Rilke's Duino angels and the angels of Islam.
"Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic/orders? And even if one of them pressed me/suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed/in his stronger existence." (1) These lines, the famous, ever startling opening of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies (completed in 1922), have been explicated almost as much for their biographical interest as for their primacy within Rilke's text--a cycle of ten elegies expounding nothing less than the mature poet's conception of his own place and calling within the world of creation. Along with his Sonnets to Orpheus, also completed in 1922, this late work is widely considered Rilke's masterpiece, if not in fact the supreme accomplishment of twentieth-century German lyric poetry as a whole. (2)
Written in early 1912, well after the Prague-born poet had first established his literary reputation, these opening lines of the Duino Elegies mark a major comeback for Rilke after a long period of inactivity in which he intermittently despaired of ever writing again. Certainly the circumstances surrounding their inception are well known. Since October of 1911, he had been the house guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis at Duino Castle on the Adriatic. One day in January, after receiving an annoying piece of business mail, he had fled outdoors to mull over his response just as a strong bora was blowing up from the sea. Almost reverentially, the Princess relays what ensued in her memoirs:
Rilke climbed down to the bastions which, jutting to the east and west, were connected to the foot of the castle by a narrow path along the cliffs. These cliffs fall steeply, for about two hundred feet, into the sea. Rilke paced back and forth, deep in thought, since the reply to the letter so concerned him. Then, all at once, in the midst of his brooding, he halted suddenly, for it seemed to him that in the raging of the storm a voice bad called to him: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?".... He took out his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote down these words, together with a few lines that formed themselves without his intervention ... Very calmly he climbed back up to his room, set his notebook aside, and replied to the difficult letter. By that evening the entire elegy had been written down. (3)
The opening lines of the Duino Elegies, then, have a more than usually dramatic bit of inception history attached to them, but they are striking as well for introducing the idiosyncratically conceived angels that are the figurative mainstay of the entire poetic cycle. By the beginning of the second elegy, these angels have become the object of an apostrophe that is sustained over the remaining eight elegies and--we might say--over the next ten years of Rilke's life, till the completion of the cycle in 1922. Commensurate with their centrality in this work, the angels have come in for a good deal of critical attention, yet Rilke's best known specification about how they are to be viewed has inspired surprisingly little discussion. It is a fact all the more curious since the comment in question--the poet's advice to his Polish translator in a letter of 1925--has been cited fully as much as the inception account itself: "The 'angel' of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angel figures of Islam)." (4) In what relation does this somewhat cryptic utterance stand to the events at Duino described above, on the one hand, and to Rilke's sustained apostrophe to the angels, on the other? To date the most suggestive evidence for supporting a connection is presented in the respective work of Annemarie Schimmel and Ingeborg Solbrig, an Orientalist and a Germanist primarily concerned with tracing Rilke's exposure to, and mediation of, Islamic culture and thought. (5) Beginning with her treatment of Rilke's sonnet "Mohammed's Summoning" in 1980, Solbrig in particular has not only pursued the question of Rilke's peculiarly "Islamic" angelology, but has also argued for the intuitive identification of the Duino-inspired poet with the desert merchant awakened by the archangel Gabriel to his religious calling. (6) As provocative as Solbrig's discussion is, however--and its salient points will be reviewed below--it stops short of considering that Rilke's declared preference for the "angel figures of Islam" may be inspired as much by his appreciation of their rhetorical function within the Quran as by his interest in their non-Christian phenomenology. Building on the biographical affinities between Rilke and Muhammad already hinted at, the present article will focus on this question of rhetorical identification between poet and prophet, on the one hand, and between elegiac and Islamic angels, on the other. In so doing, it will further attempt to suggest in what sense Rilke's recourse to the sacred in his angelic apostrophe is continuous with, but also uniquely transformative of, the conventions of the German elegiac tradition.
Before we turn to consider how Rilke distinguishes between "Christian" and "Islamic" angels at all, however, it may be useful to review what is known about his exposure to Islamic culture in broad general outline--leaving aside for the moment the more critical question of his relation to Muhammad. (7) By all accounts, this contact would have begun at the latest by the spring of 1899, when he undertook the first of two journeys to Russia (the second was in the summer of 1900) with his close friend Lou Andreas-Salome and her husband, the Orientalist Friedrich Carl Andreas. The latter had a special interest in Muslim minorities within Russia. It was under Andreas's tutelage that Rilke in all likelihood became acquainted not only with the Quran itself, but also with an influential popular account of the prophet's life that had been circulating in Europe since the eighteenth century, Boulainvillier's La vie de Mohamed, published in 1730. (8) A later phase in Rilke's engagement with Islamic culture (albeit with a non-religious text) came slightly later, during his sojourn in Paris and studies with Rodin in 1902: it was here, at the sculptor's suggestion, that he read The Thousand and One Nights (at least in part). To these primarily literary investigations, we can add his further travels, this time within the Islamic world itself. In 1911 Rilke undertook a trip to Tunisia and Egypt, following the example of his wife, the artist Clara Westhoff, who had journeyed to North Africa some years before. (9) And from October of 1912 to February of 1913, he travelled in Spain, reading the Quran, as we know from his letters, expressing his admiration for the Moorish influence still felt so vividly in the southern part of the country. (10) Needless to say, all of this helped form a rich and varied cultural backdrop, against which Rilke's protracted work on his Elegies must properly be seen. (11)
But let us return now to our main question, and to the text of the Elegies themselves: how is it that Rilke distinguishes between "Christian" and "Islamic" angels at all? Angels (etymologically, "messengers") are, after all, a Judeo-Christian concept to some degree simply taken over by the newer religion, Islam. The most obvious argument for stressing phenomenological differences between the two is offered by the second elegy. (12) Its first, and especially second, strophes posit a kind of angel remarkably unlike anything usually encountered in Western literature. Rilke's persona apostrophizes,
Favored first prodigies, creation's darlings, mountain ranges, peaks, dawn-red ridges of all genesis,--pollen of a flowering godhead, links of light, corridors, stairs, thrones, spaces of being, shields of rapture, torrents of unchecked feeling and then suddenly, singly, mirrors: scooping their outstreamed beauty back into their peerless faces. (13)
The first strophe also provides a Biblical point of contrast to these intimidating and specular Rilkean angels with its allusion to the apocryphal book of Tobit. That story presents the archangel Raphael reassuringly--even cozily--anthropomorphized in his role as the boy Tobias's anonymous traveling companion. Thus, Rilke--
Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I sing to you, almost fatal birds of the soul, knowing what you are. Where are the days of Tobias, when one of your most radiant stood at that simple doorway, dressed for travel and no longer frightening (to the youth who peered out curiously, a youth like him). (14)
The contrast here between the elegiac and Biblical angels, one may note, is heightened by the suggestion of the latter's obsolescence ("Where are the days of Tobias ...?"), a point to which we will return below.
