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German Life and Letters 63:2 April 2010

0016-8777 (print); 14680483 (online)





This article examines the function of the language of delicacy and the use of the
term leise in Rainer Maria Rilkes Das Stunden-Buch and the Duineser Elegien. In
particular, I consider the relevance of delicacy to the reassessment of the violence
that haunts the discourses of religion and philosophy through which the poet ad-
dresses the crisis of modernity in his poetry. Starting from the analysis of the am-
biguous treatment of the abstract entities of God and the Angel, I contend that the
attempt to reconcile the sensible with the concept inheres in Rilkes persistent pre-
occupation with Dasein as ideal incorporation of death. I proceed to show that,
conversely, the texts convey the complex experience of mortality as a precarious
and sophisticated way of making sense at the limits of perception. I argue that an
exploratory discursivity articulates the experiences of disbelieving and unknow-
ing whose creative liminality is at variance with the rigidity of the central narratives
of revelation and enlightenment advocated by the poet. I conclude by suggesting
that a comprehensive reading of Rilkes poetry requires the recognition of the con-
dition of delicate being as a mode of resistance to the latent violence of Rilkes
compelling conceptualisations.

Dieser Beitrag untersucht die Funktion der Sprache der Zartheit und den Gebrauch
des Wortes leise in Rainer Maria Rilkes Stunden-Buch und den Duineser Elegien.
Insbesondere untersuche ich die Bedeutung der Zartheit fur die Neueinschatzung
der Gewaltanwendung, welche dem Diskurs der Religion und der Philosophie in-
newohnt, durch den der Dichter die Krise der Modernitat in seiner Dichtung be-
handelt. Von der Analyse der vieldeutigen Behandlung der abstrakten Wesen des
Gottes und des Engels ausgehend, argumentiere ich, dass der Versuch, das Fuhlbare
mit dem Begrifflichen zu versohnen, Rilkes standigem Interesse fur Dasein als ide-
aler Einverleibung des Todes zugehort. Ich zeige weiter, dass die Texte andererseits
bezeugen, wie die komplexe Erfahrung der Sterblichkeit dazu dient, an den Gren-
zen des Wahrnehmbaren auf prekare und komplexe Weise Sinn zu stiften. Ich ar-
gumentiere, dass eine forschende Diskursivitat die Erfahrungen des Unglaubens
und des Unwissens artikuliert, deren schopferische Liminalitat sich im Gegensatz
zu der vom Dichter befurworteten Starrheit der zentralen Begriffe der Offenbarung
und der Aufklarung befindet. Zum Schluss schlage ich vor, dass eine inklusivere
Auffassung von Rilkes Dichtung die Anerkennung des Zustandes des leisen Seins
erfordert, als Widerstand zur latenten Gewaltanwendung von Rilkes bezwingenden

Philosophical depth has been attributed to Rainer Maria Rilkes writ-

ings on account of the combination of allusiveness and formal perfec-
tion in the Neue Gedichte, and the highly abstract quality of the Sonette an

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Orpheus.1 Conversely, the nature of Rilkes prophetic gestures, promising a

form of salvation by means of poetry, has prompted a religious understand-
ing of his work. His first collection, Das Stunden-Buch, has been read as the
expression of einer der groten Vertreter des urwuchsigen mystischen ger-
manischen Geistes,2 and the later Duineser Elegien as the evocation of spiri-
tual renewal in earthly existence. As Ronald Gray remarks, Rilkes thought
stands not only in the tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but also
in that of the mystics.3 Rilkean criticism tends to construe the poetry in
terms of religious or philosophical discourse, and to endorse alternative
narratives of revelation and enlightenment.4 This essay argues that Rilkes
poetic texts should be valued for their exploratory discursivity, which blurs
the languages of religion and philosophy, and articulates experiences of
disbelieving and unknowing that tacitly destabilise normative concepts
of belief and knowledge.
Since Rilkes poetry openly addresses the crisis of modernity by present-
ing the readers with an access to intellectual or spiritual renewal, most
critics are reluctant to separate its meaning from the abstractions around
which the poet constructs this access. Their emphasis on the concepts of
das Offene, Weltinnenraum, and Wagnis, however, generates an am-
biguous disquisition on the alleged violence of the poets idealism. As Paul
de Man observes, established critics like Erich Heller and Ronald Gray mis-
interpret Rilkes gesture of inwardness as the self-willed violence inherent
in the nihilistic idealism of the German mind.5 Heller indicts the spiri-
tual violence with which the mind creates its separation from the world,
and reads Rilkes two major collections of poems as the enactment of the
fury of a powerful Spirit that wants to reduce all external reality to inward-
ness.6 Gray contends that Rilke does violence to the world of things by
forcing them to operate in accordance with his Idea.7 Carol Jacobs decon-
structive reading of the tenth Duino Elegy detects violence camouflaged
as gentleness in the imagery of the Gleichnis through which Rilkes text
would ultimately execute its claims to truth.8

