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Reading Colour

George, Rilke, Kandinsky, Lasker-Schüler

Series:

Rey Conquer

Colour is a problem for poetry, where – unlike in painting, sculpture or film – it
is marked by its absence. This absence raises questions that have often been
overlooked in the study of colour: how do writers navigate the invisibility of
colour in text? What aesthetic commitments do certain attitudes to colour
expose? And how, in the face of its absence, do we read colour?

This ambitious and exciting study addresses these questions, analysing the
use of colour language in the work of Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke,
Wassily Kandinsky and Else Lasker-Schüler to tease out how these poets
understood poetic production, and how they negotiated the relations between
poem, reader and world. Covering the poetry, prose, translation, literary and art
criticism and theory of these and other writers central to European literature
at the turn of the twentieth century, Reading Colour sheds new light on poetic
practice of the period, but also uses colour to open up an understanding of
how poetic language works, and to ask how we read poetry.

This book was the winner of the 2018 Early Career Researcher Prize in German
Studies, a collaboration between the Institute for German Studies at the
University of Birmingham and Peter Lang.

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Chapter 2 Rilke and Balance

Extract

Chapter 2

Rilke and Balance

He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.1

All great writers are great colourists.2

Il semble que cette couleur, qu’on me pardonne ces subterfuges de langage pour exprimer des idées fort délicates, pense par elle-même, indépendamment des objets qu’elle habille.3

Where George’s colour use seemed to be primarily about making, we might see Rilke’s as about looking – looking ‘at the thing itself’ in Orlando’s terms – and transforming objects of vision into words: ‘Farben sehen und Farben sagen können’ [to be able to see and say colours] could be said to be his project in the first decade of the twentieth century.4 Failure, while←93 | 94→ not as hyperbolically inevitable as Virginia Woolf would have it, haunts the poet, and particularly his alter ego Malte Laurids Brigge, the protagonist of Rilke’s only novel, who famously writes that he is ‘learning’ – somewhat more patiently than Woolf’s hero – ‘to see’.5 Like Woolf (‘Cézanne and Picasso...

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