What is known of Rilke's reception of Islam--beginning, again, with his tutorial at the hands of F. C. Andreas--in fact gives good reason to assume that he deliberately assimilated certain features of its angelology into his writing: at least, that is, as these were mediated by European scholars of Islam. Agreement may be seen, for example, in the cosmic proportions and terrible aspect of his angels, as detailed above, and those of Muslim tradition. (15) His recourse to animal imagery (cf. the line "I sing to you, almost fatal birds of the soul") also has some precedent in Islam, which assigns to the eight cherubim a variety of animal features--including, prominently, Muhammad's mount, Buraq. (16) Yet whatever the secondary materials that Rilke may have drawn on in fashioning his Duino angels, his primary source of Islamic "inspiration" was unquestionably Quranic material itself. Accordingly, it is to the Quran and his personal reception of it that we must look to clarify the rhetorical similarities of Rilke's Duino angels with the angels of Islam. The specific claim to be developed here is that Rilke saw the (specular) relation of his own Duino angels to his poetic persona prefigured in the relation of the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad.
Since for Rilke the central element of interest in Muhammad's life was certainly its presentation of Muhammad's call to prophecy (this was the first feature he memorialized, in "Mohammed's Summoning," of 1908), let us review that story as it is conveyed by the Quran and related sources. The Quran ("Recitation"), the record of God's revelations to Muhammad over the course of more than twenty years, is not of course a narrative in a strict sense at all, nor even a chronological arrangement of passages of revelation. For the European neophyte, it would thus not be a text easily assimilated without some outside knowledge of Muhammad's life, the events of which are only obliquely alluded to in its individual sections.
The beginning of the ninety-sixth surah, nonetheless, corresponds to that moment on the night of January 12, 611, when the archangel Gabriel first appeared to Muhammad, asleep in a mountain cave at Hira', and ordered him to read. (17) A more complete account of the visitation, however, based on traditional extra-Quranic materials, is given, for instance, by Boulainvilliers and is worth summarizing here also. In this more detailed rendition, Muhammad is portrayed as being awakened from a deep sleep by a blinding light; after his eyes adjust to it he perceives an angel standing before him who spans the distance between heaven and earth, and is terrified. The angel lifts him to his feet by his hair--Muhammad feels no pain--and addresses him in a voice that fills him with fear. In the name of their common creator, he hands him a scroll and orders him to read. Muhammad responds that he is unable to read, but the angel admonishes him to do so before he leaves for the first time. According to other accounts, Muhammad later has the sense that the writing has descended into his heart and, after three years of keeping word of his visitations private, he is enjoined by the angel to make his message public. (18)
In her analysis of Rilke's sonnet "Mohammed's Summoning," Solbrig has pointed to the balance of power between Muhammad and the archangel as the all-important thematic issue for Rilke in his reception of the revelation story of the ninety-sixth surah. The moment that the confused and reluctant merchant accepts the divine imperative to read, i.e., in the instant of his submission, his transformation from illiterate to prophetic virtuoso is realized, and according to Rilke, the angel himself must then offer his obeisance: "Then he read: so deeply, that the Angel bowed./And was already someone who had read/and was able and obeyed and brought to pass." (19) Interestingly, this act of submission on the angel's part, in his turn, signalling a shift in the balance of power, is Rilke's own elaboration; it is neither reported by Boulainvilliers nor hinted at in the Quran.
It is this question of relative power and prophetic self-assertion, however, that is central again when Rilke next gives evidence of his involvement with the Quran--in his letter to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis written in Spain and dated December 17, 1912. Here, in the land where Islam most impressively penetrated into Europe, he gives full voice to the disenchantment with his own religion, Christianity, that has been building in him for some time. He writes,
By the way, you must know, Princess, that I've been consumed since Cordoba with an almost rabid anti-Christian feeling, I'm reading the Quran, in places it takes on a voice for me, in which I'm immersed with all my strength, like the wind in the organ. Here one assumes one is in a Christian country--well, here too, that is long gone, it was Christian.... [R]eally, one should no longer seat oneself at this obsolete table and palm off the finger bowls, which are still standing around, as sustenance. The fruit is sucked out--now, to put it crassly, it's a matter of simply having to spit out the peels. And yet: again and again Protestants and American Christians make a brew with these tea leaves that have been steeping for two thousand years. Muhammad was anyway the closest thing; like a river through an ancient mountain range, he breaks his way through to the one God with whom one can converse in grand fashion every morning, without the telephone called "Christ," into which people are continually calling: Hello, who's there?---and no one answers. (20)
Elsewhere in his correspondence Rilke explains his rejection of Christianity in terms that have also been taken to apply to Muhammad and to Islam: "I personally am more inclined to religions in which the mediator appears to be less essential or almost tuned out." (21)
But while these passages have sometimes been quoted to underscore Rilke's affinities with Islam, their apparent inconsistency with precisely the most widely accepted version of the prophet's calling has not been remarked on. For who, in terms of the major world religions, can be called a "mediator" figure, if not Muhammad himself? That is a fact of which believing Muslims are reminded daily with their credo: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger." Moreover, what can Rilke be thinking of here with his portrayal of Muhammad "breaking his way through" to God--besides perhaps the well-known Goethe poem "Mahomet's Song?" (22) That runs exactly counter to the popular accounts, including, in Europe, that of Boulainvilliers, which portray the pious merchant rising uncertainly to fulfill his calling.
