When Shkespeare in As You Like It directly quotes Christopher Marlowe – Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might, whoever loved that loved not at first sight? – they were both referring to falling in love, the experience of eros not agape. How do we understand this sudden violent feeling, which usually, but not always, happens in young people? One way to describe it is as the projection of an idealised self image onto the person who is the object of the passion. This would certainly account for the sense of sudden recognition. But there is something unsatisfying about this description, because we regard falling in love as one of life’s most rewarding experiences. We perhaps should prefer Auden’s words, ‘Sexual love has the double impress of nature and spirit.’
Rilke’s romantic attachments were notoriously difficult, both in terms of durability and in their failure to remedy his recurring sense of loneliness. High hopes for new relationships were repeatedly dashed, and on occasions he obviously felt trapped and wished to avoid commitment. Princess Marie von Thurm und Taxis-Hohenlohe, in her sympathetic memoir about her younger friend put it thus, ‘His jealous god would not share him.’
In 1924 Rilke wrote a revealing and arresting poem, Sketches from Two Winter Evenings. In a series of connected short poems he recalls a pre-adolescent experience of love. Looking back on it with great tenderness, he sees it as prefiguring his whole life as a poet. It seems likely to me that Rilke was about 8 or 9, and the young woman perhaps 22 or 23. These however are guesses. There are ten poems in three groups and below is my translation of the seventh.
Did I ever escape your early influence? Aren't you on every path always ahead of me and in command; when might we ever become equal? You were so direct, not even the stylishness of your clothes made me self-conscious. How your sudden leaving is a part of me ...will it dwindle away with my death? Or might I, as a refutation of my own demise, throw your influence back onto Nature? the long agitation in your pursuit? I have come to interpret this poem with one of the Sonnets to Orpheus (11,28), written two years earlier, and showing, I would suggest, Rilke's renunciation of any hope of successful relationships in the future, a decisive change in his outlook. I will continue this discussion in my next post.