other poets. If love poems are the glorious precipitates of a life lived in tangled worldliness, love poems have no real place in Rilke’s project in poetry, which is to posit a self that embodies the hybrid idealisms of being both earth and spirit. Rilke’s you is always the self, tracked on its pilgrim’s progress toward ideal form. In his early lyrics, Rilke had the worried cast of mind of a believer seeking to be taken back by God; the poems are atmospheric in their brooding and singing, naïve and sentimental. In the late phase of Rilke’s writing, in the time of the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, that modest spiritual work finds a grandeur that is inarguably soaring. The mythology of self had been arrived at. The idealism had been found.
As a “hinge” in the narrative of his life as a poet, the period of the New Poems is crucial. And this is where the passionate identification with Rodin became paramount for Rilke: Rodin was a seductive figure of the profane. The New Poems would become an analysis of the textures and vivacities of the impure world—a world that Rodin, in his strenuous labor, gave a kind of typological purity. Berger’s critique of the power dynamic in Rodin’s work is perhaps another way of saying that in Rodin the world is wrenchingly being fed into the fires of a great and idiosyncratic style. It is this style, manifested in a work ethic, that Rilke saw in the sculptor. If the voice of the late Rilke has a largeness that almost excludes us, the poems of his Paris years are beguilingly scaled to our everyday hands and eyes. They have the intimacy of small sculptures. The New Poems are also wildly uneven, an expected by-product of their pell-mell variety. In the two volumes there are more than 120 poems, most of them written swiftly over the course of less than two years. There are poems that, with moving luminosity, look at the fountains and parks and avenues and squares of various cities. These poems are like the photographs of Atget, in which one can’t tell whether clear-eyed document or sepia-toned nostalgia—or both—is being intended. There are the poems that, with a Baudelairean affinity for the grotesqueries of city life, describe “The Blind Man,” “One of the Old Women,” “Corpse-Washing.” There are the concentrated examinations of flowers which, like Manet in his sick old age obsessively painting still life after still life of flowers, describe the flowers into quiet, revelatory being. The greatest of these flower poems is “Bowl of Roses,” which, after the initial perfect circumference of “Blue Hydrangea,” reads as an elongated, exploded version of the earlier poem. The poem begins as a catalogue of worldly fright and noise: two boys fight, “writhing on the ground / like an animal attacked by bees,” and horses careen, “baring their teeth / as if their skulls were peeling through their mouths.” But the bowl of roses, the sudden visual grip it has on the observer, makes that outside world vanish. The balance of the poem is a hushed scrutiny of the bowl’s casual arrangement, rose by rose. Each flower is seen to have a “self-illuminating” aura, an active stillness. One rose is like an eye opening—“and beneath it lie eyelid after eyelid.” A white rose is like “a Venus balanced on her seashell.” And another one still is like “a shallow china cup.” The charge of escapism that’s sometimes leveled against Rilke can probably be evidenced in this poem’s determined inwardness. But it bears continuous repeating that Rilke always means to see past what’s in front of him. Like the angels of his Elegies, like the Orpheus of his Sonnets, Rilke is always on his way to somewhere else.
In Paris in the fall of 1907, there was a memorial exhibition of the paintings of Cézanne, who had died the previous year. That October Rilke would visit the show many times, writing letters to Clara about the absorbing lessons he increasingly saw in the work and in the man. After Rodin, Cézanne proved to be the other defining catalyst for the New Poems. Rilke had said of Rodin that “reality was on his side”; similarly, the reality of things revealed itself to Cézanne because of his painstaking, even self-sacrificing, deliberateness. Cézanne had an “infinitely responsive conscience,” Rilke wrote, and the artist had earned a “limitless objectivity” that was codified in his manner of working. There was a “personal madness” in Rodin and Cézanne. And while the young Rilke might have wanted to romanticize that madness, he also saw that it was merely a means to a fecund technical end. The subjects in Cézanne’s paintings may have been as commonplace as those Rilke painted in his own New Poems, but in the crucible of Cézanne’s seeing those subjects gained a metaphysical geometry.