For a man already alienated from the message of Christianity (like the Biblical angels of the second elegy, its heyday is "long past" for Rilke), belief in the literal truth of Muhammad's calling and message--conceived, after all, as an update and correction to Christianity itself--will hardly have been the issue, however. On the other hand, Rilke's various epistolary remarks on the subject of Islam, including his advice to Hulewicz, become comprehensible and compatible amongst themselves if we accept that he read the Quran not primarily as sacred history but as a document of prophetic self-assertion. (And here it seems sensible to distinguish the Quranic text from the legendary tradition surrounding Muhammad's life). Thus considered, the Quran becomes for Rilke an extended "thought experiment" in which the archangel, impressively conveyed as he may be, figures not as God's creature but as Muhammad's: a kind of celestial guarantor generated by the prophet's inspiration who stands in a transparent, indeed a specular relation to him and his own concerns. (23) It is surely only from this position of rhetorical identification ("I'm reading the Quran; in places it takes on a voice for me, in which I'm immersed with all my strength, like the wind in the organ") that Rilke can speak of a religion in which the mediator is "less essential or almost tuned out." Consistent with his presentation of the prophet's calling in "Mohammed's Summoning," the role and importance of the angel are posited here only to be made subservient to Muhammad, as he realizes his personal "breakthrough" to the divine.
Such a reading of the Quran, one focusing on its rhetorical power and power relations rather than on its literal truth claims, would certainly have been the natural one for the unbeliever, even for the respectful unbeliever that Rilke obviously represented. The non-linear construction of the Quran, already mentioned, is perhaps the first characteristic that distinguishes the Quran from (for example) the more generally continuous presentation of the Christian Gospels. But for the reader grounded primarily in Christian tradition, the second most striking feature of the Quran is surely the degree to which it broaches vastly different issues--ranging from thorny questions of ethics to Muhammad's problems in maintaining harmony among his wives--with no apparent sense of differentiation. All are dignified as divine revelation. With even a little outside knowledge of Muhammad's life and circumstances, it is not hard to recognize in these surahs his own recurring preoccupations: the continuing interest of God in the welfare of widows and orphans, for example (Muhammad had himself been orphaned, his mother widowed); God's assurances that His messenger is not, in fact, a madman (Muhammad was at first accused by the Meccans of being just that); the traces of a private "anxiety of influence" that underlies the otherwise deferential references to Jesus and the other prophets. (24)
Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that even those who stood closest to Muhammad, without doubting his calling exactly, on occasion recognized how related his message could appear to his own interests. The sixty-sixth surah of the Quran, entitled "Prohibition," reads as an elaborate justification of Muhammad the errant husband. "Prophet," it begins, "why do you prohibit that which God has made lawful to you, in seeking to please your wives? God is forgiving and merciful" (Quran 66:1). At issue was apparently a broken promise of Muhammad to one of his wives, Hafsa, to separate from a Coptic slave with whom she had found him in intimate circumstances. Hafsa had reported the incident to another wife, 'A'isha (Muhammad's favorite). The function of the surah is evidently to exhort both Hafsa and 'A'isha to repentance; otherwise divorce, the divine voice intimates, may well be imminent. (25) It was interludes like this that once reportedly prompted 'A'isha to observe drily to her husband (again the issue was wives): "Certainly God hastens to fulfill your wishes." (26)
To be sure, such inclusions do not ultimately detract from the greater religious message of the Quran as inspired text, but it is only reasonable to assume that a recognition of their occasionally quite human coloration must have been fundamental to Rilke's appreciation of Muhammad and Islamic tradition. The point of comparison between the angels of the Elegies and the angels of Islam, then, remains the aggrandizement of the visionary himself: for just as God, paradoxically, sends the archangel Gabriel to do Muhammad's bidding (as 'A'isha would have it), so too are the angels of the Elegies, after their impressive and intimidating introduction, retained not just to dignify Rilke's developing argument on the mission of the poet within the hierarchy of creation--but actually to sanctify it. And as in "Mohammed's Summoning," the balance of power with respect to the angel(s) shifts here measurably, though more gradually. By the fifth elegy, the well-known meditation on the acrobats, the awed tone of the persona's initial apostrophe to the angels has given way to an imperative edge, as he pointedly enjoins an angel to "preserve" the "smile of the jumper" ("Subrisio Saltat"): "Angel! O take it, pluck it, that small-petaled herb of healing!/Create a vase, preserve it!" (27) By the end of the seventh elegy, he even more boldly invites the angel to marvel at his own, just completed celebration of human experience: "Miracles! O stand in wonder, Angel, for it was us,/O great one, us, tell the others of these things we added: my breath/is insufficient for such praise." (28) To be sure, there is in this deliberate graduation of poetic authority a degree of self-consciousness not similarly evident in the Quran, given the latter's inscrutability as spontaneously received revelation.
