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"Ihr Erstehn ging ber alles fort...

": A Thematic Analysis of Rilke's "Die Kathedrale"

Author(s): Ernest M. Wolf
Source: The German Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Mar., 1968), pp. 196-206
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German
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Ernest M. Wolf
IN jenen kleinen Staidten, wo herum

die alten Haiuser wie ein Jahrmarkt hocken,

der sie bemerkt hat plotzlich und, erschrocken,
die Buden zumacht und, ganz zu und stumm,
die Schreier still, die Trommeln angehalten,
zu ihr hinaufhorcht aufgeregten Ohrs-:
dieweil sie ruhig immer in dem alten
Faltenmantel ihrer Contreforts
dasteht und von den Hiausern gar nicht weil3:
in jenen kleinen Stidten kannst du sehn,
wie sehr entwachsen ihrem Umgangskreis
die Kathedralen waren. Ihr Erstehn
ging iiber alles fort, sowie den Blick
des eignen Lebens viel zu gro3e Nihe
fortwihrend iibersteigt, und als geschahe
nichts anderes; als wiire Das Geschick,
was sich in ihnen aufhauft ohne MaBen,
versteinert und zum Dauernden bestimmt,
nicht Das, was unten in den dunklen StraBen
vom Zufall irgendwelche Namen nimmt
und darin geht, wie Kinder Griin und Rot
und was der Kriimer hat als Schiirze tragen.
Da war Geburt in diesen Unterlagen
Und Kraft und Andrang war in diesem Ragen
und Liebe iiberall wie Wein und Brot,
und die Portale voller Liebesklagen.
Das Leben zogerte im Stundenschlagen,
und in den Tiirmen, welche voll Entsagen
auf einmal nicht mehr stiegen, war der Tod.'
The poems of the Chartres Cycle in Rilke's Neue Gedichte deal
with cathedrals or with their architectural and sculptural parts. Their
titles read like the table of contents of a systematic poetical treatise
about them: Das Portal, Die Fensterrose, Das Kapitdl. Because of this
obvious thematic center the Chartres Cycle is also frequently and
justifiably called "The Cathedral Cycle." One would expect that in
*The substance of this essay was given as a paper in the Germanic
Section of the Philological Association of the Pacific Coast at its meeting
on November 25, 1966, at the University of California, Berkeley.

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a group of this nature and content a poem entitled Die Kathedrale

would logically stand first as a kind of opener or introduction to the
rest. But this is not the case. L'Ange du Meridien, a poem about the
statue of the Angel with the Sundial at Chartres Cathedral, is the
first of the group. Die Kathedrale stands in second place.
If Die Kathedrale had to cede the honor of the first place to
L'Ange du Meridien, it can, on the other hand, lay claim to some
other distinctions which make it stand out from among the rest of the
poems in the group. It is, first, the only one among them which is
not a sonnet. And with its twenty-nine lines it is, secondly, twice as
long as its companion pieces. These two formal characteristicsprobably
mean that Rilke intended to give some sort of special emphasis to
the poem even though he did not place it at the very head of the group.
The unusual length of Die Kathedrale may indicate that what is
said in the poem is of particular importance, that it perhaps contains
some basic thoughts and themes. An analysis of Die Kathedrale may
therefore prove to be particularly rewarding for general reasons as
well as because of its position within the context of the entire cycle.
The twenty-nine lines of the poem are distributed over two
stanzas of unequal length. The first stanza has nine lines, the second
has twenty. The lines are rhymed, but the rhyme scheme is irregular.
Structurally and thematically, however, the poem can be divided into
three main parts. It develops in three great antitheses, each of them
revolving around certain aspects of the cathedral, its appearance and
significance. The first antithesis contrasts the small houses of the
towns with the towering cathedrals that rise up in their midst. The
second opposes the permanence and durability of the cathedrals to the
short-lived impermanence and transitorinessof the men who populate
the streets of the towns. The third and last of the antitheses compares
the intense and passionate life of the Middle Ages which created the
cathedrals to the shallowness and emptiness of modern existence.
The opening lines of the poem sketch out the image of a typical
cathedral town whose basic aspects have not changed since the Middle
Ages. Here the small houses cluster anxiously around the main church
building which dominates them by its bulk and by the height of its
soaring towers. But this familiar image is translated by Rilke into a
simile of striking originality. He compares the huddling houses to the
stands of a fair. And he imagines that these stands and the barkers
and drummers of their sideshows suddenly have become aware of

