Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
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(from Things That Happen While Reading Rilke)

At his best, Rilke was open minded about what to think on most subjects. He famously said to experience our existence in time and space, stop feeling and stop thinking. Just stay with it and it will make itself felt. But, he could be pig-headed about his notion that death belongs to the disease not the person. He put it to Lou Salome in a letter while writing The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that ‘if God exists, death doesn’t, as what God creates cannot be unmade’.

 The idea of disease-possession was not just a young man’s treatment of death as an abstract concern. He wasn’t denying that death is an end product of corporal disfunction but remained staunch in the belief that it is the disease that dies. That is, until leukaemia in his late forties made him take disease and death personally. The hyperactive white blood corpuscles turning his blood to poison may have belonged to the disease, but his body’s ownership of death was no longer in doubt. His apology to backtracking was to dispute the diagnosis, dying in his doctor’s arms, still insisting that it was the prick of a thorn that poisoned him while picking a rose for a beautiful Egyptian princess. Although the courtly gest and its consequences did not make his death certificate, he gave the rose a life of its own for the epitaph on his tombstone:

 Rose, oh reiner Widerspruce, Lust

Niemandes schlaf zu sein uter sovial lidern

The literal translation is:

Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire to be no-one’s sleep under so many eyelids

I ask Joab Comfort what it means, and he opines ‘it’s a felt thought. Rilke is speaking from the grave to a flower in symbolic terms’. As the symbols are clashing, I consider working on a ‘transcription’, and seek help from Joab’s German colleague, Gretchen Malherbe. She says ‘the words are a jungle of puns and multiple meanings. Only five of the twelve of them have a single meaning… The poem ends with lidern (eyelids) in the dative plural which implies subordination, but to what is the question’.

One of the possible meanings of Witherspruce is ‘answering back’, and this gives me a lead to follow. As the ballasting of the German syntax in German with the giraffing of three key words doesn’t have an equivalent in English, I take the liberty of switching the clauses around. And so, the subordination is qualified:    

 O rose, your innocence answers back, wanting, under so many lids, to be no-one’s sleep

Assuming ‘sleep’ is a metaphor for ‘death’, I think I know what the epitaph means: Rilke is forgiving the rose. 

A rose is a rose is a rose. Gertrude Stein wasn’t having symbols where there are none (to paraphrase Beckett). But they come in useful. Paul Claudel wrote on the fan of his favourite lady, ‘Seule le rose est assez fragile pour exprimer l’eternite’. Only the rose is fragile enough to express eternity. In France red ones are the emblem of an immortal work on annual festival of the book (22 Mai). I rest Rilke’s case. 

Not least having read his secretary’s account of his last few months of life. Genia Tchernosvitow was just out of college, young and beautiful, and a Russian. Rilke played her like a balalaika, and there were happy days. Love and pity go together in the Russian soul, and he responded to both with a liveliness that belied his grave condition. But his fabled gallantry had the pathos of a dying troubadour. Genia mentions that he cut himself while picking her roses from his castle garden. The wound didn’t heal throughout his final illness.

 Still Rilke found it easy to forgive the rose. Its beauty, which was dangerous to grasp, had a fragrance that lingered in the air. He wanted the symbolic cause of his death to be loved eternally. In the churchyard of his castle in Raron, Switzerland, relays of votive roses on his tombstone perpetuates the wish….


In Rainer Maria Rilke (Librairie Les Lettres, Paris 1952), a tribute volume with uncut pages that I picked up last year in a book fair in Lyon there was a memoir on his friendship with the Egyptian/Circassian beauty, Nimet Eloui Bey. She was infatuated by his poetry but only met him once in the last year of his life on a visit to his ‘rundown castle’.