Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Going Blind' By Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke
Going Blind

She’d sat just like the others there at tea.
And then I’d seemed to notice that her cup
was being a little differently picked up.
She’d smiled once. It had almost hurt to see.

And when eventually they rose and talked,
and slowly, and as chance led, were dispersing
through several rooms there, laughing and conversing,
I noticed her. Behind the rest she walked

subduedly, like someone who presently
will have to sing, and with so many listening;
on those bright eyes of hers, with pleasure glistening,
played, as on pools, an outer radiancy.

She followed slowly and she needed time,
as though some long ascent were not yet by;
and yet, as though, when she had ceased to climb,
she would no longer merely walk, but fly.

<i>Beata Beatrix</i> - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864-1870)
Beata Beatrix - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864-1870)
A precondition of Rilke’s poetic approach is a kind of innocence. Emptying the mind of preconception, observing as though, in his own words, ‘always beginning’, he transfigures vision into moment, invests the often unseen and the ordinary with transcending vigour. The Innerlichkeit, or intensity, of Rilke’s alchemy is Germanic in provenance; looking back to Nietzsche and far beyond, the Prague-born poet’s inner-vision enables no less than a reanimated way of seeing.

Using formal measures which liberate his immense powers of focus, Rilke’s sense of rhyme and metre, here and everywhere in his work, drives a mellifluous, seductive rhythm, carefully recalibrated in translation. We follow Rilke’s eye away from an assemblage whose presence is, in any case, incidental, excepting as they embody Vers de société, and the social rules which define its adherence. Drawn, rather, to a figure in the background, whose reticence initially suggests shyness, perhaps detachment, the poet finds in his subject’s ocular degeneration its precise opposite.

For in ‘Going Blind’, the girl’s faltering step is only an echo of reserve, her subdued demeanour is not an inward mental preparation for the harrowing of a ‘performance’. Instead, the brightness of her eyes reveals an ‘outer radiancy’. She is the Beata Beatrix of Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece - quietly out of reach, ascendant. The slowing of the pace in the final quatrain is a long climb for the blind girl who is no longer blind; her path is lit by an inner glow and at the summit she will fly free. Like an artist. Like a poet.

‘Going Blind’ is taken from Penguin Modern European Poets: Rilke – Selected Poems, Trans. J.B. Leishman