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that towering presence among them, of the cathedral. Shocked and

shamed they close down their displays. In silent awe they turn their
whole attention toward that building, listening with anxious ears to its
message. We know from the tenth Duino Elegy that the fair is one of
Rilke's most powerful and significant symbols for the hollowness and
shallowness of the inauthentic human life:
DrauBen aber krauseln sich immer die Rander von Jahrmarkt.
Schaukeln der Freiheit! Taucher und Gaukler des Eifers!
Und des behiibschten Gliicks figiirliche SchieBstatt,
wo es zappelt von Ziel und sich blechern benimmt,
wenn ein Geschickterer trifft. Von Beifall zu Zufall
taumelt er weiter; denn Buden jeglicher Neugier
werben, trommeln und pliirrn ....
(SW, x, 722)
Here the theme is more broadly treated, of course. What in the
cathedral poem is only lightly sketched out, is depicted in the later
work with the full palette of the mature master. But the basic ingredients are similar. The contempt for the hectic emptiness of the goingson is the same. Even the words for stalls or booths (Buden) and
drums (Trommeln) recur, although the latter has become a verb
instead of a noun. The church on its city square is present too in
the Elegy. Only it has changed into a cheap commercial imitation of
the authentic creation of which Die Kathedrale speaks. The "Jahrmarkt" has become a "Trostmarkt." And the church is viewed as
closed up with the same laconic finality of the "zu" as the stands of
the fair, but in a more famous metaphor:
0, wie spurlos zertrite ein Engel ihnen den Trostmarkt.
den die Kirche begrenzt, ihre fertig gekaufte:
reinlich und zu und enttiuscht wie ein Postamt am Sonntag.
(SW, I, 721-722)
And we encounter the same basic configuration of a square and a
fair in close vicinity within the first part of the Neue Gcdichte
themselves, in Der Platz. (The church, the third of the elements, is
dealt with in the companion poem, Der Turm.) Here the stands, the
Buden, and the shouting of the sideshow barkers appear again:
WILLKURLICH von Gewesnem


von Wut und Aufruhr, von dem Kunterbunt

das die Verurteilten zu Tod geleitet,
von Buden, von der Jahrmarktsrufer Mund,
und vom Herzog der vorriiberreitet
und von dem Hochmut von Burgund....
(SW, I, 533)

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What has been depicted thus far is only one side of the first antithesis, the small, huddling houses. Now, in the next three lines, the
cathedral itself, the second element of the contrast, comes into view:
dieweil sie ruhig immer in dem alten
Faltenmantel ihrer Contreforts
dasteht und von den Haiusern gar nicht weiB:
The cathedral is pictured here as being unmoved by the tribute the
citizens pay to it-as unmoved as was the Angel with the Sundial by the
fate of the human beings who look to it for guidance. It is oblivious
of the houses and of their inhabitants. There is a poignant and
slightly humorous contrast here between the empty, noisy agitation of
the fair or market and the calm disdain and remoteness of the church.
This contrast is also expressed in the nervousness of the "aufgeregten
Ohrs" of the sixth line and the reposeful "ruhig immer" in the seventh
line with which the relaxed posture, the "Dastehn," of the cathedral
is characterized.
With the "alten Faltenmantel ihrer Contreforts" is meant the
armature of powerful buttresses which represents the visible, exterior
scaffolding of the Gothic cathedrals and one of their main structural
features. Rilke compares their appearance to a wide cloak of many
folds which the cathedral wraps around itself. In describing the garment, he uses an a assonance combined with a double It alliteration
four times. The metaphor evokes the image of a king or queen, wearing a royal mantle as an indication of the elevated station and rank
occupied in life. It depicts the majestic, regal bearing of the cathedral.
With the three lines about the buttresses we have reached the end
of the first stanza and at the same time the end of the first antithesis.
The one great caesura of the poem occurs at this point. The first
stanza has given us the basic material background, the visual image
of the town and its cathedral. The remaining twenty lines and their two
antitheses will interpret the meaning of the visual impression, varying
and amplifying the basic theme. The first line of the second stanza is
closely linked to the first line of the first stanza by an exact repetition
of its four initial words: "in jenen kleinen Stadten." By this rhetorical
device the caesura is bridged and the first stanza together with the first
three lines of the second stanza forms a single overarching syntactical
unit. The first period occurs in the middle of the third line of this
in jenen kleinen Stiidten kannst du sehn,
wie sehr entwachsen ihrem Umgangskreis
die Kathedralen waren.

