THE Great War struck Europe dumb. For several years, little of significance was published. Then suddenly, in the annus mirabilis 1921-22, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Boris Pasternak all found their voices; and so did Rainer Maria Rilke.
It is not surprising that, in these 23 letters to the recently bereaved, he eschews the conventional pieties with which the Churches had attempted to assuage grief. Indeed, he writes “not in a Christian way . . . but in a purely earthly, blissfully earthy consciousness”, and says: “I reproach all modern religions for providing their believers with consolations and embellishments of death instead of giving their soul the means to reconcile and communicate with it.”
Only in commenting on a newspaper report of the accidental death of a young typist, not in a personal condolence letter, does he wrestle with the responsibility of God; and he concludes that either “Death is such an indescribable, immeasurable value, that [he] allows it to be inflicted on us at any time even in the most senseless manner, simply because he may not bestow anything greater on us. Or . . . our personal existence has no significance for God, and . . . he knows nothing of its presence and the unbelievable value we attribute to how long it may last.”
There is, therefore, naught for your comfort and only a quantum of solace here. Instead, particularly in the letters to his French and Polish translators, we are given unparalleled insight into the aristocratic and cultural milieux of the dying decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and into the creative processes of the author of the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, the greatest German-language poetry of the 20th century.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.
The Dark Interval: Letters for the grieving heart
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ulrich Bauer, translator and editor
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