Paul de Man, Tropes (Rilke), in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke,
and Proust, New Haven/London 1979, pp. 2056 (pp. 245).
Simon Frank, Die Mystik von R. M. Rilke, Neophilologus, 20/2 (1935), 97113 (97).
Ronald Gray, The German Tradition in Literature, 18711945, Cambridge 1965, p. 247.
A recent article by Judith Ryan represents an exception in Rilkean criticism as it identifies in the
Duineser Elegien a reflection on the nature of artistic expression beyond any possibility of redemp-
tion in the experience of loss and mourning: Judith Ryan, The Long German Poem in the Long
Twentieth Century, GLL, 60 (2007), 34864 (351).
Paul de Man, The Literature of Nihilism, in Critical Writings: 19531978, Minneapolis 1989,
pp. 16170 (p. 168).
Erich Heller, The Artists Journey into the Interior and Other Essays, New York 1965, p. 153.
Ronald Gray, p. 244.
Carol Jacob, The Dissimulating Harmony: the Image of Interpretation in Nietzsche, Rilke, Artaud, and
Benjamin, Baltimore 1978, p. 47.

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Rilkes poetry and prose abound in detailed descriptions of sensual and

physical experiences that are elevated to a conceptual or spiritual dimen-
sion. Indeed the attempt to reconcile the sensible with the concept may
conceal the fantasy of seizing reality, which engenders the most violent
of narratives. Nonetheless, one partially misconstrues Rilkes texts when
attributing to them the delineation of modes of absolute Being. Their
probing approaches to reality also enact experiences of delicate being
that possess the fragility and sophistication of the human condition. This
study contends that the seemingly marginal term leise9 which qualifies
these experiences carries a dimension of delicacy that subtly challenges the
poets compelling conceptualisations in Das Stunden-Buch and the Duineser


Das Stunden-Buch, Rilkes first major collection of poems, contains the ad-
dresses of a Russian monk to a being called God. The title evokes the
Livres dheures, the liturgic booklet or office-book of the Orthodox Church,
corresponding to the Latin breviary and containing prayers for every hour
of day and night. It comprises three books: Das Buch vom monchischen
Leben, Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft, and Das Buch von der Armut
und vom Tode. Rilke visited Russia with Lou Andreas-Salome in 1899 and
1900, and these journeys gave him the opportunity to reconnect with the
Slavic side of his Prague childhood, and to relate more intimately with the
Russian heritage of his friend. This work, though, emerges from more com-
plex circumstances. Criticism of Das Stunden-Buch mainly focuses on the
theme of religion, either identifying a profound religious feeling in Rilke,
ein Dichter von gottlichem Auftrag,10 or denying that any kind of serious
religious feeling may belong, however slightly, to this meditation on the de-
velopment of personal identity in an age where God is dead.11 Aris Fioretos
describes the work as Rilkes attempt to articulate his preoccupation with
an entity beyond human grasp.12 This remark highlights the ambiguity of
the belief that these poems enact, expressed by Rilke himself in his cor-
respondence.13 It is noteworthy that the monks approach to the abstract