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Until now the poem has never explicitly named the church building, which is referred to only by the stressed pronoun sie. Its existence
has only been indirectly indicated, by its effect on the houses and the
people. Now, however, the subject is identified. The word "cathedrals,"
"die Kathedralen," is used for the first time, signalling that the exposition has ended and that the working-out of the theme, the Durchfiihrung, is to begin:
. . . Ihr Erstehn

ging fiber alles fort, so wie den Blick

des eignen Lebens viel zu gro3e Nihe
fortwahrend iibersteigt, und als geschihe
nichts anderes. ....

The key concept here is the height of the cathedrals in their relation
to the other buildings, the fact of their "surpassing" or "exceeding"
everything around them. The towering of the cathedrals over their
surroundings is seen through the eyes of an observer who stands so
close to them that their bulk blots out everything else. It is impossible
for him to embrace such buildings with a single glance. They loom too
large for him. This impression is likened in a bold simile to our not
being able to encompass the whole of our own life because we stand too
close to it. Its sum constantly escapes and evades us; it extends beyond
our sight, it exceeds our vision, and it surpasses our attempts at comprehension. It blocks our perception of everything else so that we are
not aware of anything beyond and beside it. This seems to be the

of the rather enigmatic



". .

und als

geschahe nichts anderes."

This emphasis on the mounting and rising of the cathedral is also
expressed in the change from the "Dastehn" of the first stanza to the
"Erstehn" of the second. The "Dastehn" is the static posture of the
building as it rests on its foundations. The "Erstehn" conveys the
dynamic energy with which the edifice thrusts itself upwards, pushing
off from the ground, with its nave and spires, to reach towards the
heights. This "Erstehn" takes up in another key the "wie sehr

. . . waren"

of the preceding

line. The noun Erstehn


is rare in the meaning in which it is used here. As far as we know, Rilke

uses Erstehn only one other time in his work, in a poem of the StundenBuch. There he says: "Denn was sind Kirchen und sind Kloster / in
ihrem Steigen und Erstehn" (SW, i, 289). These lines occur in a
context which is very similar to that of our poem. They, too, speak of
tall religious buildings, of churches and monasteries. And by coupling

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it here with the alliterative "Steigen," Rilke makes it clear that

