The Logic of Poet’s Spirituality – From Challenging Life (By Risking Death) To Challenging Death (By Accepting Mortality With Our Heart)


Come thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body’s fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee: the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.

My gentle and mild being through thy ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.

Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.

By Rainer Maria Rilke

Is “unbearable pain throughout this body’s fabric” a phenomenon or a sign of its recognition? If “thou last one” whom the poet asks to come close and “recognizes” as “unbearable pain” is death – is this death not only signified but also a signifier? Is it then signifier of spiritual victory, not over the flesh, but achieved together with flesh which is “burning” as the ultimate spiritual challenge? The additional qualifications that Rilke provides in the first stanza, complicate the answer – he contrasts spiritual burning with burning of dying (“as I in my spirit burned” “I now burn in thee”/”I now am nourishing and burn in thee”). Rilke here is, of course, not talking about the physical pain of the illness he died from, but the one which announces the coming of death as coming of a spirit, not as a self-redeeming tragedy as a surgeon with his electronic equipment of medical salvation. But “to burn in my spirit” is not only to burn without physical pain but (with) something like moments of ecstatic bliss as a condition incompatible with raw physical death.

“To burn in my spirit” is the opposite of “burning in death” – it is the image of entering eternity without the agonizing loss of the physical bodily life (without death). “To burn in my spirit” is an image of sterilized, embellished, a non-frightening death, a magical re-appearance in eternity as a trick of avoiding pain in the flesh, pain of physical dying (which is not identical with somatic pain). It looks like Rilke concentrates on the difference between a not painful spiritual burning and a painful burning “in” physical dying. In this poem he doesn’t concentrate on this contradistinction farther, but the impression is that for Rilke “burning in death” is real – the ultimate spiritual experience in comparison with “burning in spirit”. Pain is the burning death. Advancing death is recognized and met as a “nourishing pain” (nourishment of pain/nourishment provided to pain) answers in mutuality to the nourishing pain/pain nourishing me).

In the second stanza Rilke introduces “being” (“my gentle and soft being”). What in the poem’s semantic matrix (through which Rilke’s mind tries to grasp his experiences of life, spirit, death and its harbinger pain), the difference between life in spirit (burning in spirit, burning of living and dying in pain (burning in death), on the one side, and being on the other (“my gentle and mild being”)? Is being an individual’s particular way of living and dying? Rilke characterizes his lyrical hero’s particular way of being in life as “gentle and mild”. But his depiction of his way of dying suggests associations with burning of the heretics by the inquisition (“funeral pyres built for my suffering”) – “My gentle and mild being through thy ruthless fury has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.” If life is a lexical container for the living, then being (my being, I as a being) is a mediatory term between my life and me as a personality. Being is simultaneously the one who is living and his way of living as it’s perceived by that individual, as it‘s meant by him when he pronounces or imagines the words “my being”. The term “being” is, as if, the lexical “empty” place for marking by the subject himself (or by others referring to him) his way of living. Transformation of being “into a raging hell” doesn’t refer to a type of punishment. It is accepted matter-of-factly and as a goal in itself. It is accepted as a spirit inside living. And it is accepted without detour of the truth of mortality. “The wood that long resisted the advancing flames/ which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing/ and burn in thee.” I am the wood, not a person burned on it. Rilke’s spiritual radicalism here is not easy to accept. Death as a spirit is a guide through the truth of human destiny. “Quite pure, quite free from future planning, I mounted the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering, so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs”. At this point Rilke allows himself a slightly condescending smile to religious or secular philistines – salvationists and survivalists, people of ontological fear and psychological defenses against it.

But spiritual transformation (in spirit of life or in spirit of death) makes the human being more individualistic, not only in the social sense, but intellectually – more contemplatively oriented. “Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?” In his final stage the poet becomes more existentially creative and less prone to pick and choose his own memories. “Memories I do not seize and bring inside.” Previous spiritual transformations (“I in my spirit burned”) are just the worming up to “I now burn in thee”. “A raging hell of dying (as spiritual burning of flesh/wood) is not from here”. It looks like Rilke’s intuition unites purgatory of everyday living with hell as the eternal everyday life, while the “not from here” is reserved for realm of the genuinely transcendent (O to be outside!”).

Mentioning hell in this context (“Quite pure, quite free of future planning”) Rilke (as a subject of annunciation) makes the “raging hell” a form a paradise can take in a world of spiritual mortality, a sacred, almost saintly experience, a revelation without mythological vignettes with aesthetic energies of consolation. In other words, Rilke’s “raging hell that is not from here” is a “painful paradise” for those who are not looking for redemptive consolation but are dedicated to the truth of the mystery of eternal sisterhood between life and death – between humankind and the limits of human individual life cycles, of the meaning individual human beings are able to receive, to nurture and co-create as definable only through existential limit.

“To be outside of life” while living (“O life! O living! O to be outside!”) – can mean not only to live by challenging life, but by challenging death by accepting our mortality. At first, according to the poem, the poet challenges his life by spirituality (“as I in my spirit burned”). But gradually the poet gets the ability not to succumb to the need for bliss (hiding the truth of the wisdom of our mortality). Spirituality of truth (“a raging hell that is not from here”) is the ultimate – painfully revelatory form of spirituality (corresponding to the psychological maturity of poet). Mortality radically blocks symbiosis of the poet with the horizontal others (“I, who past all recognition burn” and “no one here who knows me”). It seems, Rilke defines spirituality as a pre-being, as an authoritarian position towards existence, while “being” is then the existing/existential spiritually in embrace with your dying/burning flesh.

In this poem Rilke was able to overcome prejudicial/superstitious elimination of death from the meaning of human life. When we think about life we either banish the phenomenon of death or mention death only nominally, without analyzing its role in our very existential sensitivity and our very emotional organization. We create endless psychological defenses against mortality, the defenses, like our pathological need for extra-money and power which cripples our lives and endanger the life of our species. We transform ourselves into sado-masochists of our own mortality, posed to destroy our world to get illusory chance to outlive it by mythology of resurrection-metaphors and its high-tech technological blends (transforming living into a bad science fiction). Rilke’s poem should be analyzed in every classroom.

Rilke as a child

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926)