Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Levertov and Rilke: A Sense of Aesthetic Ethics

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Levertov and Rilke: A Sense of Aesthetic Ethics

Article excerpt

It is ironic that at the very beginning of her career one of the poets with whom Denise Levertov was immediately associated was the Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke. As Harry Marten has noted:

Kenneth Rexroth, an early anthologizer of her work, linked her loosely with a diverse group of post-Second World War British neoromantic poets whose work exhibits a "ruminative melancholy" of the sort displayed in Stephen Spender's and J.B. Leischman's popular and influential translations of . . . Rainer Maria Rilke. . . . Noting that this sort of verse has a "dreamy, nostalgic sorrow about it . . ." Rexroth observed that "in poets like Denise Levertov this poetry reaches its height in slow, pulsating rhythms, romantic melancholy, and undefined nostalgia. (8-9)

What makes this association ironic is the listing of qualities on which it is based. For although Levertov's apparent affinity with Rilke did in fact develop into a lifelong connection, that connection rests on entirely different grounds than those suggested above.

Levertov herself has spelled out in considerable detail the history of her interest in Rilke. In the concluding essay of Light Up the Cave, "Rilke as Mentor," she describes how she "had already been writing for many years, and had been reading Rilke for seven or eight, when I first came to America and began to read Williams, Pound, and Stevens" (283). Indeed, as decisive as was the influence of the last three--especially William Carlos Williams--on her subsequent development,

all the useful and marvelously stimulating technical and aesthetic tendencies that I came upon in the 1950s were absorbed into a ground prepared not only by my English and European cultural background in general but more particularly by Rilke's concept of the artist's task. (283)

Thus Rilke helped prepare the cultural and conceptual ground in which all these new tendencies so fruitfully grew.

But he did more. In many respects he also helped Levertov attain that very balance which has been fundamental to her achievement as a poet--the balance between what she has called her "sense of the pilgrim way" and her "new, American, objectivist-influenced, pragmatic, and sensuous longing for the Here and Now" (PW 69). For if Williams can be viewed as the main source of the latter, Rilke must be viewed as a primary source of the former, as perhaps the single most important spokeman for inner experience, for the translation of the visible into the invisible--for the transcendence of simple mimesis in favor of spiritual realization.

It was early in 1947, according to Levertov, that she began making her own index for Rilke's Selected Letters, "in many ways the most important . . . book of Rilke's that I obtained" (LC 284). And one of the passages she not only indexed but underlined(1) is the famous passage where Rilke describes "our task" as

to impress this fragile and transient earth so sufferingly, so passionately upon our hearts that its essence shall rise up again, invisible, in us. We are the bees of the Invisible. . . . The |Duino~ Elegies show us engaged on this work, the work of perpetual transformation of beloved and tangible things into the invisible vibration and excitability of our nature. (Selected Letters 394)

If, then, such "transformation" is our task--a task incumbent upon not just artists but human beings in general(2)--it is impossible that any kind of merely "documentary realism" (PW 90) should satisfy. Though one begins with a passionate attention to things, one does not remain trapped in a world of objects precisely because one's attention is so passionate.(3) On more than one occasion, Levertov quotes with approval Rilke's insistence that

If a thing is to speak to you, you must for a certain time regard it as the only thing that exists, the unique phenomenon that your diligent and exclusive love has placed at the center of the universe, something the angels serve that very day upon that matchless spot. …

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