"Erstehn" is synonymous with this more common verbal noun which
denotes the same action of ascending, mounting, or rising. The deliberate use of "Erstehn" in this uncommon meaning reinforces the
feeling of astonishment and wonderment which the sight of the tall
building produces in the observer.
In the next seven lines the basic thought of the "excessive"character of the cathedrals is varied, illustratedby a new simile, and developed
into the second great antithesis:
... als ware Das Geschick,
was sich in ihnen aufhiuft ohne MaBen,
versteinertund zum Dauerndenbestimmt,
nicht Das, was unten in den dunklen StraBen
vom Zufall irgendwelcheNamen nimmt
und darin geht, wie KinderGriinund Rot
und was der Kramer hat als Schiirze tragen.
The antithesis here contrasts the durability of the stone buildings with
the transitorinessof the human lives which play out their ephemeral
parts in the narrow lanes at their feet. In the stone walls of the cathedrals, destiny or fate-"Das Geschick"-is condensed beyond human
measure. It is compacted in the cathedrals into a different state of
aggregation because it is petrified. Thus it is destined to last, to
endure beyond the short span of human lives ("versteinert und zum
Dauernden bestimmt"). In the adjective "versteinert,""petrified,"we
recognize the word with which Rilke in L'Ange addresses the angel
when he calls him "Steinerner" and reproachfully denies to him any
knowledge of the "human condition," of man's being and man's fate.
In both cases the hardness and permanence of the stone is opposed
to the impermanenceand transitorinessof men.
For among the human beings in the dark city streets destiny has
another face. It has no permanence. It is an accidental patchwork, a
meaningless carnival costume. It is the inauthentic, collective destiny
of the multitudes. In this pseudo-destiny, men parade about in the
dark streets of their cities. They are like children who use for their
getups any colored rags they can find in the house or among the odds
and ends of material on the counters of the cloth merchants. What
these children and these men wear are the costumes of fools, clowns,
and harlequins. Compared to the cathedrals their lives are farcical.
They have no dignity because genuine dignity implies permanence.
The awareness of death as the tragic existential limitation of

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human life was never far from Rilke's mind. He therefore unceasingly
searched for a guarantee of permanence. He found one form of it
in works of art, including those of his own poetic craft. They perpetuate
the life of the artist beyond the normal human span. In one of his
first letters to Rodin, written in still awkward French, he speaks of
"this ray of eternity which is the supreme goal of creative life" ("ce
rayon d'eterite qui est le but supreme de la vie creante").2
Works of art exist beyond time. They partake of eternity. This he
says to Lou Andreas-Salome in the famous passage of a letter in which
he defines his conception of the Kunst-Ding, the art-object, as compared to the common objects: "Das Ding ist bestimmt, das KunstDing muB noch bestimmter sein . . . der Zeit enthoben, dem Raum
gegeben, ist es dauernd geworden, fahig zur Ewigkeit."3In one of the
letters to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus he calls the works of art
"geheimnisvolle Existenzen, deren Leben neben dem unseren, das
vergeht, dauert."4 And in his second Rodin essay he describes the
earliest human efforts to produce images of the gods as "Versuche, aus
Menschlichem und Tierischem, das man sah, ein Nicht-Mitsterbendes
zu formen, ein Dauerndes, ein Nichsth6heres: ein Ding" (SW, v, 210).
The next and final seven lines of the poem focus more particularly
on the cathedral as a work of architecture.These lines present the third
antithesis, that which opposes the Middle Ages to our own time. They
consist of two sentences which are separated by a period, thus resulting
in a definite sectioning. The first sentence comprises the first four lines
of the seven:
Da war Geburtin diesen Unterlagen,
und Kraft und Andrangwar in diesemRagen
und Liebeiiberallwie Wein und Brot,
und die Portale voller Liebesklagen.
The first antithesis was a concrete, visual one: the opposition between the low, huddling houses and the high-rising cathedral. The
second antithesis was of a philosophical, existential nature: the contrast
between permanence and impermanence. The third antithesis is an historical one: it compares the life forces of the Middle Ages, the time
which created the cathedrals, with our own age. But only the first
position of the antithesis, medieval life, is made explicit. The counter
position, our own time, is only implied.
The historical dimension is introduced by the words "Da war."
This "da" is to be understood here not in the local sense as "there,"but