In “Blue Hydrangea” the chromatic delineation that takes place, the strong valences attached to the colors of the hydrangea plant, point to the bravura paint-handling that Rilke engages in in the poem. The poem is, of course, made of words that ultimately signify a rhetorically unified thematic whole. But by abstracting the plant into its component blue and green—and making these two abstract nouns stand for the plant itself—the poem also composes a parallel pictorial whole that has an aspect akin to a late Cézanne watercolor. In the poem’s first stanza, the green and blue are introduced; the following two stanzas examine the qualities of the blue; finally, the last stanza brings back the green and blue, this time changed and burnished. That is to say, the blue and green have been turned into the elemental problems of an empirical analysis of the plant. The plant’s color values articulate a compositional felicity on Rilke’s part, one that gives the plant—and the poem—a sense of uncanny depth.
Rilke immersed himself in Cézanne well after he wrote “Blue Hydrangea,” but to my mind the work he conducts in the poem—his “paint-handling”—anticipates the resolutions he would draw from Cézanne and put to use in the later poems of the New Poems. Especially in his management of color in “Blue Hydrangea,” he enacts a precept of Cézanne’s vision that Roger Fry, in a brilliant early study of Cézanne, describes as a “conception of color not as an adjunct of form, as something imposed upon form, but as itself the direct exponent of form.” The painterliness of “Blue Hydrangea” also evinces the characteristic nuancing that Fry sees in Cézanne’s paintings, in which “changes of color correspond to movements of planes.” In Rilke’s poem these “planes” are finally emotional and intellectual planes; nevertheless, the poem, in its layered perceptions, presents a completed image that’s analogous to the planar layering of Cézanne’s paintings. In examining their stances toward reality, what Rilke took from Rodin and Cézanne was their way of modeling that reality toward their own stringent logic. The plasticity of the world at hand, its variousness to touch and sight—this is one of the astounding discoveries in “Blue Hydrangea.” In its modulations of imagery and color, the poem has the immediacy of one of Cézanne’s plein air works. But in its formality as a sonnet, its built shape, it also achieves the dark palpability of Rodin’s sculptures.
“Blue Hydrangea” has, to borrow Jed Perl’s phrase about Cézanne’s work, a “purified materialism”—a quality garnered through restive seeing and describing. But if, as Emily Dickinson points out, “The Outer—from the Inner / Derives its Magnitude,” then the materialism of the blue hydrangea is ultimately the bloom of an inner occasion. “Blue Hydrangea” seems to me one of the most moving of Rilke’s poems because it so humanely encompasses the lived life of the man—not just of the solitary spiritual explorer, but also the man of utter worldliness. At every turn of its image-making and metaphor-making, the poem draws from that worldliness, that sense of finite magnitude. In the first stanza, the leftover green paint in the paint pots—to which the plant’s leaves are likened—situates us in a painter’s studio, a place for art and its aspirations. To portray life and nature and our experience of both; to create a stay against reality’s confusions; to construct a permanence—the painter and poet deal in these directives. The poem’s reference to the painter’s studio is an acknowledgment of those directives. Moreover, the painter’s studio implies a concretely synonymous space for what the poem itself will be: the locus of artful making. The second stanza’s simile, which compares the faded blue flowers to blue writing paper, shifts the poem’s thematic focus from art to human temporality. In its uses—as something, say, on which letters and poems are written—the blue paper suggests the ways in which we yearn to communicate ourselves to others, a yearning predicated on our awareness of the short-lived nature of experience, of life itself. The colors which qualify the blueness of the paper—yellow, violet, gray—could even be taken as portraying the pallor of a body in death. Just as the hydrangea’s bloom eventually devolves into brittle grayness, so the corpse takes on the tonalities of yellow, violet, gray. In the third stanza, the faded flowers are seen as being “washed out as on a child’s pinafore.” The appearance of the child in the poem, synecdochically represented by her dress, brings a startling, sadly beautiful figure into the poem. In our minds we must imagine a child, an image of ideal being—but, as directed by the line, we are simultaneously forced to see that child age and fade. The child’s dress, “no longer worn,” is like the child’s ideal representativeness, abandoned in the child’s transformation into another being. The speaker’s realization of the relentless speed of life exerts a gravity-pull on the poem and all its acts of correspondence, culminating in the epigrammatic sigh of line eleven: “how one feels a small life’s shortness.” In “Blue Hydrangea,” what had seemed a moment’s thought, a sketch of a flower—how unlikely, after all, that leaves should be like green paint, that flowers should be like mirrors, blue writing paper, and a child’s dress—is in the end a charged depiction of “life’s shortness,” and also, in the final stanza’s image of exclamatory life, of the lyric work that can transcend that shortness.
