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Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke


Johannes Wich-Schwarz

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), perhaps the most famous European poet of the twentieth century, exemplifies how the «crisis of language» inherent in literary Modernism also constitutes a crisis of religious discourse. In Rilke’s poetry and prose, language replaces God as the focal point of human experience. Yet despite his rejection of Christianity, Rilke crucially draws on Christian imagery to express his Modernist worldview. Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke offers new readings of major texts such as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and The Duino Elegies, as well as analyzing some of Rilke’s lesser-known works, Visions of Christ and «The Letter of the Young Worker.»


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Chapter Three: Duino Elegies 76


Chapter Three Duino Elegies Must be a Woe— A loss or so— To bend the eye Best Beauty’s way— But—once aslant It notes Delight As difficult As Stalactite— —Emily Dickinson Was Malte’s vision of a “glorious language” only a convenient way for Rilke to end his novel on a positive note, or did this vision continue to inform Rilke’s subsequent oeuvre? This chapter will attempt to answer the question whether his later poetry fulfills the promise stated at the end of the novel. I will explore to what extent the Duino Elegies offer a resolution of the linguistic crisis negotiated in the novel, and what role metaphysical questions play in this endeavor. My reading revolves around three thematic aspects: the notion of therapy as a way of relating the Elegies back to the Malte novel, the significance of the angel in the Elegies, and, finally, the manner in which the poems move towards a renewal of language. This thematic emphasis motivates my choice of Duino texts: the discussion draws its material primarily from the first, second, seventh, and ninth elegy. I would like to preface my reading with several observations concerning the difficulties inherent in an interpretation of the Duino Elegies. Many readers presumably are intimidated by the seemingly impenetrable linguistic walls that stand in the way of comprehending these poems. This observation fits into the logic of my argument. If indeed the Elegies manifest a form of linguistic renewal, then it should not come as a surprise that...

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