But notwithstanding Muhammad's (arguably) less self-conscious relation to his own calling, Rilke would certainly have been in a position to reflect on additional parallels between the two of them if, as he penned his fervent letter from Spain in December of 1912, he thought back to the inception of his first elegy at Duino Castle earlier that year. On a given day in January, he was inspired in his receptivity by higher authority--like Muhammad on a January night--and dramatically enabled to write after a long period of incapacity; much as Muhammad had been empowered to read. The ensuing colloquy with the angels lasted ten years (Muhammad's revelations occurred over some twenty-three years) and put to rest Rilke's recent fears, confided in his letters to Lou Andreas-Salome, that he might have to consider changing his profession. Around the time of his breakthrough at Duino, he had written to Andreas-Salome, by now herself a student of Freud's, about the possibility of trying psychoanalysis to overcome his nervousness and general malaise:
I know now that analysis would only make sense for me if the strange thought in the back of my mind--of not writing any more--were really serious. Then one could have one's demons exorcised, since they are after all only disturbances and embarrassments in everyday life, and if the angels also happened to be driven out, then one could see this as a simplification and tell oneself, oh well, that in one's next career ... they would certainly not come in useful anyway. (29)
As it happened, however, the angels came in quite useful in the old career, and it may serve to corroborate this general reading of Rilke's "Islam" specifications to note, finally, how directly his angels' rhetorical role in the Duino cycle develops out of the greater German elegiac tradition. To my knowledge no one has pointed out that Rilke's apostrophe in his Elegies is continuous with a rhetorical device extending back even to the elegists of German Classicism (1786-1832): the appeal of a poetic persona to an ethereal being standing in some privileged position of authority or knowledge. In particular, one may isolate here Goethe's "Euphrosyne" (of 1797/98) and Holderlin's "Menon's Laments for Diotima" (of 1799) as two elegiac texts which certainly influenced Rilke in his composition of the Duino Elegies. (30)
A detailed thematic consideration of the individual poems is unnecessary here; for these purposes, what is striking in the comparison between them is the evidence of a diachronic shift in the power relation underlying the apostrophe itself. In "Euphrosyne," for example, the Goethean persona becomes aware of a luminous figure as he is travelling alone in the mountains at nightfall. It is Euphrosyne, mythological transfiguration of a recently deceased friend. He addresses her, and she materializes before him to deliver a retrospective speech that stresses the immortalizing power of art and lasts for the greater part of the elegy. In a far less literal vein, Holderlin's bereaved "Menon" also summons the spirit of a dead friend (Diotima) to reconcile his present misery with his past happiness, but her "presence" remains largely symbolic and completely subservient to his own meditation. Most abstractly of all, then, Rilke's persona posits the Duino angels not as messengers but as pure witnesses, manipulating them by sheer force of argument to ratify his own aesthetic apology. Least "human" and familiar of all ethereal authorities, they are called upon here to valorize precisely what is most human and familiar--the proper subject of poetry as defined by Rilke and explicated most eloquently in his eighth elegy: the poet's role is to render the "things" of the human world into invisibility. (31)
The diachronic development described by these elegiac apostrophes is clear enough: following in the direction already set by Holderlin, Rilke's text virtually reverses the earlier Goethean relation of (passive, receptive) poetic persona to (active, assertive) ethereal authority. It is, of course, a direction entirely consistent with both his explicit treatment of Quranic material in "Mohammed's Summoning," and his implicit understanding of Quranic rhetoric as it is conveyed by his epistolary remarks. Telling of Rilke's spontaneous identification with a religious tradition not his own, these remarks also bespeak a canny appreciation of another "subject's" exemplary and lasting record of self-assertion: a lofty "Recitation" delivered before God and men. Their implication is thus readily brought into line with a number of modern readings of the Duino Elegies which have independently stressed the angels' purely rhetorical status and subordination to the interests of the autonomous persona: "The angel [of the Elegies] is the challenge to think, made into a figure. [A] [postulate [...]"; "Rilke's angels [of the Elegies] are rhetorical figures: wished-for and feared potencies of his [the poet's] own self;" (32) "Rilke's 'angel' ... is not messenger ... but sign." (33) As pure "signs," the Duino angels have their antecedents for Rilke not only in Islamic angelology, but also in his rhetorical reading of the Quran; the latter has too long been overlooked in assessing Rilke's relation to Muhammad.
(1) The English translation given is from Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies: Bilingual Edition, trans. Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press, 2000), 5. All subsequent English translations from the Duino Elegies will be from this edition. The original German lines are: "Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich denn aus der Engel/Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nahme/einer mich plotzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem/starkeren Dasein." The German edition used here, from which all subsequent quotations will be taken, is: Rainer Maria Rilke, Duineser Elegien. Die Sonette an Orpheus (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1976). See p. 11 for the lines cited here.
(2) By the time the Duino Elegies appeared, Rilke (1875-1926) had several notable collections of poetry to his credit, in addition to a well-received novella, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, or Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1906), and a ground-breaking lyrical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, or Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). The poetry collections were The Book of Images (Das Buch der Bilder) ; The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch) ; and his New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part (Neue Gedichte and Der neuen Gedichte anderer Teil) [1907/08]. With the last-named work especially, Rilke established his mastery of the so-called "Dinggedicht" (literally, "thing-poem"), a kind of descriptive poem that attempts to capture the defining essence of a particular "thing" (person, animal, art work, mundane object, etc.) in succinct formula.