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in the temporal sense of damals, "then" or "at that time." This meaning becomes clear if we observe the sequence of tenses in the poem.
The first stanza is written entirely in the present tense. But in the
second stanza the past tense prevails in the verbs which carry the action
and the main thought forward: "wie sehr entwachsen ihrem Umgangskreis / die Kathedralen waren. Ihr Erstehn / ging fiber alles fort."
The poet here describes an historical event. He looks back toward the
Middle Ages, the time when the great cathedrals were conceived and
constructed. The "war" of the first line is repeated in the next one
and in the last in order to make the ternpus perfectum quite explicit.
And the two other verbs in these last lines are likewise in the past:
"z6gerte" and "stiegen," "hesitated"and "climbed"or "rose."
The key words of our four-line sentence are birth and love, two
of the vital forces which nourished the great surge of building. The
heavy foundations of the whole building symbolize for Rilke the act
of birth: "Da war Geburt in diesen Unterlagen." These foundations
support the dynamic strength and the mighty thrust with which the
tall walls of the cathedral and the soaring towers reach upwards:
"und Kraft und Andrang war in diesem Ragen." In these words
Rilke visualizes the Gothic striving for "verticality."
The next two lines call up another of the powerful life-giving
urges which went into the making of the medieval cathedrals: love. It
is said to have reigned supreme everywhere, as common as wine and
bread, staples of life. It filled the church portals with the sighs and
plaints of lovers: "und Liebe iiberall wie Wein und Brot / und die
Portale voller Liebesklagen."The meaning of the love which is praised
here can be twofold. It can be, as I have indicated, the love for and
and between human beings, the secular, erotic form of the relationship.
But the mention of "bread and wine," the elements of the Eucharist,
make another interpretation possible. The introduction of the symbols
of the sacrificial Christ calls up religious associations. In this sense the
poet speaks not of profane but of sacred love. The "lovers' plaints"
which echoed from the portals would then have to be understood as
alluding to the laments of the worshippers offering up their love in
the form of prayers to Christ and the Virgin as represented in the
statues, and to the saints and martyrs sculptured on the doorways.
This ambiguity in the meaning of the word may be deliberate. Rilke
may have wanted us to think of both kinds of love, the sacred and the
profane. He therefore may have selected a term which covered both,

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thus making it difficult for the reader to decide which of the two
meanings to apply. In any event, the religious interpretation cannot
be considered farfetched where we have to deal with the description
of a cathedral and with the Middle Ages.
The four-line sentence which we have just discussed spoke of birth
and love. The three-line sentence which follows and which concludes
the poem speaks of life and death:
Das Lebenzogerte im Stundenschlagen,
und in den Tiirmen,welche voll Entsagen
auf einmal nicht mehr stiegen, war der Tod.
Here Rilke focuses on different aspects of medieval life. First is its
slow, measured pace. We are still within the image and within view of
the cathedral, as the mention of the towers in the next-to-last line
proves. When we read of the "Stundenschlagen,"the chiming of the
hours, we must think of the metaphor as being concretely associated
with a church building. We have to imagine hearing the bells of a
medieval cathedral slowly tolling out the hours, in measured intervals.
And since medieval life regulated its course according to the tolling
of the church bells, it can be said to have assumed the same unhurried,
slow-paced rhythm: it "hesitated" as it were, "Das Leben zogerte im
The chiming bells have directed our eyes upwards, towards the
towers, from which the sound of the tolling usually emanates. And of
these towers or spires of the cathedral it is now said that they suddenly
cease to ascend. This abrupt desisting from rising and mounting is like
a gesture of renunciation on their part. And this gesture evokes the
somber figure of death, which dwells in the towers. The association
between the two themes is not immediately apparent. It may be that
the sudden halting of the upward movement of the towers is felt by the
poet to symbolize the sudden end which death puts to life. Death cuts
off life, leaving it unfulfilled, like the towers of some French cathedrals
which are left without spires, and which therefore appear to be uncompleted and strangely truncated. Death could also be associated with the
bells and their striking of the hours. The bells tolled for funerals and
to announce the execution of criminals; mortuos plango, "I lament
the dead," was therefore inscribed on many of them.
Thus, the final word of the whole poem is "death," "der Tod."
However, in spite of the somberness of the two themes introduced in
these last three lines it should not be assumed that they necessarily

