Rilke on Love (part two)

Continued. . . ‘How your sudden leaving is a part of me… will it dwindle away with my death?’ Surprising words from Rilke looking back on his infatuation with a young woman when he was still a child. And then he continues ‘Or might I as a refutation of my own demise, throw your influence back onto Nature?’ These lines are even more extraordinary. Two years earlier in Sonnet to Orpheus 11,28 a poem especially dedicated to Vera Ouckama Knoop, (whom Rilke had seen dance in Munich before the Great War and who had died of leukaemia in 1919 when aged nineteen,) after describing her dance as ‘a private rapture through which we may… surpass dull lawful nature’ and in which Vera was raised ‘to absolute hearing when Orpheus sang’ the sonnet concludes:-

And still you knew the place from where the lyre
created its own sound, the withheld centre.

For nature's sake you tested graceful steps
and hoped one day to turn the face and actions
of him, your friend, towards the healing rite.

The injunction to Rilke, implied by Vera’s dance, is to shift his attention from Vera herself towards the healing rite. In the poem quoted previously (Sketches from Two Winter Evenings), the ironic self-deprecating suggestion is of the need to free himself from thre commanding but now restricting influence of a beautiful muse (in real life a succession of muses). The intention is perhaps similar in both poems, to move towards a more contemplative sense of the beautiful. I think the withheld centre (die unerhorte Mitte) should be understood in psychological terms as an intuition of the immortal androgynous heart of being which may only be broached when all projections, including ones onto those we love, are taken back.


  1. The withheld centre is more than ‘the unheard centre’, but ‘unheard of centre’ has unwanted connotations in English. The meaning seems to be that that the centre is inaudible to mortals and therefore its existence is unsuspected by them. Perhaps ‘the concealed centre’ rather than ‘withheld centre’ avoids a sense of agency. But there is also a sense of the centre confounding any possible expectation, which I have been unable to convey.
  2. The turning of the friend (Rilke) towards the healing rite, and away from sensuous distraction, is reminiscent of Dante finally subsuming, in the final cantos of the Paradiso, the guiding vision of Beatrice in a larger vision of cosmic harmony.
  3. As is not uncommon with Rilke. these two poems refer to experiences which have made a profound impression but have been written about only after intervals of many years.
  4. This post is best understood when read after the two previous posts, on Projections and part one of Rilke and Love. I apologise if these are awkard to navigate.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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