The ten Duino Elegies are less concretely conceived and less accessible, taking as their subject the individual's (read: poet's) attempt to make meaning not only of the natural world, but also of ephemeral and abstract aspects of the human life course and experience (e.g., childhood; familial and romantic love: fulfilled and unrequited; the limits of consciousness; affliction). They are constructed as a series of meditations on these discrete subjects and unified in the end by the poet's vision of his own mission. We know that a few of the Elegies were inspired by Rilke's experience of actual things or places. For example, his fifth elegy, or meditation on the acrobats, is based on Picasso's painting of a group of Paris street acrobats ("La Famille des saltimbanques"), which Rilke viewed in 1915. The difficult tenth elegy, set in part in an allegorical "City of Pain" but incorporating references to the Nile and the Sphinx, was inspired by Rilke's visit to Giza--but he was adamant in denying that any concrete connection was intended (see Note 7 below).
(3) This translation is given by Snow, vii-viii. Cf. the German original:
Rilke stieg zu den Bastionen hinunter, die, vom Meer aus nach Osten und Westen gelegen, durch einen schmalen Weg am Fu[beta]e des Schlosses verbunden waren. Die Felsen fallen dort steil, wohl an 200 Fu[beta] tief, ins Meer herab. Rilke ging ganz in Gedanken versunken auf und ab, da die Antwort auf den Brief ihn sehr beschaftigte. Da, auf einmal, mitten in seinem Grubeln, blieb er stehen, plotzlich, denn es war ihm, als ob im Brausen des Sturmes eine Stimme ihm zugerufen hatte: "Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?".... Er nahm sein Notizbuch, das er stets mit sich fuhrte, und schrieb diese Worte nieder und gleich dazu noch einige Verse, die sich ohue sein Dazutun formten.... Sehr ruhig stieg er wieder in sein Zimmer hinauf, legte sein Notizbuch beiseite und erledigte den Geschaftsbrief. Am Abend war aber die ganze Elegie niedergeschrieben.
This account given in: Furstin Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, Erinnerungen an Rainer Maria Rilke, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1966), 48-49.
(4) For the context of Rilke's remark to Hulewicz, see Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe (1950; Wiesbaden: Insel, 1980), 899 ff. Angel figures are actually plentiful in Rilke's poetry (see, for instance, the famous "L'Ange du Meridien" in his New Poems, which describes an angel on the facade of the cathedral at Chartres), but overwhelmingly, they are recognizably connected to Judeo-Christian belief. For discussions that concentrate on the figure of the angel in the Duino Elegies specifically--without, however, pursuing the "Islamic" connection--see, for example, the following: Stephen Spender, "Rilke and the Angels, Eliot and the Shrines," The Sewanee Review 61.4 (1953): 557-81; Kathe Hamburger, Rilke: Eine Einfuhrung (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett, 1976), 98 ff.; Ursula Franklin, "The Angel in Valery and Rilke," Comparative Literature 35 (1983): 215-46; Kathleen Komar, Transcending Angels: Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies (Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska P, 1987). The ten essays in Rilke's Duino Elegies: Cambridge Readings, ed. Roger Paulin and Peter Hutchinson (London: Duckworth and Ariadne, 1996), while incisive in many respects, mention the "Islamic" connection at most glancingly. Dieter Bassermann's earlier comments on the "Islamic" aspect of the angels in Der spiite Rilke (Munich: Leibniz, 1947), 75 f., remain somewhat inconclusive.
(5) See Annemarie Schimmel, "'Ein Osten, der nie alle wird.' Rilke aus der Sicht einer Orientalistin," Rilke heute: Beziehungen und Wirkungen, ed. Ingeborg Solbrig and Joachim Storck (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975), 183-206; Ingeborg Solbrig, "'Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog': Zu Rilkes Gedicht Mohammeds Berufung (1907)," Modern Austrian Literature 13.3 (1980): 33-45; Ingeborg Solbrig, "Gedanken iiber literarische Anregungen zur verfremdeten Engelkonzeption des mittleren und spaten Rilke," Modern Austrian Literature 15. 3-4 (1982): 277-90. My discussion below of Rilke's affinities with Islam draws freely on the materials presented by Schimmel and especially Solbrig.
(6) Here is the English translation of that poem:
Mohammed's Summoning But when the Angel--impossible to mistake--stepped into his hiding place, erect, regal, all purity and blaze: then he renounced all claims and pleaded only to be left the thing he was: a mere merchant, whose travels had deranged him; he had never learned to read--and now such a word--too much even for a wise man. But the Angel, imperious, kept thrusting at him what stood written on his page and would not hear and kept insisting: Read. Then he read: so deeply, that the Angel bowed. And was already someone who had read and was able and obeyed and brought to pass.
Quoted from Rainer Maria Rilke, New Poems, revised bilingual edition, trans. Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 305. Here is the original German text:
Mohammeds Berufung Da aber als in sein Versteck der Hohe, sofort Erkennbare: der Engel, trat, aufrecht, der lautere und lichterlohe: da tat er allen Anspruch ab und bat bleiben zu durfen der von seinen Reisen innen verwirrte Kaufmann, der er war; er hatte nie gelesen--und nun gar ein solches Wort, zu viel fur einen Weisen. Der Engel aber, herrisch, wies und wies ihm, was geschrieben stand auf seinem Blatte, und gab nicht nach und wollte wieder: Lies. Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog. Und war schon einer, der gelesen hatte und konnte und gehorchte und vollzog.
Quoted from Snow, 304. Asks Solbrig, "Are we not already reminded in this poem of the elegist who felt himself moved by the tremendum of poetic inspiration at Duino Castle?" ("Werden wir nicht schon in diesem Gedicht an den Elegiendichter erinnert, der auf dem Schloss Duino das tremendum der dichterischen Inspiration zu fuhlen glaubte?"): Solbrig, "'Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog,'" 39-40.
