Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery

In The Discovery of Poetry[i], Frances Mayes breaks imagery into three categories: literal imagery (the thing itself), figurative imagery (images used to describe the thing), and symbols (an image or action that stands for more than itself). A symbol differs from a literal or figurative because of the far-reaching semantic ripples that surround it. The red wheelbarrow is an image; the American flag is a symbol.

Rilke’s work returns again and again to the symbol of the rose.* What sorts of associations does the symbol of the rose evoke? Love, femininity, openness, vulnerability, romantic and sexual love, impermanence. The rose is a symbol for the Madonna in Catholic tradition, and was a symbol for her predecessor Venus. The medieval French poem, “Le Roman de la Rose,” tells an allegorical story of courtly love. At the heart of Dante’s Paradiso lies a rose. On St. Valentine’s Day, lovers give one another red roses as a symbol of their love for one another. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet, exhorting her lover Romeo to give up his family name.

Rilke’s roses take advantage of all of these ripples of meaning. It makes sense that Rilke, a deeply solitary creature who was nevertheless preoccupied with love and sexuality, would focus so much of his work on the symbol of the rose. He uses the image of the rose to explore the themes of inner and outer experience, and by extension solitude and connection. “Where for this inner / is there an outer?”[ii] begins the poem “The Inner Rose.” Later in the same poem he writes “many [roses] let themselves fill up with inner space.”

Rilke uses all three of Mayes’s categories of imagery – literal, figurative, and symbolic – in his exploration of the rose. “In the Bowl of Roses,”[iii] what starts as a symbol becomes under his gaze fully and completely real. His initial descriptions are abstract but still evocative:

Noiseless, living, opening without end,
filling space without taking space from the space
that all the other things in it diminish,
almost without an outline, like something omitted,
and pure inwardness, with much curious softness

“Curious softness” is his first foray into literal imagery. It’s in the sixth stanza, however that the individual roses fully solidify. He uses personification to make each rose distinct, and to further explore the relationships between the roses (as symbols for individuals):

See this white one, so blissfully opened,
standing among its huge spreading petals
like a Venus upright in her shell;
and look how that blushing one turns,
as if confused, toward the cooler one,
and how the cooler one, impassive, draws back,
and how the cold one stands tightly wrapped in itself
among these opened ones, that shed everything.

“Is there anything they can’t be,” he writes, a particularly clever line if one considers the multiple layers of abstract meaning he gives the roses in this poem. This line precedes the most vivid imagery in the poem:

…wasn’t this yellow one
that lies here hollow and open the rind
of a fruit of which the same yellow,
more intense, more orange-red, was the juice?
And this one, could opening have been too much for it,
since, touched by air, its indescribable pink
has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?
And isn’t this batiste one a dress, with
the chemise still inside it, soft and breath-warm,
both garments flung off together
in morning shade at the bathing pool in the woods?
And this, opalescent porcelain,
fragile, a shallow china cup
filled with little lighted butterflies,—

The image of the orange-red fruit echoes lines from “Sonnets to Orpheus, 1, 15”[iv] in which he exhorts maidens to “dance the taste of the experienced fruit!” The rich, sensual imagery of this stanza in “The Bowl of Roses” allows Rilke to explore the theme of innocence and experience: “could opening have been too much for it, / since, touched by air, its indescribable pink / has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?” The image of the dress, “soft and breath-warm,” thrown off by a bather in the woods once again interpolates sensual abandon with airy reticence: the fragile, shallow cup, “filled with little lighted butterflies.”

Rilke’s work straddles the edge of modernism. Upon first reading, it appeared to me that Rilke broke all the rules of modern poetic craft: his poems often begin with abstraction and only later tie down those abstractions with imagery. Modern readers may find his work more difficult to enter into as a result, although I find that it speaks to me immensely. What I may be responding to, though – in addition to the skill of the translator, who must reproduce the music of the original German text – may be the imagery he uses to support his poetic arguments. Rilke works from the universal to the precise, whereas the contemporary aesthetic often (but not always[v]) moves from the precise to the universal. No rule in poetry can’t be broken. I’m going to see if I can rise to the challenge of breaking this one.

End Notes

* Angels are also a common symbol in Rilke’s poetry, but outside the scope of this essay.

[i] Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems. Harcourt, 2001. Print. pp. 66-137.

[ii] Rilke, Rainer Maria. “The Rose Interior.” New Poems: A Revised Bilingual Edition. Tr. Snow, Edward. North Point Press, 2001. p. 277. Web. https://smile.amazon.com/New-Poems-Rainer-Maria-Rilke/dp/0865476128/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475340735&sr=8-1&keywords=rilke+new+poems

NOTE: Alternative translations of this poem title it “The Inner Rose,” with the opening line reading “Where for this inner / is there an outer?” It’s difficult to find full attribution for these translations, although they appear multiple times online. URLs:

[iii] Rilke. “The Bowl of Roses.” The Essential Rilke. Tr. Kinnell and Liebman. Ecco, 1999. p. 27. Print.

[iv] Rilke. “The Poet Praises (Die Sonnette an Orpheus, 1, 15).” Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties. Tr. Mood, John. Norton, 1975. p. 81. Print.

[v] See “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg and “Meditation at Lagunitas,” by Robert Hass.

Photo Credit: Slgckgc via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

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