The Upper Case(from Things that Happen when Reading Rilke)
When struggling to read Rilke in German, capital letters in the middle of a sentence make me wince. My reaction must be put down to a cultural bias. I associate the giraffing of honest work-horse words with idealist philosophy (Lofty thoughts with nowhere to go except back to Themselves) and the worst excesses of German Romanticism (High-stepping around the Maypole). I know such capitalisation is an ancient linguistic convention, and who am I to lock antlers with the language of Goethe, Hölderlin and Georg Buchner. Still such linguistic prejudices are a stumbling block to appreciating Rilke in his vernacular.
Capitalisation in poetry is a vexed question. In modern poetry the first word in every line is not necessarily uppercase. Although it’s required for the first letter of new sentences within the poem (pace e.e. cummings). But, when there is line breaks mid-sentence, lowercase first-letters serve to demystify the meaning by taking the jolt out of the sentence’s flow. Alas when I get a poem published sub-editors tend to regularise them to pre-modern giraffing. And even more distressingly many poets I love like Wallace Stevens, and respect like Seamus Heaney, insist on first-letter capitals for every line. It’s a losing battle. My word-processor routinely giraffes lowercase line-starts.
Rilke uses mid-line capitals less wilfully in his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge than, say, in the Duino Elegies. Like with The Letters to a Young Poet, he conforms to a more relaxed German usage, and it’s hardly noticeable until towards the end. Then perhaps he feels a Grand Sinderesis is in order as God or a Supreme Editor makes an eleventh-hour entrance. His soul-stirring ascension on stilts is saying hallo-and-goodbye to Higher Things.
Capitalisation is not only a question of the German language. In Malte’s invocation to himself to ‘write, write, day and night. The Written is what matters.’, the capitalized ‘W’ is the biblical short hand for the word of God (though in my transcriptions of The Note Books I leave it lowercase as Rilke’s god may not be the Christian One and Only). The King James Bible standardised the use of capitals in the scriptures. I take this for granted as I was brought up on it. But since ur-script doesn’t register in the memory, I return to the copy I inherited from my father. The fine paper is so delicate to the touch that to the turn the pages risks tearing. In order to avoid desecration, I’ve bought a more robust copy. But it’s so hefty that I need a lectern to place it on, like the missal at High Mass (High Mass is uppercase to distinguish it from the mass in Einstein’s E=mc2). It also has a ribbon as a page-marker, and that seems too frivolous for a sacred text.
A computer reading offers a compromise. But any book of over a thousand and half pages played on a keyboard to project on a one-dimensional screen is bound to be heavy going. I keep changing the font in order to accommodate my eyes to the fleeting text. If I can size it with holding pages individually for the requisite reading time (a minute for King James), it lightens my task... But, as my eyes tire, I need to increase the font size, and that muddles up the chapters and verse.
Above all, what stands out is the capital letters used for a whole word like LORD. On-line it’s associated with shouting (‘Get me OUT. We’re NOT COMPATIBLE’). Worse, I hadn’t noticed the uppercase shifts previously. I had the words off-by-heart and reading them was more a prompt than an autocue. Now the cybernetic giraffing lends the King James a hysterical dimension. It’s bawling at me. And loses its authority. I want to slap its face.
Still, how else does one make the distinction between the LORD Almighty and the token nobility which sit in the House of Lords? I’ve pondered this with youth in mind, and the future when books will be art objects, not functional reading matter. How to explain to my time-strapped grand-nephew the relevance of an old-fashioned scroll rolling itself out before their tapping? It would be a shame if the boy missed out on its deep socio-cultural significance and, indeed, the poetry. But, obliged to plead the case for electronic reading as it’s the future, I find myself less than convincing. A book in your hand is worth two at your fingertips in cyberspace.
I return again to my father’s copy of King James. The softness of its paper calms me down. You don’t have to read it to realise it means what it says. The ‘let be be’ is ‘the finale of seems’ (Wallace Stevens). This is negative capability in action. Or blind faith, some would say. I pooh-pooh the notion and read on, or rather thumb through it backwards, like a film montage, stopping at every Book, from Genesis to Revelation, noting how mid-line capitalisations highlight significance. The regular giraffing is for the leading lights - God, The Holy Ghost, Jehovah, Christ, Father, Mother – and the intermittent ones for Earth, Man, Woman, Comforter, Master, Rock, Sons, Daughters - and invocations to them – ‘Rise to’, ‘Go show’, ‘Thou wilt’, and the solo ‘O’.
I compare it with ‘Modern English Standard’ versions of the late 20th century. These populist Bibles dispense with mid-line capitals as much as they can get away with (God is always God, unless he’s Jehovah). Contrary to their objective – easy reading - it occults the meaning, in both senses of the word: the mystifications are kept afloat in a chug-chug of monotonous prose that seems familiar but lacks emphasis: dumbed down to standard English you’re left in the dark, as banal as a power cut. When you don’t understand King James it’s a blinding light. Mid-sentence uppercase letters loom up like lighthouses when there is a fog at sea, dazzling the reader. He can stop in his track and collect his thoughts and make sense of the encroaching darkness. One may not see the horizon or the far shore, but they suggest themselves sufficiently to allow you to ‘rest in fierce peace’.
Note (to myself): the last sentence owes something to Frederick Seidel and by association with Shakespeare (Richard III). ‘Rest in fierce peace, Edward, on the far shore’. Interpreting the Bible for me has got confused with literature…
The solo ‘O’ is worth a study of its own. It’s the commonest capitalised exclamation in the traditional Bible as well as Shakespeare (edited by Alexander, 1951). Being a one-letter word, its uniqueness ought to be assured, but can be bastardised in modern versions into ‘O’ with a ‘H’ and even a punctuation mark – ‘OH!’ This is a sad fate: an ‘O’ as roundly perfect as Giotto’s has been squared off and reduced to an ejaculation. I can’t say, Gerald Manley Hopkins’s ‘But Ah but O Thou Terrible/ Why wouldst thou Rude on me’ can redeem it. Not written in ‘happy memory’ of drowned nuns’ (‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’) as so often misquoted, but from ‘Carrion Comfort’, a poem that would have shocked Baudelaire. Hopkins execrates poetry as the supreme fiction he is in thrall to, and which is getting between him and God. It’s a relief to return to Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear. ‘Now that thou art an O without a figure, I am better than you. I am a fool (lowercase). Thou art nothing’. It’s numerical, (you’re a) zero. Of course, the ‘O’ usage in mathematics, just as much as the prefix ‘O’ in Irish genealogy, is outside the scope of my argument with Rilke, as they are not, strictly speaking, the literary ‘O’. ‘O’ only figures in German as ‘ach’, and, therefore, as English translation can be regarded as a secondary concern, I leave the matter rest.
In other words, I let my Upper/lower case remain where it began. I wince but get on with reading as best I can. But my irritation is in good company, at least in English. The house-style of most serious publishers is to limit first-letter upper case to the minimum, even putting the giraffing of the word ‘god’ in question (I myself am inconsistent with this and will require both theological and editorial assistance to standardise it when I go to print). The traditional lowercase for the ancient gods is seeping into the J(j)udo-C(c)hristian nomenclature on the basis of usage by believers or cultural fellow-travellers. I would require a philologist to advise me on German conventions as they have evolved not only with easy printing/ reading, but with email/ texting. I suppose I should be relieved that early 20th century Rilke doesn’t present twitter simplifications. But reading some of his poems I still get distracted as though an industrial crane intrudes on a cuckoo’s flight from a plum-tree.