(7) In addition to the articles of Schimmel and Solbrig, cited above, this sum mary draws on Hans Egon Holthusen's Rainer Maria Rilke in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (1958; Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1976). Since Rilke's impressions of Giza as "translated" into his tenth elegy (see Note 2 above) reflect a Pharaonic period of history rather than an Islamic one, that particular connection is not pursued here.
(8) Solbrig identifies this as the version likely to have been used by Andreas in tutoring Rilke, noting that it was the most widely read account of Muhammad's life in Europe at the time ("Gedanken uber literarische Anregungen zur verfremdeten Engelkonzeption des mittleren und spaten Rilke," 281). She also notes that Andreas (whose area of expertise was Persia) introduced Rilke to Goethe's West-Eastern Divan (West-Ostlicher Diwan) of 1819/1827, which had itself been inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz ("Gedanken ...," 281).
(9) As Schimmel points out, North Africa exerted a powerful attraction on other European artists of the early twentieth century as well; in German-speaking lands, notably Paul Klee and August Macke. ("'Ein Osten, der nie aile wird'. Rilke aus der Sicht einer Orientalistin," 185).
(10) In an oft-quoted letter to the Princess Matie von Thurn und Taxis written from Ronda (Dec. 17, 1912), he exults at his proximity to Gibraltar, and notes that he is tempted to travel even farther south, to Tangier. See Rilke, Briefe 380.
(11) In Rilke's published works up to 1922, there are a few scattered references to aspects of Islam or, more generally, to the world of the "Orient," but where religious references occur--as they do frequently--they are almost always to Christian and Jewish (Old Testament) belief, or to archaic (Classical) mythology. Still, we may note that the eponymous hero of his 1906 novella, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, is a young officer fighting in Hungary against the Turks, and that the subject of the Turkish wars is sounded again in the title of one of the New Poems soon thereafter: "The Last Count of Brederode Evades Turkish Captivity." Along with "Mohammed's Summoning," the second part of that same collection contains the poems "Persian Heliotrope," and--a perhaps more oblique reference to the East--"Opium Poppy," neither of these religious. Later, as Schimmel notes, the poet also beautifully, evokes the "water and roses of Isfahan or Shiraz" in his Sonnets to Orpheus of 1922 (the twenty-first sonnet) with a direct reference to Persia (Schimmel 183).
(12) Since the iconographic traditions of the respective religions offer few clues here (aside from some obvious stylistic differences), the possibility that Rilke was influenced mainly by religious art is not pursued.
(13) Cf. the German original:
Fruhe Gegluckte, ihr Verwohnten der Schopfung, Hohenzuge, morgenrotliche Grate aller Erschaffung,--Pollen der bluhenden Gottheit, Gelenke des Lichtes, Gange, Treppen, Throne, Raume aus Wesen, Schilde aus Wonne, Tumulte sturmisch entzuckten Gefuhls und plotzlich, einzeln, Spiegel: die die entstromte eigene Schonheit wiederschopfen zuruck in das eigene Antlitz. (II, 10-17)
(14) Jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und dennoch, weh mir, ansing ich euch, fast todliche Vogel der Seele, wissend um euch. Wohin sind die Tage Tobiae, da der Strahlendsten einer stand an der einfachen Haustur, zur Reise ein wenig verkleidet und schon nicht mehr furchtbar; (Jungling dem Jungling, wie er neugierig hinaussah). (II, 1-6)
(15) Gabriel's appearance to Muhammad in the Quran is described, for example, in the fifty-third surah called "The Star." In its second verse, Muhammad notes that his is an "inspired revelation," and that he "is taught by one [Gabriel] who is powerful and mighty." The third verse continues, "He [Gabriel] stood on the uppermost horizon; then, drawing near, he came down within two bows' length or even closer, and revealed to his servant [Muhammad] that which he revealed" (Quran LIII: 2-3). The edition used here is The Koran with a Parallel Arabic Text, trans. N. J. Dawood, 5th ed. (New York: Viking, 1990), 525. In the thirty-fifth surah, "The Creator," we read, "He [God] sends forth the angels as His messengers, with two, three or four pairs of wings. He multiplies His Creatures according to His will. .." (Quran XXXV: 1 ; Dawood 433). As D. B. MacDonald notes in the article "Mala'ika" in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, this verse significantly influenced later descriptions and pictures (Encyclopaedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition v. 1.0. Koninldijke Brill. 1999). For an "'angelography' culled from various Islamic sources," see also Peter Lamborn Wilson, Angels: Messengers of the Gods (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994). He describes Gabriel (Jibra'il) as having 1600 wings, hair of saffron, with the sun between his eyes and hair as bright as the moon and stars, etc. (27). For Rilke, Boulainvillier's account of Muhammad's visitation--summarized in discussion following--would have been a key source in the mediation of Islamic angelography: see Solhrig, "Gedanken ..., " 282 ff. Both Solbrig and Schimmel mention Die Geisterlehre der Moslimen (The Muslims' Teachings About Spirits) by the Orientalist Josef Harnmer-Purgstall (1774-1856) as another work likely to have influenced Rilke; it contains descriptions of angels similar to those mentioned by Wilson above (Solbrig, "Gedanken ...," 285-287; Schimmel 184). Schimmel also points out that the specularity of Rilke's angels in the second elegy is reminiscent of the Persian mystic Suhrawardi Maqtul's angelology; however, she posits no direct influence (Schimmel 199).
