Archive for May 2009

Rilke “From a Stormy Night”

May 22, 2009









From a Stormy Night (My translation)

The night, moved by the rising storm, 

How it becomes at once distant, – 

Though it remains wreathed

In the petty crinkles of time.

Where the stars resist, it does not crumble;

It does not begin in the midsts of the forest,

Nor in my visage,

Nor with your framework.

The lanterns splutter and ask:

Do we feign our light?

Has the only real thing for the past millennia

Been the night? 



I think it’s especially interesting to consider this poem in relation to the pantheons of the ancient near east. In the Babylonian epic Enuma elish, Marduk, the storm-god, is the king of the gods and, after killing the primeval sea goddess Tiamat, creates the cosmos from her body. Scholars establish a positive correlation between this creation myth and the first verses of Genesis, “When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth was a formless void, with darkness over the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen 1:1-2).
In addition to the darkness (read: night) of formless void, Yahweh also has characteristics of a storm-god (also cf. Ex.19:16-18; Ezek. 1:4; Ps. 29:3). Moreover, the heads of other near eastern pantheons also have storm-god characteristics, like the Canaanite god Ba’al, who frequently rides clouds and holds a lightning bold, depicting his storm-god status (even Zeus, the “cloud gatherer” has the same storm-god characteristics, so far as his weapon is a thunderbolt). 
To stick with the bible[*1], before Yahweh (storm-god) created the cosmos (beginning with light!), there was darkness – formless void. Now go back and examine the first lines of Rilke’s poem and compare them to the first lines of Genesis. In Genesis, darkness is over the deep[*2], and a wind from god sweeps over the primeval-waters and the cosmos is created. What this battle between the storm-god and the primeval sea is intended to express is that creation is not creation ex nihilo, but is a transition from chaos to cosmos, hence there is no need to worry about conceptual difficulties like ‘the time before time was created’. If we then look at Rilke’s poem, in the first line we see that night is in some way roused by the storm. Moreover, the advancement of the storm initiates a transition of some sort “How it becomes at once distant”. I think that night being moved by the rising storm expresses the advancement of the storm-god on the primeval sea, which marks the transition from the darkness of chaos to the light of cosmos. This transition from chaos to cosmos is what is expressed in the second line “how it becomes at once distant”, yet still this transition from chaos to cosmos shares a common temporality “Though it remains wreathed in the petty crinkles of time”.   
The middle of the poem discusses beginnings, “It does not begin in the midsts of the forest, nor in my visage, nor in your framework”; the point is that darkness/night/chaos has no beginning, hence cosmos has no beginning, since chaos and cosmos share a common temporality. But what is most interesting, is the ending! The poem ends with two rhetorical questions (or at least I take them to be rhetorical questions), “Do we feign our light? Has the only real thing for the past millennia been night?” This questions the truth of the cosmos in the face of chaos – or, in more Hegalian terms[*3] – is all determination negation? The realm of the cosmos is the realm of determinations – that is, distinctions; whereas chaos is formless void and lacks all distinction or determinations. The point that chaos and cosmos (night and light) are unified under a common temporality points to a fundamental identity between chaos and cosmos, so far as indeterminate chaos transitions into determinate cosmos – just like a caterpillar transitions into a butterfly, they are one and the same yet different! 
[*1] It’s not uncommon for Rilke to be inspired by biblical sources: (1) “David Sings Before Saul” 1 sam. 16:14-23 (2) “The Departure of the Prodigal Son” Luke 15:1-32 (3) “The Olive Garden” Luke 22:39-46. 
[*2] “the Hebrew word for “deep,” tehom, is linguistically related to the name of the goddess Tiamat” (Coogan 9).
[*3] Rilke was influenced by Hegel, “At hte same time, in ways which are crucial for Rilke’s use of poetic figures and verbal form, this shift also thematizes a principle of indirect or oblique mimesis, even to the point of negativity (in Hegel’s sense of negating the negative), whereby the poem articulates a sense of what is not present or no longer can be, in the aesthetic object” (The Best of Rilke Forward, by Cyrus Hamlin, Yale 1988).