The English translation comprises the terms delicate, soft, gentle, imperceptible, fine, faint
and slight (Cassells Worterbuch, Munich 1980, p. 297). This study considers the role of this term as
adjective, adverb, and substantive.
Werner Gunther, Weltinnenraum, Bielefeld 1952, p. 58, quoted by Else Buddeberg in Rainer Maria
Rilke: Eine innere Biographie, Stuttgart 1954, p. 531.
Judith Ryan, Rilke, Modernism and Poetic Tradition, Cambridge 1999, pp. 289.
Aris Fioretos, Prayer and Ignorance in Rilkes Buch vom monchischen Leben, The Germanic
Review, 65 (1990), 1717 (172).
Rilke describes the Buch Gebete to his friend Marlise Gerding as the work of a philosophical
mind searching the depths of the religious soul: letter of 14/05/1911: Briefe, Erster Band 18971914,
Wiesbaden 1950, p. 304.

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entity named God, while tentative in the first book of Das Stunden-Buch,
acquires brutal connotations in the two subsequent books. The concluding
poem in Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft, for instance, presents a divinity
that yields itself to the believer in a self-shattering gesture of impatience,
which is redeemed from its destructiveness by the gentleness of its descent
into human hands:

In tiefen Nachten grab ich dich, du Schatz.

Denn alle Uberflusse, die ich sah,
sind Armut und armsaliger Ersatz
fur deine Schonheit, die noch nie geschah. [. . .]
Ich sauge dich mit ihnen aus dem Raum
als hattest du dich einmal dort zerschellt
in einer ungeduldigen Gebarde,
und fielest jetzt, eine zerstaubte Welt,
aus fernen Sternen wieder auf die Erde
sanft wie ein Fruhlingsregen fallt.14

The image that opens Das Buch von der Armut und vom Tode shows the
craved coming of God as a fierce reciprocal violation of the human and the

Vielleicht, da ich durch schwere Berge gehe

in harten Adern, wie ein Erz allein;
und bin so tief, da ich kein Ende sehe
und keine Ferne: alles wurde Nahe
und alle Nahe wurde Stein.
Ich binja noch kein Wissender im Wehe,
so macht mich dieses groe Dunkel klein;
bist Du es aber: mach dich schwer, brich ein:
da deine ganze Hand an mir geschehe
und ich an dir mit meinem ganzen Schrein. (SW I, p. 343)

In both instances the access to absolute faith, namely the reconciliation of

the sensible feeling of the divine and the prophesied or longed-for hap-
pening of God (noch nie geschah, an mir geschehe), is portrayed as a
condition of violent estrangement for the monk (zerschellt, brich ein). It
is important to notice that these moments of revelation are strongly sugges-
tive of brutal annihilation. Maurice Blanchot affirms that in these poems
Rilke rejects the possibility of death as brutalite of fact, and neutralite
of chance, for an idea of death that is transfigured in itself.15 It would be
more accurate to say that Rilkes poems show, on the one hand, the vio-
lence of the coerced incorporation of the concept of Death in a narrative
Samtliche Werke (SW ), I, Frankfurt a.M. 195566, pp. 33940.
Maurice Blanchot, Rilke et lexigence de la mort, in Lespace litteraire, Paris 1955, pp. 12166
(pp. 1545).

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of divine Truth, and, on the other, the delicacy of the experience of mor-
tality. One could therefore interpret the traces of delicacy at the margins
of these poems as the signs of a latent sensibility to mortality, whose elusive
and sophisticated sensuality engenders a state of humble disbelieving.
The first appearance of the word leise concerns the nature of divine
presence, a mode of discretion whose secrecy functions as a potent stimulus
of human faith:

Ich danke dir, du tiefe Kraft,

die immer leiser mit mir schafft
wie hinter vielen Wanden;
jetzt ward mir erst der Werktag schlicht
und wie ein heiliges Gesicht
zu meinen dunklen Handen. (SW I, pp. 2978)

The increasingly delicate (my emphasis) discretion with which the divin-
ity conveys its presence disqualifies vulgar attempts at calling Him loudly.
The proximity of God expresses itself in a type of aesthetic intimacy that
pervades the senses of the believer:

Du hast so eine leise Art zu sein.

