Learning to see

Rilke's main interest in others was as a route to his inner self. Jamie McKendrick on the 'Diaries of a Young Poet'
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IN THE YEARS which these three diaries cover (1898-1900), Rainer Maria Rilke, the most inward-bound of poets, travels across Europe, to Italy and Russia, and then takes up residence in Germany; but the most strenuous journeying is internal. This is especially true of the first, "The Florence Diary", ardently addressed to Lou Andreas-Salome, a married woman and established writer 14 years older than the 22-year-old Rilke. It's curious that so soon after the beginning of the affair she should pack him off to Florence to study Renaissance art, setting him the task of recording his experiences in a diary for her. (The introduction suggests she may have arranged for an abortion during his absence.)

Her response to the diary fell short of the rapturous one Rilke expected: he records, with insight into his own motives as well as courtly self- abasement, that he "wanted this time to be the rich one, the giver, the host, the master, and You were supposed to come and be guided by my care and love and stroll about in my hospitality. And now in Your Presence I was again only the smallest beggar at the outermost threshold of Your Being." Whatever else she objected to, she must have found the transparent agenda behind the following entry unwelcome: "A woman who is an artist is no longer compelled to create once she has become a mother. She has given her goal a place outside herself and from that moment on may in the deepest sense live art."

The diary reveals an extraordinarily precocious, but also precious, mind ranging over questions of Renaissance art and using such questions to advance his own poetic credo. There is, however, more metier than matter. A kind of religiosity of art, a hushed, soulful veneration often overcomes him - especially when considering his own potential and vocation. Very few passages lead one to believe that Italy is populated by anything but landscapes, architecture and works of art.

Lacking anything raw and inchoate, the writing translates his youthful uncertainties into vatic exhortations and polished aphorisms. His remarks about other writers are surprisingly few and indistinct. Throughout these diaries his discussion of the visual arts is far more specific and passionate. Like Greek Art for Marx, the Renaissance for Rilke represents a discontinued springtime, and he looks to his own era "to begin the summer of this far- off and festive spring". Seasonal imagery overabounds in these pages as an emblem of the psyche: "If behind our sadness a shimmering springtime flickers and moves about in high clouds, then our sadness will be more heartfelt, and our feeling dons purple robes when it forms wreaths out of falling leaves ..." Here Rilke's prose frequently dons purple robes, with a preference for expensive materials like silk and damask.

Although the first two diaries are addressed to Lou, they have a calculated discretion about them. For any biographical information, the reader has to refer to the translators' clear and helpful introduction and notes. In terms of his own self-presentation, hardly a hair seems out of place. In the third, "The Worpswede Diary", a number of pages have been ripped out following the painter Paula Becker's decision to marry, an event that we can only surmise was traumatic enough for Rilke to write something heartfelt and unembroidered. However, it's part-way through the second, "The Schmargendorf Diary", where Rilke spends his time with a group of young artists which include Heinrich Vogeler, Paula Becker and Clara Westhoff, that the prose ceases to worship what on page after page he calls the "festive" and becomes warmer and more vividly social. His residence at Worpswede (a small hamlet near Bremen) amongst these friends is genuinely celebratory, and he begins to rethink his whole way of looking at the world as well as at pictures: "this way of looking was foreign to me before my intercourse with these rigorous and excellent painter-people, who get so unbelievably close to their pictures." Clara Westhoff was soon to marry Rilke and whenever she is mentioned Rilke's writing becomes more animated. But still Rilke's main interest in people is as a route towards his inner self. One love poem from "The Schmargendorf Diary" pays the loved one the highest compliment: "thus in your eyes I recognised myself".

When his friend Vogeler confides his plan to marry, Rilke records: "In that moment a sense of infinite partaking filled me". This sense, when combined with the patient intentness of his gaze outward, is what will lead to his first major work in New Poems (1907) where poetry vies with the visual arts in its desire to trace the contours and sound out whatever presents itself to the gaze and to return with something which defines the object as well as the quality and nature of the poet's absorption in it ... "in our gazing lies our truest acquiring".

Increasingly the diaries give way to the poems which will later be published in A Book of Emblems, as well as his poems in French and Russian. Another feature of the second diary is the presence of stories, fragments of projected works - the most impressive is an incomplete story set within a brutal military academy which has affinities with Robert Musil's The Young Torless. The translation reads well, though sometimes the English struggles Germanically with Rilke's compounds: "I want to remain in this storm and feel all the tremors of this great being-gripped" or "The two of us shall find through the paradise of having-each-other-regained the surest way into summer", where some surer ways might have been discovered. Only once does his prose reach the intensity of his finest poems, in this description of a successful archaeologist: "Just as a diviner listens to the ground for some secret rushing, so every shining that is cloaked in darkness reveals itself to him, and all buried pasts have become for him bell-chimes swaying at the end of shafts as in the tops of towers turned upside down."

For all that these diaries are often chillingly high-minded, and seem attuned only to the most exquisite and rarefied emotions, and occupy almost exclusively an aesthetic milieu (the one historical event they fleetingly chronicle is the death of Bismark), there is a sense that only with this kind of elaborate self-preparation, these gradual exercises in perception, could Rilke have found his way to writing the poems for which he will be remembered.

'Diaries of a Young Poet' by Rainer Maria Rilke, trs Edward Snow and Michael Winkler (Norton pounds 19.95)