(16) Whatever Buraq's formal status within orthodox teachings, Hammer Purgstall describes the creature as the "actual cherub of Islam" ("der eigentliche Cherub des Islams"); see Solbrig, "Gedanken ...," 287. While Rilke's apostrophe to the angels as birds ("I sing to you, almost fatal birds of the soul") might at first be taken simply to refer to their wings in more or less conventional fashion, its effect in context is really quite different from a seemingly similar address in his poem "The Guardian Angel" ("Der Schutzenger') in The Book of Images (Das Buch der Bilder). The relevant lines there read, "You are the bird whose wings came/when I wakened in the night and called" ("Du bist der Vogel, dessen Flugel kamen,/wenn ich erwachte in der Nacht und rief')--see The Book of Images, revised bilingual ed., trans. Edward Snow (New York: North Point, 1994), 32-33. The effect in these lines is to console; the effect in the second of the Duino Elegies is to confuse and alienate: "Who are you?" ("Wer seid ihr?") asks the persona at the end of its first strophe (II, 9; the italics here are mine).
(17) As we read in the Quran, "Recite in the name of your Lord who created--created man from clots of blood. Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who by the pen taught man what he did not know." (Quran XCVI: 1-4; Dawood 597). The date of Muhammad's visitation is given by Boulainvilliers as January 12, 611, but other authorities are less specific. See Henri de Boulainvilliers, La vie de Mohamed (1730; Westmead, Farnborough, Hants., England: Gregg International Publishers Ltd., 1971), 256.
(18) See Boulainvilliers 256-58 and emile Dermenghem, Mohammed in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, trans. Marc Gillod and J.-M. Zemb (1960; Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1980), 21-23. Muhammad's revelations were initially committed to memory by his followers, and later to writing. Traditional extra-Quranic sources of information on his life are comprised by the Hadith collections, which contain reports about the normative deeds and sayings of the Prophet (including variants); and the Sira, or narrative biography.
(19) Solbrig, "'Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog,'" 37.
(20) The translation and emphasis are mine. Cf. the original German:
Ubrigens mussen Sie wissen, Furstin, ich bin seit Cordoba von einer beinah rabiaten Antichristlichkeit, ich lese den Koran, er nimmt mir, stellenweise, eine Stimme an, in der ich so mit aller Kraft drinnen bin, wie der Wind in der Orgel. Hier meint man in einem Christlichen Lande zu sein, nun auch hier ists langst uberstanden, christlich wars.... [W]irklich, man soll sich langer nicht an diesen abgesessenen Tisch setzen und die Fingerschalen, die noch herumstehen, fur Nahrung ausgeben. Die Frucht ist ausgesogen, da heissts einfach, grob gesprochen, die Schalen ausspucken. Und da machen Protestanten und amerikanische Christen immer noch wieder einen Aufguss mit diesem Teegrus, der zwei Jahrtausende gezogen hat, Mohammed war auf alle Falle das Nachste, wie ein Fluss durch ein Urgebirg, bricht er sich durch zu dem einen Gott, mit dem sich so grossartig reden lasst jeden Morgen, ohne das Telephon "Christus", in das fortwahrend hineingerufen wird: Holla, wer dort?--und niemand antwortet. Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe (1950; Wiesbaden: Insel, 1980), 379-80. Again, the emphasis is mine.
As Schimmel notes, Rilke expresses a somewhat similar thought ten years later, in his brief fictional Letter of a Young Worker (Brief eines jungen Arbeiters), when he has his young worker declare, "And once I tried the Quran, I didn't get far; but this much I understood: here again there's a kind of great finger pointing in a direction with God at the end of it, contained in His eternal ascent in an Orient that is never depleted"--translation mine (cf.: "Und einmal habe ich den Koran versucht, ich bin nicht weit gekommen; aber so viel verstand ich: da ist wieder so ein machtiger Zeigefinger und Gott am Ende seiner Richtung in seinem ewigen Aufgang begriffen in einem Osten, der nie alle wird"). Quoted in Schimmel 190.
(21) "Mir personlich stehen alle jene Religionen naher, in denen der Mittler weniger wesentlich oder fast ausgeschaltet erscheint." Cited in Solbrig, "'Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog,'" 35; the letter is addressed to Pastor Rudolf Zimmermann and is dated January 16, 1922. The English translation is mine.
(22) Goethe's poem "Mahomets Gesang" of 1772/73, a product of the Storm and Stress movement, is the most famous tribute to Muhammad in the German language. It presents him as a spring gushing forth and gathering force (along with his "brother" tributaries) as he makes his way triumphantly to the sea.
(23) In his letter to Hulewicz, Rilke explains, "The angel of the elegies is that being that vouches for [our] being able to recognize a higher level of reality in [the realm of] the invisible [than in the visible]." ("Der Engel der Elegien ist dasjenige Wesen, das dafur einsteht, im Unsichtbaren einen hoheren Rang der Realitat zu erkennen.")--Briefe 900. Translation mine.
In suggesting here that Rilke intuitively understood the angels in the Quran to be Muhammad's own "creatures," I wish to distinguish this view from the position taken in the traditional Muslim philosophers' doctrine of prophecy. The latter is discussed by Fazlur Rahman in his book Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy (1958; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979). According to Rahman, Al-Farabi, for example, argues that the "potential intellect" of a man like Muhammad, when it "becomes one with ... abstracted intelligibles and becomes actual," in turn takes on an actual existence in the world and becomes "a new part of the intelligible furniture of reality" (12). But this is possible ultimately only because the "Active Intelligence ... the last and lowest of ... ten Intelligences emanating from God ... sends out a light" to initiate the process (11-12).
(24) For textual examples of these preoccupations, see, for instance, the surah entitled "Daylight": "Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter?" (Quran XCIII: 6; Dawood 596), etc.; the one entitled "The Pen": "By the Pen, and what they write, you are not mad: thanks to the favour of your Lord! A lasting recompense awaits you, for yours is a sublime nature" (Quran LXVIII: 1; Dawood 563); and the one entitled "Ornaments of Gold": "He [Jesus] was no more than a mortal whom We favoured and made an example to the Israelites" (Quran XLIII: 59; Dawood 492).