Und jene, die dir laute Namen weihn,
sind schon vergessen deiner Nachbarschaft.

Von deinen Handen, die sich bergig heben,

steigt, unsern Sinnen das Gesetz zu geben,
mit dunkler Stirne deine stumme Kraft. (SW I, p. 299)

Rilke echoes the language of biblical discourse through the monks relent-
less appellation of the divine as the secrecy that the devout must learn to
perceive.16 Significantly, the metamorphosis of the adjective and adverb
leise into the substantive Leise shifts the emphasis from the being of
perception to the perceived Being, which acquires legitimacy from the aes-
thetic intensity of its manifestation:

Du kommst und gehst. Die Turen fallen

viel sanfter zu, fast ohne Wehn.
Du bist der Leiseste von Allen,
die durch die leisen Hauser gehn.
Man kann sich so an dich gewohnen,
da man nicht aus dem Buche schaut,
wenn seine Bilder sich verschonen,
von deinen Schatten uberblaut. (SW I, p. 282)

On mount Horeb Elijah understands that God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but
in a discreet voice that he must learn to hear: 1 Kings, 19, 1113.

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The transformation of the quality of an experience of liminality into the

essence of an abstract presence sanctions the access to absolute faith, which
the monk strenuously craves.17 The modes of the Leise signify the fulfil-
ment of the divine telos, the eternal law of Delicacy sealed by secrecy. The
revered distance from an ideal Other suppresses the sensual and imagina-
tive aspects of a human contact with alterity. Crucially, though, this adjective
can be seen to destabilise the central narrative of divine truth in the monks
description of the experience of mortality, in which secrecy becomes syn-
onymous with sophistication and elusiveness:

Ich lese es heraus aus deinem Wort,

aus der Geschichte der Gebarden,
mit welchen deine Hande um das Werden
sich rundeten, begrenzend, warm und weise.
Du sagtest leben laut und sterben leise
und wiederholtest immer wieder: Sein. (SW I, p. 257)

In these lines the monk hears the divine voice pronounce the word ster-
ben softly. In contrast to the previous examples, where the word leise
qualifies the mode of divine secret presence, and serves as a means of sen-
sual communion with God, here delicacy denotes the nature of the tone
of voice in the pronunciation of the ultimate verdict, unveiling the tension
between secrecy and subtlety that informs the experience of dying. Does
the term convey the gentleness, softness, and quietness of human dying in-
scribed in the almost imperceptible discourse of the Other, or is it to be
understood as the furtiveness, slightness, and therefore elusiveness of an
experience of contact with the ultimate otherness? In which type of ster-
ben leise should one believe? While the dominant theme of this collection
of poems is a strenuous craving for credence, a latent incredulity emerges
in the sensual and imaginative experience of mortality. A pervasive erosion
of the dominant discourse of Das Stunden-Buch, the affirmation of Being
in the access to absolute belief, surfaces in marginal moments of disbeliev-
ing. Disbelief not understood as the minds rejection of belief, but as the
condition of wonder and uncertainty that survives the violence of concep-
tualisations. The delicacy of the liminal experience of dying contributes to
preserve the sense of the fragility and sophistication of this interminable
moment of the human condition.
The delicacy of dying, which in Rilkes view subtly and secretly informs
the living, entails the necessity to endure its aporetic nature, combining the
gentle and the imperceptible, but also the furtive and the stealthy. The en-
durance of this aporia opens the way to a humble disbelief, the wondering

The adjective sanft similarly transmutes into the absolute Being Sanfte, which makes all nations
tremble with terror: SW I, p. 283.

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incredulity stimulated by the sensual contact with otherness, which dwells at

a different level from the arrogant belief in a conceptualised Other. While
the latter produces violent gestures, delicacy inheres in modes of perceiv-
ing and making sense in liminal experiences. In the last two books of Das
Stunden-Buch this quality progressively informs fragile human gestures and
modes of delicate being, which neither assume a religious value nor can
be inserted in a meaningful narrative of salvation. In a collection domi-
nated by the thought of overcoming death through the access to absolute
faith, the last segments linger on the most precarious of human gestures
and their potential to survive:

Des Armen Haus ist wie des Kindes Hand.

