Neue Gedichte; New Poems
[This page by Marielle Sutherland]
Neue Gedichte; New Poems (1907)
Rilke’s so-called ‘middle period’ begins with the New Poems which explore a new relation between subject and object. They seek to go beyond the modern objectification and commodification of objects which prescribes their meaning and purpose, and to re-establish their intrinsic value. Like the imagist poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams around the same time, New Poems are influenced by the visual arts. Between 1900 and 1902 Rilke spent considerable time at the artists' colony at Worpswede, 18 kilometres north-east of Bremen, whose members included Heinrich Vogeler, Otto Modersohn and Paula Modersohn-Becker.
In 1902 Rilke moved to Paris to work as secretary to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Under Rodin’s influence Rilke learned to look at the surface of objects and perceive their inner vitality in order to produce an aesthetic object that concentrates and intensifies the real and the natural world. From Rodin Rilke also learned to understand poetic expression as work and craft rather than a Romantic outpouring of inspiration. Rodin exhorted Rilke to ‘toujours travailler’ (‘never stop working’) To Lou Andreas Salomé, 10 August 1903, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1892-1910, trans. Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton, New York: Norton and Company, Inc. 1945, reprinted 1969, p. 123) In Paris Rilke also became interested in the work of Paul Cézanne, whose still life objects, he felt, resisted any objectification and instead took on a vitality of their own within the work of art. Rilke takes works of art and architecture (e.g. a Roman statue, a cathedral), plants and animals (e.g. a panther, a blue hydrangea), places (e.g. parks, Venice), people (e.g. beggars, a flamenco dancer) and figures from history and myth (e.g. Orpheus and Eurydice, Adam and Eve) and refigures them into new objects within words which convey to the reader the experience of seeing them anew, intensely and dynamically as they are in their innermost core. Part of this renewal is the moment of transformation within the poem when the object enacts movement, growth or change, such as the hydrangea’s colour appearing or the statue of Apollo’s broken torso challenging the viewer to change his/her life.
The New Poems are not wholly symbolic or metaphorical poems in which the object is a vector for meaning; the poems are just as much about the reality and solidity of the objects themselves. Similes are dominant, making consciously constructed comparisons between real and imagined things, e.g. the Spanish dancer’s flamenco begins ‘like’ a match catching flame, and when the gazelle is about to leap its leg is loaded ‘as if it were’ a gun about to go off. Rilke was attempting what he called ‘sachliches Sagen’ (‘objective expression’) To Clara Rilke, 19 October 1907, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1892-1910, trans. by Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton, New York: Norton and Company, Inc. 1945, reprinted 1969, p. 314). The poems are neither neutral, objective representations of objects nor subjective in the sense of expressive of feelings about the objects. The subject holds back his/her preconceptions regarding the object’s meaning and purpose, and through this defamiliarisation the object is allowed to reveal itself. The New Poems are often considered to be ‘things’ in themselves, and as such they develop the German nineteenth century tradition of ‘Dinggedichte’ (‘thing-poems’). In Rilke’s thing-poems the surface and space of the object is, as in sculpture, outlined and centred, but its interior is a dynamic and infinite store for the imagination, e.g. fountains and mirrors demonstrate movement within enclosure. Formally, Rilke uses the sonnet to explore movement within stasis, running sentences fluidly over the ends of the lines and across the traditional stanza structure, and varying the traditional conventions of rhyme and metre.
Rilke wrote The Panther after visiting the menagerie in the Botanical Garden in Paris and putting into practice the mode of seeing that Rodin had taught him. The Panther is not a poem with an overarching meaning or message about animal rights that would make the poem easy to comprehend and identify with. The poem sets the reader up as a viewer in front of the object, experiencing it as something outside its natural environment, something unnatural and alien, unable to be accessed or understood. In this poem the reader feels the panther’s tremendous power and potential and the constriction and paralysis of this energy within its cage. The animal’s tired, repetitive pacing round the cage is heard in the regular iambic stress pattern, and as the bars go drowsily past its eyes again and again we hear the hypnotic internal rhymes. In the last stanza an image enters the panther’s eye. The impulse to react to the image travels through the panther’s limbs, giving the signal to run or pounce. The reader feels this tension and pounding of blood within the strong iambic meter, the suspenseful s-sounds and the expectant dash at the end of the line. The whole body of the panther is tightened, taut and quiet, and we wait, enthralled and fearful (the image is not named – it could be the image of the viewer’s eyes looking at it, or even our own as the reader who shares the viewer’s perspective …). Tension accumulates and then drops suddenly away, for the caged panther cannot react to the image. It simply ceases to exist, unregistered, and in this dramatic expiration we feel the lifelessness and emptiness at the heart of this existence as well as the impossibility of identification with the panther as an object under observation. Rilke’s manipulation of sound and rhythm is as taut and supple as the animal’s body. He uses strong rhyme, rhythm and stanza structure like the sculptor’s material to define the shape and space of the panther, emphasising its contours as the contours of the poem. The panther is now a new imaginative reality within a substantial poetic space – it is an art ‘thing’, not a natural thing anymore. The poem begins and ends with the word 'sein' in German, and this echoing emphasises the panther circling its cage. It also visually emphasises the beginning and end of the poem, reinforcing how the panther is a poetic object contained within the boundaries of the poem, like Rodin’s sculptures pulsating with energy but insisting on their own still, enclosed and mysterious space.
Anthony Phelan, Rilke. Neue Gedichte, Critical Guides to German Texts 14 (London: Grant & Cutler, 1992)
Corbet Stewart, ‘Rilke’s Neue Gedichte: The Isolation of the Image’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 47 (1977), 81-103
Claire Y. van den Broek, ‘How the Panther Stole the Poem: The Search for Alterity in Rilke’s Dinggedichte’, Monatshefte 105:2 (2013), 225-46