“Can I have never seen you?”
That is the opening line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem, “Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth”.
Written on November 4 and 5, 1908, “Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth” is a provocative—even disturbing—piece of writing, containing, as it does, one of the most brutally frank examinations of suicide ever created.
“Can I have never seen you?” is quickly followed by “Was it so alleviating as you supposed?”, the point at which Rilke establishes that he is throwing down the gauntlet: his poem will serve not only as eulogy and tribute to the young poet who ended his own life at the age of nineteen, but also as chastisement and vehicle for the assignment of blame—and guilt.
Rilke was unmistakably angry at the time he composed the poem, because tenderness and abrasiveness exist side-by-side. Further, the poem comes uncomfortably close to taunting the deceased.
“Who can deny on oath that in the earth a crack goes springing through the healthy seeds?”
Sometimes Rilke entirely goes too far.
“Don't be ashamed, when the dead brush against you, those other dead, who held out to the end.”
Such are exceedingly cruel words. Rilke, not a religious man, assumes the long-held notion—a superstitious notion as well as a religious notion—that those who die by their own hands are not to be accorded the same honor and respect as those who die natural deaths. Kalckreuth’s family must have been appalled when first encountering Rilke’s poem.
The harshest words of the poem hint at eternal damnation.
“The fact that you destroyed. That this must be related of you till the end of time.”
Is this even the work of a civilized man? The poem is shockingly inhumane, at least in part.
My reading of the poem is that no comfort is provided—and that no comfort is intended—by its famous closing lines:
“Who talks of victory? To endure is all.”
I have been re-reading and reflecting upon this famous work for the last several days, always unable to decide whether it is a work of genius or simply a petulant tantrum thrown by a wounded man.
To read the poem is torture itself, since the work is as maddening as it is beautiful (which may have been Rilke’s intent).
The poem is too long for me to reproduce here; otherwise I would do so.
“Requiem For Wolf Kalckreuth” remains in print in monograph form and is widely available at finer bookshops.
The J. B. Leishman translation, from which I have quoted, is a very bad one—but all published translations of Rilke into English have been poor.
Rilke is, simply put, untranslatable. His sly twists and turns of the German language cannot be rendered adequately in English, his highly-unique internal rhyming schemes cannot be reproduced in other languages, and the subtle thoughts and emotions he evokes are too-tightly-bound to the German tongue to register in translation, no matter how fine the work of the translator.
Loosened within that rush of melancholy,
ecstatically and only half-aware,
may you, in motion round the distant stars,
have found the happiness that you transposed
from here into that being-dead you dreamt of.
Every time I read those words, I think of the painting of Wolf as a boy, painted by his father. Wolf’s father, perhaps with the instinct of an artist or perhaps with the instinct of a parent, unknowingly captured what was to come.