BBC Radio 3, 27 March 2011
Rainer Maria Rilke never visited Britain and disliked the English language.
He thought more of Dante than he did of Shakespeare. Nonetheless his Elegies have had a profound effect in Anglo-American
culture - no more so than today, when they are regularly translated as well as providing the inspiration for the work of contemporary
poets such as Dan Paterson and Jo Shapcott.
This feature, presented by Rilke's translator Martyn Crucefix, tried to account
for this popularity with contributions from Paterson, Shapcott, the novelist Philip Pulman, the academic Karen Leader,
and the current Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams. What we learned was that Rilke viewed poems as objects in themselves;
and that the poet's role in society is to sing and to praise. Unlike his near-contemporary T. S. Eliot, Rilke was a poet without
God; existence is the wonder, while death is no disaster. Like the Romantics, Rilke believed in the power of the
imagination as a way of distilling experiences of great and/or intense beauty.
While the assembled authorities were undoubtedly enthusiastic about Rilke's contribution,
and how in the modern world he had far more influence than Eliot, I did get the feeling that some of the comments veered
towards the pretentious. Poetry is a difficult phenomenon to describe; one can describe language as "concrete," and a
poem as an "object," but neither of them can be proved. Sometimes I felt that the ghost of F. R. Leavis loomed at
the back of the programme; it was he who devised a school of criticism which encouraged specialist (close) readings.
I felt that many of the authorities in this programme embraced this view. I realize this might seem heretical, but I
did feel that Rilke was not the kind of person to appeal to general readers; his work would not be requested on Radio 4's
Poetry Please. The producer was Julian May.