The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), in the bulk of his work explored the journey within, where one learns self-understanding. The importance of solitude formed a recurring theme in many of his poems. Solitude is a personal discipline. For individuals like Rilke, solitude provides a pathway to get at self-understanding via contemplation. Although there are many poems by Rilke that speak to the theme of solitude, I want to focus on one short poem he wrote titled, “I Love the Dark Hours,” from his work, The Book of Hours. Written in his young adult years (his twenties), The Book of Hours became the work for which he was most well-known until he penned Letters to a Young Poet. What might we glean from this little short poem that provides insight into the manner in which Rilke lived his life?
I Love the Dark Hours
I love the dark hours of my being./My mind deepens into them./There I can find, as in old letters,/the days of my life, already lived,/and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open/to another life that’s wide and timeless.
The phrase, dark hours of my being, right out of the gate in the first line of the poem, carries some weighty notions. The word, dark, no doubt, conjures up various meanings for each reader. Typically, the meanings attached to this word refer to experiences which we would rather not endure. Pain, loss, suffering, and struggle come to mind, experiences, while burdensome, bring some type of clarity of understanding, perhaps deepening us on some level. This is certainly the case in the work of St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul. Most assuredly this theme comes through in Rilke’s poems, and to some degree, such an experience may be a part of what is intended here. In the context of this poem, however, the dark hours of my being refers to something broader. In the fourth line of the poem, the days of my life, already lived, gives a fuller understanding to that which Rilke may be referring. All the days, all the hours, that he has lived remain the chapters of his past. Each day is a living in the light of the present. When tomorrow comes, today becomes yesterday and now resides in the dark of memory. This is not a darkness that cannot be understood, but it is something that must be reclaimed via reflection and memory. Hence, the second line: My mind deepens into them. Rilke analogizes the dark hours as old letters, something that can be reopened, reread, and possibly given new meaning or a better understanding. The old letters are held like a legend. That is, they form a narrative, a story of the writer’s life. And one reflects on these hours so that they are understood, closing the first stanza of the poem.
Once the protagonist of this poem allows his mind to deepen into the dark hours, that historical past already lived, the second stanza speaks to the possible consequence of such deepening. Then the knowing comes. Life continues but built on a deepened rather than a shallow understanding of ones past experiences. Such an understanding provides a foundation so that the protagonist can open to another life that’s wide and timeless.
Rilke’s Timeless Themes
Packed in this short poem are several themes that resound through much of Rilke’s writings. Impermanence, beauty, personal and spiritual development, and the importance of solitude are just a few of the themes important to Rilke, and they make up the threads of this little seven-line poem. Time is a key notion in this poem, composed of past and present. Life moves on – impermanence. What is one to make of a life of mutability? Throughout Rilke’s works, the value of solitude emerges again and again. The poet says his mind deepens into the dark hours of his being. Solitude is a time of contemplation and reflection, experiences that can bring understanding and wisdom to an individual. How has one lived, what has one learned from how he has lived, and where will his understanding take him as the knowing comes. Rilke looks forward to another life, limitless in its opportunities. Implicit in the lines of this poem, however, is the notion that one can open another life, only if one has reflected on life in such a way as to gain understanding on how to move forward. Without the solitude, without the contemplation, the time spent alone with oneself, would such another life, wide and timeless, be possible? I think Rilke would doubt that it could be so.
Rilke’s in the 21st Century
Rilke wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when society began a transition from an agrarian society to a more industrialized and urbanized one. His poems addressed the need to find that time and place to slow down, to note the experiences of nature, and to develop self-understanding rather than losing oneself in the maddening crowd. It is the aged-old challenge to know oneself. In this information age and its global pace, might Rilke have something to say to us today? I believe most people would answer that affirmatively. Yet in the age of groupthink, the desire to escape the crowd is more than frowned upon; it’s suspect. Anneli Rufus, Susan Cain, and Dianne Senechal have noted the pressure placed on introverts and designated loners to conform to the rules of the crowd. Extraversion and gregariousness are the symbols of a healthy personality, the standard to which shy individuals should raise themselves. Everyone wants to be the life of the party, for fear if they’re not, then something is wrong with them. Fit in is the rule, or you’re a misfit. Such social conformity may very well lead, not to a discovery, but a loss of one’s identity.
The struggle to know oneself and live out ones beliefs is, and always has been, a difficult task. Yet there’s a snafu here we must avoid. Seeking solitude and contemplating on ones old letters, I believe, is a worthy task. But it cannot become another social rule that people should engage. Perhaps it’s a challenge; however, I’m not sure that such a pursuit should even be offered as a challenge. The Rilkes of the world, and there are others, exist as an example for those who want to pick up the gauntlet they have thrown down for a world draped in global hustle and bustle. It’s one that I believe is worthwhile. There are those who will be drawn to Rilke’s take on life; there are those who will not. The question for the ones who are so drawn becomes: How does the one who seeks solitude, who desires that alone time of reflection and contemplation, and who desires personal development, find peace in a world where social conformity is the rule? That’s a tough task where one also desires to work, pay bills, and have healthy connections. Over the last few years there’s an increase in such tasks as values clarification and self-development. Literature is replete with these themes, particularly in counseling and self-help books. Yet one gets the feeling in reading some of this work that these pursuits are techniques still steeped into a world of groupthink. Camus’ rebel doesn’t seem to have won the day. And I don’t think it needs to win the day. It’s a pathway for those who choose to take it, and in doing so, they need to know the difficulties they will face, the isolation they may experience, and the sense of alienation they may come to know. They need to ask the question: Is it all worth it? The one thing for sure is that it can be worth it only if it’s taken on as a free choice. I don’t want to disparage self-help literature, but the work of personal development is not a a simple formula one can wrap up in seven, ten, twelve, or twenty steps, whatever one might create. The life of getting to know oneself is a way of life, not a series of formulas to take on.
Whereas in his early adult years, Rilke was known for his Book of Hours, he eventually became known for a series of letters he wrote to a young artist who sought him out for advice regarding the life of writing. The letters were collected into a compilation known as Letters to a Young Poet. Throughout the letters, Rilke’s poetic themes emerge in his encouragement of the young writer. Yet Rilke never tells him what to do. He never directly answers his question: Is my writing good? He warns him repeatedly not to place much stock in literary critics, not to write what he thinks others want him to write, but to write from his core, his heart. In order to accomplish such a task, Rilke tells him that he can only write from his core if he in fact knows, as much as possible, his core. Rilke states:
Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple, I must, then build your life in accordance with this necessity.
None of this is to say that people shouldn’t seek feedback regarding their ideas, plans, and aspirations. This, in fact, is what the young poet did in writing Rilke over a period of time. And Rilke readily responded to his correspondence with many encouragements. He spoke to the young poet about what poets and artists he believed the young man should read and experience. He encouraged and challenged him on how to find his own way in his writing. But Rilke never compromised his ideas with the young poet, encouraging him to seek solitude, develop his capacities, and moreover to develop his own sense of identity, both as a writer and a human being. In the closing of his first letter to the young poet, Rilke says:
I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.
Read Rilke if his take on things draws you to his letters, prose, and poetry. If not, there are better things for you to do. The life Rilke talks about is one for the choosing, not one chosen out of dictates from others. It’s a struggle that people have chosen to take on with various and sundry results. It may or may not be the path for you.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/January 14th, 2017
GENERAL ESSAY/THE ARTS/Literature