Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Mit Trauervollem Blick": The Time of Seeing and Lyric Subjectivity in Rainer Maria Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" and "Pietà"

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Mit Trauervollem Blick": The Time of Seeing and Lyric Subjectivity in Rainer Maria Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" and "Pietà"

Article excerpt

Of the many symbolic frameworks that Rainer Maria Rilke drew upon throughout the course of his life and work, few were as sustained and multivalent in their influence as the figure of the gaze.1 In particular, it was in the Neue Gedichte (1907) that Rilke undertook his earliest-and arguably most concentrated-examination of the interpenetrations of ontology and ocularity. Within secondary literature, the majority of critics who attend to such motifs in the Neue Gedichte and across Rilke's oeuvre more generally have focused upon reversals of the distinction between viewing subject and viewed object,2 or upon the poetic process of interiorizing external things in the world.3 This latter issue has provided additional material for examinations of what has been termed a poetic phenomenology in Rilke's work.4 In the following analysis, I undertake a reading of two poems from this cycle, one well known and the other decidedly less so, in order to trace a particular aspect of this ocular paradigm that is often overlooked.

"Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes" (1904) and "Pietà" (1907) both depict a poeticity of vision that derives not merely from the visual and spatio-ontological features of beheld objects, but more fundamentally from the temporal implications of seeing perse.Inthepivotalsceneof "Orpheus.Eurydike. Hermes,"athird-personobservation of aspecificmoment isrecounted according toanarrativelogicof retrospection, while "Pietà" consists of a first-person observation that is narrated as an externalization of attendant affect, wherein the categories of past, present, and future merge. A central aspect of both texts is the fact that, unlike the majority of Rilke's Dinggedichte,in thesepoemsit isnota mundane objectthat is beheld, butrather abeloved person who, through death, has attained a liminal objective status.

These particular valences of the gaze will be traced further through supportive interpretations of two artworks that are thought to have inspired the poems: a Roman bas-relief depicting Orpheus, Hermes, and Eurydice (ca. second century A.D.), and Auguste Rodin's Le Christ et la Madeleine (1894). It will be beneficial in an overall regard to examine these sculptures not only to compare and contrast how each implies a poetic underpinning of subjective perception, but also to consider how both incorporate the living viewer in their depictions of this relation. In the poems and their statuary antecedents, it is not what is seen but rather the temporal substrateofseeingthatqualifies theocularactasapoeticone,andconsequentiallyas an integral feature of subjective experience.

I. "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes"

The earlier of the two poems is "Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes," believed to have been written towards the beginning of 1904 during Rilke's stay in Italy and published three years later in the Neue Gedichte. While numerous commentators have explored Rilke's appropriation of the Orpheus figure and the various myths surrounding him as symbols for the poetic process par excellence, many focus specifically upon the metamorphic aspects of poïesis that Orpheus' relation to objects underscores.6 Rather than pursuing the theme of poetic transformation-particularly through song-asthe central gesture of Rilke's Orpheus, as crystallized in the iconic Sonette an Orpheus (1922), I will consider in the following analysis how this much earlier poem presents gazing as an inherently poetic act in and of itself.7 The principal observation,however, is thatthis toposofthegaze-as-poïesisis byno means limited to the mythic glance of Orpheus and its physical ramifications (i.e., the subsequent loss of Eurydice), but also emerges from within a more complex network of gazes that unfolds in the poem. Ultimately, it is not from Orpheus but rather from the often-overlooked figure of Hermes that the various lines of sight in the poem- andespecially their temporalintricacies-derive a syntheticandnarrativeimport.

Commentators of the poem frequently draw attention tothe pronounced movement away from classical versions of the Orpheus myth by way of Rilke's depiction of Eurydice,8 but it has been noted how an initial divergence of this sort can already be found at the very outset of the text. …

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