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On Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet: "Through which erratum evil seeped into creation..."




I was re-watching the episode of Beauty and Consolation, Episode 4 where Wim Kayzer interviews George Steiner. Around 54:49 Steiner says:

One of the sayings that guides my life is by the great poet, Rilke. Rilke says: when there has been a deeply happy love, later on one becomes the loving guardian of the other's solitude.

The Rilke is, of course, evocative. I paused the episode and did a quick search for the words: Rilke, guardian, solitude. The first result was from Goodreads:

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Excellent. I then went to my copy of Letters to a Young Poet. I have several translations, but figured Stephen Mitchell's to be the most modern and well-known. I search in Mitchell's translation for "guardian." There are no instances of "guardian" in the text. Perhaps, he translated the word differently. I search for "solitude." Since solitude is one of the dominant themes of the letters Rilke wrote to Franz Kappas, I figured there would be a substantial number of hits. 29 instances of "solitude." Scanning through them, the most likely suspect is from the end of Letter Seven:

This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

This is close. The final sentence contains something of the sense of, "a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust." But the basic syntax and vocabulary are wildly different. Mitchell can be respectfully unfaithful in the service of clarity, but not to this extent.

I go back to the Internet. Check the next search result. It is from a site called, Refine the Mind. Here is the post in full:

I find myself returning again and again to the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet who passed away in 1926. 

There is something in Rilke’s words that strikes me as the highest quality to which a writer or artist can aspire. It’s a clarity and a purity that communicates something more than the sum meaning of the words. 

There’s a heartbeat in his language. A sense that Rilke is whispering a secret in your ear. You can feel him. And you can feel that this was a man who was deeply in touch with his truth, with the rhythms as he felt them. 

Today, I don’t want to write anything too cerebral or involved. Today, I just want to share with you two passages that are among my most adored of anything I’ve read. Today, I just want to share two slivers of Rilke and meditate on their significance. 

On Romantic Relationships

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” 

― Rainer Maria Rilke

This passage is taken from Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters Rilke penned to a young writer seeking guidance. The book is an absolute jewel in its entirety.
Rilke speaks specifically of marriage here, but I think his words are applicable to any romantic relationship.

I feel particularly moved and lightened by his declaration that “even between the closest people infinite distances exist.”

For the past 16 months I’ve been in a profoundly loving relationship with an extraordinary woman. [my emphasis]

The post is heartfelt and sweet. The writer certainly seems as if he knows Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet, calling the book, "an absolute jewel in its entirety."

So I return to Letters in another translation. This time from by M. D. Herter Norton. No results for "guardian." Nine instances of "solitude." Again, the penultimate paragraph from Letter Seven seems likely:

This advance will (at first much against the will of the out­ stripped men) change the love-experience. which is now full of error, will alter it from the ground up, reshape it into a relation that is meant to be of one human being to another, no longer of man to woman. And this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this. that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.

This passage is consonant with the Mitchell translation, so I now doubt there was any translation error. I triple-check by consulting the translation by Charlie Louth: consistent with the the other two.

I spend a happy hour re-reading the Mitchell translation just to be certain.

The "guardian of his solitude" quote is NOT from Letters to a Young Poet.

Nevertheless, I return again to the Internet. It is becoming slightly amusing at this point.

The fourth search result is from the relationship blog:

100-Year-Old Marriage Advice (R.M. Rilke) 

In 1902, the famous Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began a letter correspondence with a 19-year-old aspiring poet and military cadet named Franz Kappus who was trying to decide between a literary and a military career.  In his letters, Rilke offers advice on how a poet should feel, love, and seek truth in trying to understand and experience life and art.  In 1929, three years after Rilke’s death, the ten letters were published as Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet). 

I recently came across this volume of poems and was struck by the advice Rilke offered on marriage, specifically — on the importance of differentiation in intimate relationships.  A common theme in couples counseling sessions, it represents one of the central challenges of long-term relationships:  finding a balance between holding on to one’s self (maintaining autonomy) while meeting the needs of our partner (adaptability and compromise). 

While Rilke’s language may be different from that of psychologist David Schnarch who writes widely on this topic (two articles by Schnarch are posted in this blog), his separate-but-together message resonates strongly.  Rilke also writes of how we must learn how to love if it is to be a truly rich and satisfying experience.
[my emphasis]

*                               *                              * 

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. 

But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky. 

That is why this, too, must be the criterion for rejection or choice: whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else’s solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness. 

To take love seriously and to undergo it and learn it like a profession — that is what young people need to do. Like so many other things, people have also misunderstood the position love has in life; they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure are more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, precisely because it is the supreme happiness, can be nothing other than work 

So those who love must try to act as if they had a great work to accomplish: they must be much alone and go into themselves and gather and concentrate themselves; they must work; they must become something. 

For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey. 

Rainer Maria Rilke 
 

First, Letters to a Young Poet is not a volume of poems.

Second,  this passage is not to be found in any translation of Letters to a Young Poet.

Third, this is a mishmash of several different selections.


***


I did finally find the "guardian of his solitude" passage in the Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910. Translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton.

The actual source foe the quote is a letter to To Emanuel von Bodman on August 17, 1901:

For the rest, I am of the opinion that “marriage” as such does not deserve as much emphasis as it has acquired through the conventional development of its nature. It does not occur to anyone to expect a single person to be “happy,”—but if he marries, people are much surprised if he isn’t! (And for that matter it really isn’t at all important to be happy, whether single or married.) Marriage is, in many respects, a simplification of one’s way of life, and the union naturally combines the forces and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than before.—Only, those are sensations by which one cannot live. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness,—a new challenge to and questioning of the strength and generosity of each partner and a great new danger for both. 

