Between 1902 and 1914 the poet Rainer Maria Rilke lived in Paris to work on a monograph and to act for a short time as the secretary for the sculptor August Rodin. It was Rodin who introduced him to other Parisian artists of the time, including Paul Cezanne. Influenced by the physicality of many of the paintings and sculptures he saw, Rilke developed a new style, which he called the “object poem.” This form of writing sought to capture the plastic presence of a physical object and resulted in imaginative interpretations of certain works of art.
Rilke began writing the “Duino Elegies” in 1912 while a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis at the Duino Castle near Trieste. For the next ten years however, the “Elegies” remained incomplete whilst Rilke fell frequently in and out of a depression partially caused by the events of World War I.
In 1915, while he was living in Munich and finding it difficult to secure suitable housing, Rilke asked Hertha Koenig if he might live for a while in her house while she and her family were in the country. His request was granted, and he lived there from June until October 1915. Sometime in 1914 Frau Koenig had purchased Picasso’s painting “The Family of Saltimbanques” and this is where Rilke was privileged to have lived with this painting for five months.
Later, in the summer of 1921 Rilke took up residence at the Château de Muzot, as the guest of another patron. Within the space of a few days in February 1922, he completed the Duino cycle, begun years earlier. The final section to be completed was the Fifth Elegy, which was dedicated to Frau Hertha von Koenig and based on this rose period masterpiece: “The Family of Saltimbanques.”
“But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little
more fleeting than we ourselves,–so urgently, ever since childhood
wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?)
never-contented will? That keeps on wringing them,
bending them, slinging them, swinging them,
throwing them and catching them back; as though from an oily
smoother air, they come down on the threadbare
carpet, thinned by their everlasting
upspringing, this carpet forlornly
lost in the cosmos.
Laid on there like a plaster, as though the suburban
sky had injured the earth.”[i]
“There, the withered wrinkled lifter,
old now and only drumming,
shriveled up in his mighty skin as though it had once contained
two men, and one were already
lying in the churchyard, and he had outlasted the other,
deaf and sometimes a little strange.”[ii]
Who are they? They have become one and the same color as the sand and sawdust beneath their feet. Almost ghosts. It is a huge painting at the National Gallery with figures almost life size who know how to keep secrets. Even the painting itself has a secret: look for the water jug just behind the woman in the lower right, and the pointed stance of the young acrobat to her left, below that and just beneath the surface is a ghost of a leg, a pentimento of another earlier figure, now painted out of the picture. This lost figure, as well as the surviving ones are all ghosts now, inhabiting the rose desert of Rilke’s poem, but not always adding up to zero.
“And the yonger, the man, like the son of a neck
and a nun: so taughtly and smartly filled
with muscle and simpleness.”[iii]
“And then, in this wearisome nowhere, all of a sudden,
the ineffable spot where the pure too-little
incomprehensibly changes,–springs round
into that empty too-much?
Where the many-digited sum
solves into zero?”[iv]
[i] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies, translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1963; p. 47.
[ii] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies; p. 49.
[iii] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies; p. 49.
[iv] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies; p. 53.