Sie nimmt nicht, was Erwachsene verlangen;
nur einen Kafer mit verzierten Zangen,
den runden Stein, der durch den Bach gegangen,
den Sand, der rann, und Muscheln, welche klangen;
sie ist wie eine Waage aufgehangen
und sagt das allerleiseste Empfangen
langschwankend an mit ihrer Schalen Stand. (SW I, p. 362)

Undercutting their initial yearning for an unconditional faith in God, these

poems conclude with a humble disbelief, the wonder and hesitation in the
presence of the enduring life of the most fragile creatures, whose mysteri-
ous inconspicuousness overshadows the divine discretion. The sensual and
imaginative contact with the oddness of a beetle and the smoothness of a
pebble, things that merely are, lies outside the abstraction of belief. There
is no trace of an absolute Other in this hesitant handling of the frailest
beings embraced in their common otherness. While Das Stunden-Buch con-
cludes by reiterating the modern crisis with the image of the crowded cities
in which godless people pursue their delusion of Progress, a central con-
cern that will return in Malte Laurids Brigge and the Duineser Elegien, the
unanswered appeals to the absent Being lose their force and so does the
narrative of revelation.18 The elusive and tantalising intimacy experienced
in the sensual and imaginative acts of observing, touching, and delicately
pondering the mortal things of the earth emerges at the limits of discur-
sive abstractions. Rilkes attentive readers have the opportunity to explore
and appreciate this mode of delicate being provided they relinquish their
desire to grasp dominant concepts, and let them gently recede into the

The appeals to the entity called God are substituted by a general plea for the coming of St.
Francis to assist the poor of the earth: SW I, pp. 1035.

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In Rilkes later collection of poems, the Duineser Elegien, the access to Being
acquires philosophical import in the figure of the Angel and the concomi-
tant narrative of enlightenment. These poems are rooted in speculation
upon the nature of humanity. According to the poet, from their earliest be-
ginning, human beings have removed and gradually estranged from them-
selves the menacing and deadly elements that were contained in their lives.
This side of their experience, being too dangerous and many-sided, and
growing into an unbearable excess of meaning, they have placed outside
themselves by shaping terrifying gods, and the alien thought of death, so
that the latter turned into forces that were forever to violate and surpass
the meaning of life. As a consequence, this overflow of being with its vio-
lence, fury, and impersonal bewilderment exerts a powerful influence from
the outside upon human beings. His effort as a poet is therefore to cor-
rect this repression by showing human beings that the dreadful belongs to
them, though it is too vast and incomprehensible for their learning hearts.
The solution to this state of things is full consent to the terrible nature of
life. The purpose of his poetry is to show the identity of dreadfulness and
bliss, dieses einen einzigen Gesichts, das sich nur so oder so darstellt, je nach
der Entfernung aus der, oder der Verfassung, in der wir es wahrnehmen.19
The Duineser Elegien summon readers to the responsibility of transforma-
tion, namely the capacity to perceive life and death as aspects of the same
human experience, which is epitomised in the figure of the Angel, as Rilke
explains in a letter to his Polish translator Witold von Hulewicz:

Der Engel der Elegien ist dasjenige Geschopf, in dem die Verwandlung des
Sichtbaren in Unsichtbares, die wir leisten, schon vollzogen erscheint. Fur
den Engel der Elegien sind alle vergangenen Turme und Palaste existent,
weil langst unsichtbar, und die noch bestehenden Turme und Brucken un-
seres Daseins schon unsichtbar, obwohl noch (fur uns) korperhaft dauernd.
Der Engel der Elegien ist dasjenige Wesen, das dafur einsteht, im Unsicht-
baren einen hoheren Rang der Realitat zu erkennen. Daher schrecklich
fur uns, weil wir, seine Liebenden und Verwandler, doch noch am Sichtbaren