Rilke imagined one version of a death for himself. The passage appears in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the novel he wrote in Paris in agonized exhaustion as he was also completing the last of the New Poems. The novel treads dreamily through the dusty, ornate rooms of an old man’s memory, at times brocaded densely with narratives, and at other times airy with a twilight lyricism:
Moreover I now well understand how one could carry with one, through all the years, way inside one’s wallet, the description of a dying hour. It need not even be an especially selected one; they all have something almost extraordinary about them. Can one not, for example, imagine somebody copying out how Felix Arvers died? It was in a hospital. He was dying in a gentle and unruffled way, and the nun perhaps thought he had gone further with it than in reality he had. Quite loudly she called out an indication where such and such was to be found. She was a rather uneducated nun; the word “corridor,” which at the moment was not to be avoided, she had never seen written; so it was that she said “collidor,” thinking that was the word. At that Arvers postponed dying. It seemed to him necessary to put this right first. He became perfectly lucid and explained to her that it should be “corridor.” Then he died. He was a poet and hated the approximate; or perhaps he was only concerned with the truth; or it annoyed him to carry away this last impression that the world would go on so carelessly.
Rilke died from leukemia on December 29, 1926, in Switzerland, where he had been living for the last five years. He was fifty-one years old. By this time his great work was done: the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus were published in 1923 and soon cast a new and lasting glimmer on the reputation his earlier work had brought him. He was writing poems in French, short and effusive lyrics that were published on the year of his death with the title Orchards. By all accounts he had a death as dignified—even elegant—as his imagined old poet, Arvers. But it was also an extremely painful death, with parts of his body ulcerated and fevers rendering him unconscious. In his will he directed that his tombstone be engraved with the lines: “Rose, pure contradiction, joy / to be nobody’s sleep under that many / eyelids.”
In 1906, when Rilke wrote “Blue Hydrangea,” his daughter would have been five years old; her name was Ruth. And if the presence of Ruth figures almost nowhere in Rilke’s poetry—as, indeed, so few of those near to him appeared in his poems at all—in “Blue Hydrangea” the five-year-old child haunts the poem like a secret life. The facts of Rilke’s biography, in light of the permanence his greatest poems have attained, are less and less important to us. And this is as it should be. The poems now have a life of their own, impressing their convictions upon us at a far remove from the man who conjured them. The man must finally altogether recede, even as his poems keep arriving. But part of the weight that “Blue Hydrangea” carries, ineluctably, are those facts that inhabit the poem in ghostlier demarcations of Rilke’s biography. The paint pots of the poem’s first stanza would have to be the paint pots in the studios in Worpswede, the artists’ enclave where Rilke spent a glorious, productive period in 1900. In the high-minded camaraderie of the painters, Rilke thrived. He adored, and perhaps fell in love with, Paula Becker, the painter he would memorialize in “Requiem.” And he married Clara Westhoff, a sculptor who had studied under Rodin and who would subsequently introduce Rilke to the figure of the master. In the second stanza, the blue writing paper becomes emblematic of the decided homelessness that Rilke lived and would live all his life. Never staying anywhere for long, always needing new configurations of solitude, Rilke wrote thousands of letters from the various places he would inevitably tire of. “And one has nothing and nobody,” he admits in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “and one travels about the world with a trunk and a case of books and really without curiosity. What sort of life is it really: without a house, without inherited things, without dogs?” One thinks of those blue pieces of writing paper as the mirrors by which he saw himself, his poems and letters appearing in them like versions of a changing face. In the third stanza, the child in her pinafore brings a sharp melancholy that initially speaks for the brevity of life. But finally, it seems to me, the appearance of the child—of Ruth—speaks for the measure of regret that must have been a part of Rilke’s stance toward the fractured family that was a result of his ambition as an artist. That regret, undeniable as I hope it to be in “Blue Hydrangea,” is almost not there at all—and might, in fact, not be there at all. But that is where I want to see Rilke, poised inward and outward, reminded of the everyday realm of nearness, believing, at least as long as the poem’s moment lasted, in the clarifications of ordinary love.