(25) This appears on p. 559 of Dawood's translation.
(26) This story is recounted by Dermenghem 49. The whole problem of divine inspiration vs. personal motivation being discussed here is reflected in a certain disagreement among Western commentators with respect to the question: Who is speaking in the Quran? Thus the translator N. J. Dawood: "Except in the opening verses and some few passages in which the Prophet or the Angel speaks in the first person, the speaker throughout is God" (Dawood ix). But Solbrig disagrees: "The speaker is, as everywhere, the archangel Gabrier" ("Der Sprecher ist, wie uberall, der Erzengel Gabrier") ("'Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog,'" 44). The most nearly Rilkean position is the third interpretation: that the voice in question is Muhammad's, the divine attribution being essentially nominal.
(27) Duino Elegies 33. Cf. the original: "Engel! o nimms, pflucks, das klein blutige Heilkraut./Schaff eine Vase, verwahrs!" (V, 59-60).
(28) Duino Elegies 55. Cf.: "War es nicht Wunder? O staune, Engel, denn wir sinds,/wir, o du Grosser, erzahls, dass wir solches vermochten, mein Atem/reicht fur die Ruhmung nicht aus" (VII, 75-77).
(29) The translation and second emphasis are mine. The German original, which follows below, is taken from Rainer Maria Rilke--Lou Andreas-Salome: Briefwechsel, ed. Ernst Pfeiffer (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1975), 252-53:
Ich weiss jetzt, dass die Analyse fur mich nur Sinn hatte, wenn der merkwurdige Hintergedanke, nicht mehr zu schreiben ... mir wirklich ernst ware. Dann durfte man sich die Teufel austreiben lassen, da sie ja im Burgerlichen wirklich nur storen und peinlich sind, und gehen die Engel moglicherweise mit aus, so musste man auch das als Vereinfachung auffassen und sich sagen, dass sie ja in jenem neuen nachsten Beruf ... sicher nicht in Verwendung kamen. (Second emphasis mine).
(30) See Goethe, "Euphrosyne," in his Gedichte, ed. Erich Trunz (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1974), 190-95; and Friedrich Hoderlin, "Menons Klagen um Diotima," in his Samtliche Werke, ed. Frierdich Beissner (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1944-1962), 2: 75-79. For a more detailed discussion of Rilke's intense involvement with Goethe's poetry (especially "Euphrosyne") and Hoderlin's work in the period just prior to, and during, work on his Duino Elegies, see Theodore Ziolkowski, The Classical German Elegy: 1750-1950 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980), 239-41. See also Ingeborg Schnack, Rainer Maria Rilke: Chronik seines Lebens und seines Werkes (Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1975), 1:380 and 1: 480. In his treatment of the Duino Elegies, Ziolkowski discusses these three elegies together and posits a link among Euphrosyne, Diotima, and the female "guide" who appears in the tenth Duino elegy. This is a treatment, however, not geared to the question of apostrophe or angels, and I believe it draws the rhetorical connection among the three texts rather too narrowly.
(31) The key passage, in Snow's English translation (55, 57), is: Here is the time for the sayable, here is its home. Speak and attest....
Praise the world to the Angel, not what's unsayable. You can't impress him with lofty emotions; in the cosmos that shapes his feeling, you're a mere novice. Therefore show him some simple object, formed from generation to generation until it's truly out own, dwelling near our hands and in our eyes. Tell him of things.... Earth, isn't that what you want: to arise In us invisibly? Isn't it your dream To be invisible someday? Earth! Invisible! What, if not transformation, is your urgent charge?
Here is Rilke's German:
Hier ist des Saglichen Zeit, hier seine Heimat. Sprich und bekenn.... Preise dem Engel die Welt, nicht die unsagliche, ihm kannst du nicht grosstun mit herrlich Erfuhltem; im Weltall, wo er fuhlender fuhlt, bist du ein Neuling. Drum zeig ihm das Einfache, das, von Geschlecht zu Geschlechtern gestaltet, als ein Unsriges lebt, neben der Hand und im Blick. Sag ihm die Dinge.... Erde, ist es nicht dies, was du willst: unsichtbar in uns erstehn?--Ist es dein Traum nicht, einmal unsichtbar zu sein?--Erde! unsichtbar! Was, wenn Verwandlung nicht, ist dein drangender Auftrag? (IX, 43-71)
In his letter to Hulewicz cited above, Rilke says of the poet's mission, "We are the bees of the invisible" ("Wir sind die Bienen des Unsichtbaren")--Briefe 898.
(32) "Der Engel [der Elegien] ist Figur gewordene Denkforderung. Postulat"; "Rilkes Engel ... sind ... rhetorische Figuren: ersehnte und gefurchtete Potenzen seiner selbst."--Simon Frank, "Uber einige Ideen aus Rilkes Duineser Elegien," Neuphilologus 16.1. (1930): 18, 27. Compare Karen Leeder, "Even Rilke's Angels are projections of the transforming poetic consciousness--although idealized ones," Rilke's Duino Elegies: Cambridge Readings, ed. Roger Paulin and Peter Hutchinson (London: Duckworth and Ariadne, 2000), 169.
(33) "Rilkes 'Engel' ... ist nicht Bote ... sondem Zeichen." Solbrig, "'Da las er: so, dass sich der Engel bog," 40. While it does not specifically address the problem of the Duino angels, Paul de Man's treatment of Rilkean rhetoric in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) is generally suggestive for out discussion, particularly his focus on the figure of chiasmus. See De Man 20-56.