While Rilkes philosophical discourse presents the Angel as the Being that
humanity needs to imitate in the passage to absolute knowledge, the po-
etry seems to offer a more ambiguous relationship between the Angel and
the poet.21 The Duineser Elegien begin with the anxious appeal of the poet

Letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, 12/04/1923: Die Briefe an Grafin Sizzo, 19211926,
Wiesbaden 1950, p. 41.
Letter to Witold von Hulewicz, 13/11/1925: Briefe aus Muzot, 19211926, Leipzig 1937, p. 337.
On Rilkes figure of the Angel see Judith Ryan, Summoning Angels, in Rilke, Modernism and
Poetic Tradition, Cambridge 1999, pp. 11121; Priscilla Washburn Shaw, Rainer Maria Rilke: Search

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seeking assistance from the hierarchy of Angels. His exhortation, though, is

immediately followed by the resigned declaration that any attempt at sup-
port on the part of an Angel would result in a destructive employment of
force causing the extinction of the poet. The Angel would in fact press the
poet so vehemently against its heart that he would be crushed by this over-
whelming power:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nahme
einer mich plotzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
starkeren Dasein. Denn das Schone ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmaht,
uns zu zerstoren. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich. (SW I, p. 685)

Since violence in the form of intensity acquires a crucial role from the very
beginning of the collection, its nature and function call for further reflec-
tions. These lines betray the destructiveness of an access to absolute Da-
sein posited by Rilke as a necessary Norm des Daseins22 for the transfor-
mation of the visible earth into the invisibility of inwardness. They open
his most sustained effort to offer a messianic poetry of enlightenment, but
they also testify to the violence of the gesture of forcing the philosophical
discourse of an ideal access to knowledge onto an experiential condition
of precarious being.23 As the following lines from the conclusion of the
seventh Duino Elegy demonstrate, the poet engages in a fierce struggle of
defence and defiance with his own concept:

Glaub nicht, da ich werbe.

Engel, und wurb ich dich auch! Du kommst nicht. Denn mein
Anruf ist immer voll Hinweg; wider so starke
Stromung kannst du nicht schreiten. Wie ein gestreckter
Arm ist mein Rufen. Und seine zum Greifen
oben offene Hand bleibt vor dir
offen, wie Abwehr und Warnung,
Unfalicher, weitauf. (SW I, p. 713)

The term leise, which appears at the margins of the central narrative of
the Duineser Elegien, may be seen to counteract the violence of its central

for the Self, in Rilke, Valery, and Yeats: The Domain of the Self , New Brunswick, NJ 1964, pp. 1103
(p. 88); Erich Heller, Rilke and Nietzsche with a Discourse on Thought, Belief and Poetry, in The
Disinherited Mind, London 1952, pp. 12377 (p. 162); Keith May, Rilkes Angels and the Ubermensch,
in Nietzsche and Modern Literature: Themes in Yeats, Rilke, Mann and Lawrence, New York 1988, pp. 4578.
Letter of 13/11/1925: Briefe aus Muzot, p. 336.
For a comprehensive examination of Rilkes Dasein and the philosophical concepts of das Of-
fene and the Wagnis, see Martin Heidegger, Wozu Dichter?, in Holzwege, Frankfurt a.M. 1977,
pp. 269320; Maurice Blanchot, Rilke et lexigence de la mort, in Lespace litteraire, pp. 12166.

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conceptualisation by presenting a human condition that acquires sense

(and meaning) in a progressive movement of unknowing. The tenth Duino
Elegy offers an unequivocal contrast between the degraded, deathless, and
unholy Leid-Stadt and the holy land of Klagen asserted in the name of
the endlessly dead. This topographical opposition symbolises the poets re-
jection of a brutal self-deception, which entails the concealment of death,
in favour of a gentle motion towards the accomplishment of earthly exis-
tence. The first is a cold calculation, the acting according to a material gain,
and the second a total gift of oneself in a gesture of abandonment. In the
Duineser Elegien the progress in the Landschaft der Klagen is represented
by the walk of a dead youth towards the discovery of the essence of man,
and its gentleness is embodied in the gestures of the young Klage who
accompanies him. By means of this gentleness Rilke attempts to convey the
Wustenklarheit des Toten-Bewut-seins,24 a mode of being in which the
living, the dead, and the unborn share the same consciousness. In the final
passages of this Elegy the delicacy conveyed by the qualifier leise responds
to the necessity to metaphorise this condition:

Nur die jungen Toten, im ersten Zustand

zeitlosen Gleichmuts, dem der Entwohnung,
folgen ihr liebend. Madchen
wartet sie ab und befreundet sie. Zeigt ihnen leise,
was sie an sich hat. Perlen des Leids und die feinen
Schleier der Duldung. Mit Junglingen geht sie
schweigend. (SW I, p. 723)

The delicate proceeding and gesturing of the young Klage should in the-
ory carry the meaning of transformation contained in these philosophical
poems, but in reality they draw them away from the philosophy of abso-
lute knowledge embodied in the figure of the Angel.25 Indeed, Rilkes own
philosophical concept progressively loses its central position as the ideal
Other, and in the concluding segments of the ninth Duino Elegy dwin-
dles before the humble things of the earth made and felt by human beings,
whose simplicity is perceived as astonishing otherness by its abstract mode
of comprehension:

Drum zeig
ihm das Einfache, das, von Geschlecht zu Geschlechtern gestaltet,
als ein Unsriges lebt, neben der Hand und im Blick.

Letter of 13/11/1925: Briefe aus Muzot, p. 337.
For a perceptive analysis of the figure of the angel as a paradoxical and constantly shifting sym-
bol that illuminates the relationship between a society and its art at a specific historical moment,
see Karen Leeders recent essay The Desire of the Angel: Message, Myth and Metaphor in Contem-
porary German Art, Literature and Film, in Third Agents: Secret Protagonists of the Modern Imagination,
Newcastle 2008, pp. 21428 (p. 214).

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Sag ihm die Dinge. Er wird staunender stehn; wie du standest

bei dem Seiler in Rom, oder beim Topfer am Nil.
Zeig ihm, wie glucklich ein Ding sein kann, wie schuldlos und unser,
wie selbst das klagende Leid rein zur Gestalt sich entschliet,
dient als ein Ding, oder stirbt in ein Ding. (SW I, p. 719)

The reproduction of the language of the Egyptian legends contained in

the Book of the Dead,26 a collection of texts that offered a guide for the dead
in their journey beyond the tomb, is here the expression of a tentative ap-
proach to liminality that the Sphinx silently seals in its countenance:

Naht aber Nacht, so wandeln sie leiser , und bald

mondets empor, das uber Alles
wachende Grab-Mal. Bruderlich jenem am Nil,
der erhabene Sphinx : der verschwiegenen Kammer
Antlitz. (SW I, p. 724)

There is a perfect coincidence in the Duineser Elegien between the deli-

cacy characterising the mode of being of the eternally dead and the deli-
cacy with which the poet envisages the dead mans approach to the mount
of Klagen. However, far from conveying the advocated human transforma-
tion, namely a condition of absolute knowledge that derives from the full
incorporation of the concept of death into the living, the delicate act of
dying that dominates the final part of Rilkes collection articulates a move-
ment of progressive relinquishing of the desire to know. The word leise
does not qualify the attainment of a conceptual Being, rather the actual be-
ing towards death in which humanity intensifies its sensual and imaginative
intimacy with mortality. The last segment of the Duineser Elegien heightens
this sensitivity by suggesting the affinity of human mortality with the precar-
ious being of the most delicate things of the earth. The last evocations of
dying, symbolised by the soft act of falling, imagined in the fragile catkins
hanging from a bare branch and felt in the gentle raindrops that touch the
earth in the spring, are not inserted in a narrative of human enlightenment:

Aber erweckten sie uns, die unendlich Toten, ein Gleichnis,

siehe, sie zeigten vielleicht auf die Katzchen der leeren
Hasel, die hangenden, oder,
meinten den Regen, der fallt auf dunkles Erdreich im Fruhjahr. (SW I,
p. 726)

The verbs zeigten and meinten with which the things of the earth convey
their message to humanity belong to a register of allusion rather than ac-
quisition of knowledge. The adverb vielleicht intensifies the sense of inde-
cision at the core of the conclusion of Rilkes philosophical discourse, and

Ryan, Rilke, Modernism and Poetic Tradition, p. 176.