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky! 

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

And the "gather honey" line from above comes from a letter to Friedrich Westhoff on April 29, 1904:

To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this it is, Friedrich, that young people need.—Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work.—So whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something! 

For, Friedrich, believe me, the more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.

I realize that any argument or complaint regarding proper attribution on the Internet is a Fool's Game. The History of the Two Wolves Story comes to mind.  Or the quote attributed to the Buddha about "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die." Or even pre-Internet in the Byzantine sourcing of the phrase, "Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad." Of the misattributions of quotations, inadvertent falsifications, deliberate lies and outright propaganda  on the Internet, there is no end.

These examples of mis-attribution to Letters to a Young Poet cited above are only a few amongst a multitude. And I certainly do not wish to shame anyone who is passionate about Rilke in this age where many have no idea who he is or what he wrote.

What puzzles me is how anyone can profess a profound and moving love for Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and then mis-attribute quotation as being from it. The Letters to a Young Poet only takes about an hour to read.

I grant that there are anthologies of his letters that combine these commonly themed thoughts together. And I also will concede that there are similar thoughts expressed in the Seventh Letter. Still, I would like to (foolishly) imagine the Uncommon Reader with the beloved book opened to the folded page and underlined paragraph faithfully typing the passage onto their post, as a Medieval scribe.

To finally take it full circle, in Grammars of Creation, Steiner writes:

Jewish mysticism speculates that a second’s lapse from concentration by the scribe to whom God dictated the Torah resulted in the omission of one accent, of one diacritical sign. Through which erratum evil seeped into creation.

I am certain I am as guilty as anyone of omission and erratum.

And such evil seeps and seeps into our world, blacker every day.

Or, perhaps not.

There was a Borgesian moment I experienced after my first unfruitful search into the Letters to a Young Poet where I wondered if there was an "other" edition of the poems - something along the lines of Bioy Casares' referencing the article on Uqbar in Borges' wonderful short story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."

I asked him the origin of this memorable observation and he answered that it was reproduced in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, in its article on Uqbar. The house (which we had rented furnished) had a set of this work. On the last pages of Volume XLVI we found an article on Upsala; on the first pages of Volume XLVII, one on Ural-Altaic Languages, but not a word about Uqbar. Bioy, a bit taken aback, consulted the volumes of the index. In vain he exhausted all of the imaginable spellings: Ukbar, Ucbar, Ooqbar, Ookbar, Oukbahr. . . Before leaving, he told me that it was a region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. I must confess that I agreed with some discomfort. I conjectured that this undocumented country and its anonymous heresiarch were a fiction devised by Bioy's modesty in order to justify a statement. The fruitless examination of one of Justus Perthes' atlases fortified my doubt.

Homer's Margites, Aeschylus’ Achilleis, the Lost Books of Aristotle and the Mayan Codices brush shoulders with the complete Kubla Kahn, Beethoven's Tenth Symphony, Shakespeare's Faust and Hart Cranes' Mexican Poem Cycle.

After locating the correct source in the letter to Emanuel von Bodman, I was relieved but also slightly disillusioned. Because just for a moment or two there, I wondered over the potential existence of a "lost" Letter to Felix Kappas, an unexpurgated text perviously unknown, inadvertently slipped into a reprint.

The possibilities of such erratum are endlessly tantalizing.

The story of the printer's mistake in Thomas Nash's A Litany in Time of Plague is well known. Supposedly, in the third stanza, the line: "Brightness falls from the air" - the line Nash is now best known for - was meant to be, "Brightness falls from the hair." A single letter dropped may have granted Nash fame beyond intention.

 Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!


In Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson comments:

On the other hand 

Brightness falls from the air 

is an example of ambiguity by vagueness, such as was used to excess by the Pre-Raphaelites. Evidently there are a variety of things the line may be about. The sun and moon pass under the earth after their period of shining, and there are stars falling at odd times; Icarus and the prey of hawks, having soared upwards towards heaven, fall exhausted or dead; the glittering turning things the sixteenth century put on the top of a building may have fallen too often. In another sense, hawks, lightning, and meteorites fall flashing from heaven upon their prey. Taking brightness as abstract, not as meaning something bright, it is as a benefit that light falls, diffusely reflected, from the sky. In so far as the sky is brighter than the earth (especially at twilight), brightness is natural to it; in so far as the earth may be bright when the clouds are dark, brightness falls from the sky to the earth when there is a threat of thunder. ‘All is unsafe, even the heavens are not sure of their brightness,’ or ‘the qualities in man that deserve respect are not natural to him but brief gifts from God; they fall like manna, and melt as soon.’ One may extract, too, from the oppression in the notion of thunder the idea that now, ‘in time of pestilence,’ the generosity of Nature is mysteriously interrupted; even at the scene of brilliant ecclesiastical festivity for which the poem was written there is a taint of darkness in the very air. 

It is proper to mention a rather cynical theory that Nash wrote or meant ‘hair’; still, though less imaginative, this is very adequate; oddly enough (it is electricity and the mysterious vitality of youth which have fallen from the hair) carries much the same suggestion as the other version; and gives the relief of a single direct meaning. Elizabethan pronunciation was very little troubled by snobbery, and it is conceivable that Nash meant both words to take effect in some way. Now that all this fuss has been made about aitches it is impossible to imagine what such a line would sound like.

The beautiful consideration here is whether or not Empson would have made such a penetrating and close reading of the poem if the final word had been the "less imaginative" hair, instead of the luminous ambiguity of the air?