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carry here purely or predominantly negative connotations. In the

preceding four lines Rilke has set out to paint a favorable, idealized
picture of the Middle Ages as it is reflected and symbolized in the
cathedrals. He sees these times with the eyes of the German Romanticists as a Golden Age. Their strength and the source of their superiority over our own time lie in the union of religious fervor and artistic
creativity which characterizedthem. This was the soil out of which the
great cathedrals grew. For Rilke, the life of the Middle Ages was more
powerful and more creative than ours. While describing in his Rodin
essay the gargoyles on the French cathedrals, he says of them that
". .. sie lebten stiirker und heftiger, lebten fur ewig das inbriinstige
und ungestiime Leben jener Zeit, die sie hatte entstehen lassen" (SW,
v, 145).
The last three lines continue this positive image of the Middle
Ages although, upon a merely cursoryexamination, they seem to depart
from it. Those features of medieval life which they emphasize-its
slower pace, its capacity for renunciation, its constant awareness of
death-can be viewed as assets when confronted with the realities of
modem life as implied here. For Rilke these traits are virtues which
render medieval life superior to our own. He loathed the feverish
agitation of modern life, its ceaseless search for shallow pleasures, and
its facile fulfillment of every wish. In the letter written to his wife in
which he describes to her his reactions to the cathedrals, he defines
very clearly whaat they mean to him. He erperiences them as oases of
quiet and refuge within the hectic life of the modern metropolis:
"Ich glaube, sie sind inmitten dieser groflen Stadt... die Einsamkeit
und die Stille, die Zuflucht und die Ruhe im Wechsel und Wirrwar
dieser Gassen ... alles andere lauft, rinnt, rennt und fiillt ... sie ragen
und warten."5 And in another letter to Clara, written about a month
earlier, he defines for her his ideal of the "good life" as follows:
". .. Lebenstrieb ist das-Leben? Nein-Leben ist etwas Ruhiges,
Weites, Einfaches, Lebenstrieb ist Hast und Jagd. Trieb, das Leben
zu haben, gleich, ganz, in einer Stunde...."6
Rilke was obsessed by the thought of death. All his work was
fundamentally a sustained effort to see death as something positive, of
a piece with life itself. In the end he was able to make it an integral
part of his life and thus to "conquer" it. Rilke insisted on one thing
above all: that man should be conscious of death at all times. And
this constant awareness of death is just what is lacking in modem life.

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It is oblivious of death. It tries to cover death up, to drown it out

through continuous activity. It has forgotten the ars moriendi, the
"art of dying," which the Middle Ages knew. Here the memento mori
rose everywhere, in the ster teachings of religion, in the scenes of the
last judgment, of heaven and hell, on the tympana of the cathedrals,
in the realistic frescoes of the campo. santo which showed corpses in a
state of putrefaction, and in the terrifying pictorial representations of
the Dance of Death. To say of the towers of the cathedral that "death
dwells in them" is therefore no derogation for Rilke. In its presence
medieval life culminated, as the cathedral culminates in its towers, and
as the poem about the cathedral culminates in its last word: death,
"der Tod."7
San Diego State College
1 Rainer Maria Rilke, Sdmtliche Werke, ed. Ernst Zinn for the Rilke
Archive with Ruth Sieber-Rilke (Frankfurt a.M., 1955-66), I, 497498. Hereafter cited in the text as SW.
2 R. M. Rilke, Briefe (Leipzig, 1933-54), II, 16 (letter of August 1,
8 R. M. Rilke, Briefe (Wiesbaden, 1950), I, 55 (letter of August 8,
4 Ibid., I, 41 (letter of February 17, 1903).
5R. M. Rilke, Briefe (Leipzig, 1933-54), II, 44 (letter of September
27, 1902).
6 Ibid., ii, 25 (letter of August 31, 1902).

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