C The author 2010. Journal compilation 
C Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2010

subtly unravels its argument by pointing towards that which still remains to
be experienced, and always to be known.27 The events portrayed by these fi-
nal lines stimulate a mode of perception of the liminality of dying that com-
bines the sophistication of its elusive knowledge and the hesitation of the
imaginative and sensual approach to the unknown. While the dominant dis-
course of Rilkes collection may be conceived as humanitys appropriation
of the conceptual knowledge of death, and implicitly the accomplishment
of a human telos, the traces of delicacy that dwell at its periphery appear to
qualify the human condition as an experience of hesitant unknowing. Pur-
suing a similar argument, Judith Ryan perceives in the coda of the tenth
Duino Elegy the suggestion that poetry . . . might compensate in a partial
way for the loss of a larger and more coherent vision.28
In her meticulous study of the employment of the Gleichnis in the tenth
Duino Elegy, Carol Jacob identifies the articulation of a narrative in which
the language of gentleness conceals the presence of violence. I would ar-
gue that the delicacy of the form and the violence of the content belong
to an intention that reaches its accomplishment in these poems. The con-
cealment of violence through gentleness does not represent the failure of
the poems intention, in other words its ability to tell no other tale than the
execution of its own reason,29 but precisely its unfolding. The language of
delicacy conveys an experience of delicate being that endures at the mar-
gins of the texts as a mode of resistance to the violence of an access to
absolute Dasein. Although the discourse of the Duineser Elegien proceeds
towards its philosophical end, the access to knowledge and achievement
of human enlightenment, and cannot escape the violence of its intention,
these poems simultaneously enact the hesitant unknowing at the margins
of liminal experiences, which is valuable precisely insofar as it preserves the
sense of the fragile and sophisticated approach to an intimate and ultimate


Rilkes critics tend to privilege the central discourse on Being in his writ-
ings, and consequently endorse the religious and philosophical signifi-
cance attributed respectively to Das Stunden-Buch and the Duineser Elegien.
However, they fail to assess accordingly the violence inherent in the im-
position of a preconceived access to revelation or enlightenment upon a
precarious experience of liminal being explored by the poetic texts. The
discourses of religion and philosophy undoubtedly haunt Rilkes poetry,
For an inspiring discussion of the term vielleicht and the disruption of the rigorous discourse of
philosophy see Derrida, Loving in Friendship: Perhaps the Noun and the Adverb, in The Politics
of Friendship, tr. G. Collins, London/New York 2005, pp. 2648.
Ryan, GLL, 352.
Carol Jacob, p. 49.

C The author 2010. Journal compilation 
C Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2010

but simultaneously overshadow the complexity of the human perception of

mortality and otherness which constitutes the object of his work. The analy-
sis of the term leise demonstrates the persistence of conditions of delicate
being at the margins of Rilkes texts, which are at variance with his advocacy
of abstract forms of belief and knowledge. This study of the role of the qual-
ifier leise highlights the presence of a language of delicacy that articulates
liminal experiences from which emerge acts of disbelieving and unknow-
ing that resist absolute signification. The discreet presence of delicacy in
these precarious and sophisticated moments of perception problematises
the overpowering role attributed by the poet to abstractions like God and
the Angel in his earlier and later collections. The exploratory discursivity
examined in this study shows a pervasive destabilisation of the narratives
sustaining Rilkes writing, and implicitly exposes the limits of a criticism
that continues to constrain it in normative discourses. The investigation
of the language of delicacy endeavours therefore to stimulate a new criti-
cal sensibility in the form of resistance to the latent violence of the poets
compelling conceptualisations in favour of a more careful evaluation of the
humbleness and hesitance taking shape in the poetic texts.

C The author 2010. Journal compilation 
C Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2010