In Spring: Reading Rilke and Salinger in the Rain
By Stuart Mitchner
Earth, you darling, I will! Oh, believe me, you need
your Springs no longer to win me: a single one,
just one, is already more than my blood can endure!
—from Duino Elegies
I walked into Labyrinth Books last week looking for nothing in particular and walked out with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Norton Library 1963). Later the same day I read the first four of the 10 elegies aloud to myself, softly, just above a whisper, with the rain gently falling in the background.
In an essay from his 2012 collection In Time, C.K. Williams agrees with “the many readers” who consider Duino Elegies “the greatest single poem of the twentieth century.” Rilke named the work for Duino Castle, near Trieste, where he began the first elegy in 1912 after a stormy walk along the bastions with the Adriatic Sea “raging two hundred feet below.” According to J.B. Leishman’s introduction, Rilke heard the first line in the wind: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?” In the translation by Leishman and Stephen Spender: “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?”
Something like the unsettling pleasure of reading Rilke soft and low in rainy day serenity is in the music of the first stanza: “For Beauty’s nothing / but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, / and why we adore it so is because it serenely / disdains to destroy us.”
In his essay, Williams finds Duino Elegies “simply gigantic: inexhaustible.” If he were alive again and sitting across from me at this moment celebrating the poem’s “superabundant being,” he’d be smiling, leaning forward, delighting in a poet who could write “Earth, you darling, I will,” as if the Earth had just proposed marriage. The pleasure of this imagined moment is the feeling that two poets are face to face with you saying, “Look, I am living.” And so they are.
Franny and the Fourth Elegy
After appearing anonymously as “the only great poet of the century” in J.D. Salinger’s breakthrough story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948), Rilke surfaces by name in “Franny” (1955), another Salinger story that like “Bananafish” inspired a sensational response among readers of The New Yorker, not to mention the multitudes who by then had read The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Rilke makes a typically profane Holden Caulfieldish entrance when Franny’s boyfriend Lane is asked by a classmate if he knows “what this bastard Rilke is all about.” It’s the weekend of the Yale game and the Fourth Elegy is the subject of a paper due on Monday. All Lane can say is that he thinks he understood “most of it.”
The lunch following Franny’s arrival in an unnamed Ivy League town clearly modeled on Princeton takes a negative turn when Lane begins modestly boasting about the “really incisive paper” he’s written. A lit major herself, Franny is put off by his manner, which reminds her of the “pedants and conceited little tearer-downers” she’s so sick of that she “could scream.” When he responds by claiming she’s fortunate that two of the teachers at her school “are poets for Chrissake,” Franny insists that “they’re not poets.” Sneeringly asked “what a real poet is, if you don’t mind,” she says, “If you’re a real poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful,” just “some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings — excuse the expression.”
By now it’s obvious that Franny’s on the verge of a breakdown, and if you’ve just read Duino Elegies, you know there’s no way Lane has understood Rilke, not when the personification of the Fourth Elegy is sitting right in front of him, sweating, suffering, disintegrating, while he “dismembers” his frogs’ legs. Franny doesn’t need to read Rilke to understand him, she’s lived in his verse, having been intuited there by Salinger in lines like “We were growing, and sometimes impatient to grow up, half for the sake of those who’d nothing left but their grown-upness.” Or the next line — “Yet, when alone, we entertained ourselves with everlastingness” — as she seeks sanctuary in the “ladies’ room,” locking herself in a stall with The Way of a Pilgrim, the little book she will later excitedly, futilely attempt to describe to Lane as he “shifts his attention” from the frogs’ legs to the salad.
Holden in the Rain
While it’s unlikely Holden Caulfield ever read a word of “that bastard Rilke,” he’s “been there” with Salinger at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, and you can also find traces of his DNA all through the Fourth Elegy, in lines like “Who’ll show a child just as it is? Who’ll place it / within its constellation, with the measure / of distance in its hand?”
Once upon a time, some seven years ago, in a column about Rilke and Salinger titled “Catcher in the Rain,” I left out the very passage from Holden’s story that gave the piece its title. It’s his last Manhattan appearance, he’s in Central Park watching his little sister “old Phoebe” on the carrousel:
“Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carrousel, so they wouldn’t get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn’t care, though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling. I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”
Given the ongoing silence since June 1965, that may be the saddest sentence Salinger ever wrote.
Only when I found myself in front of the poetry section at Labyrinth did I realize I was about to pick up a thread from last week’s trip back in time to March 14, 1946, Albert Einstein’s 67th birthday. Writing about Parnassus, his father’s antiquarian bookshop, which opened in 1943 and closed in 1951, Richard Francis Fleck remembered the day Einstein walked into the store in his stocking feet, went to the poetry alcove, and sat down to read a volume of Rilke’s verse. If Fleck hadn’t zoomed in on that moment in time, I wouldn’t be reading and writing about Duino Elegies. But what concerns me now is the mystery of Einstein’s shoes, which he’d taken off before entering the shop. Why? Why would Einstein leave his shoes outside as if he were entering a private home rather than a commercial establishment? The answer can be found in Fleck’s description of the shop he grew up in: “The two front rooms of our home were lined with shelves of books, and two oaken display tables set on oriental rugs commanded the center of both rooms.” There were also armchairs for customers to “plunk down into with a good book. Some people stayed to read all afternoon as though it were a library.”
Imagine calling a bookshop “our home.” But here we are 75 years later living in a town with a bookstore where you can find a volume of Rilke’s poetry and read it in an armchair (virus restrictions permitting), a town where the public library is known as the community’s living room.
On Wednesday, March 24, from 6 to 7 p.m., the C.K. Williams Reading Series presents New York Times-bestselling author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah reading from his work along with senior students in the Program in Creative Writing. Free and open to public via Zoom (arts.princeton.edu), the program is part of the Lewis Center for the Arts series named in honor of the late Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner who served on Princeton’s Creative Writing faculty for 20 years.
Note: The cover of The Catcher in the Rye shown here was on the first UK edition (Chatto & Windus 1951).