Rilke had a difficult year in 1906: there was a break with Rodin, who he had worked with and for in Paris, he went off to Germany with his wife and children, but family life was too stressful – one gets the impression Rilke preferred to manage his marriage by post – so he took advantage of an invitation to visit Capri.
It was from Baroness Nordeck zur Rabenau, Alice Faehndrich, who had at her disposal Villa Discopoli, a “Moorish” villa on the edge of what was then the small town of Capri, at a comfortable distance from its “center”, the piazzetta. Rilke was allowed to stay in the little “Rose House” at one end of the large property. He arrived on his 30th birthday, December 4, 1906, and stayed until May 20, 1907, to return again for a few months in the spring of 1908. Other guests in the house were the Baroness Juli von Nordeck zur Rabenau and the young countess Manon zu Solms-Laubach.
“One never ceases to be surprised by Rilke’s ability to forge confidences with noble women with long names.”
Another such woman who would have great importance for Capri was the Baroness Gudrun von Uexkull: Rilke maintained a lively correspondence with her; she was a close relative of Alice Faehndrich and would inherit Villa Discopoli. She later translated Axel Munthe’s “The Story of San Michele” into German and became Munthe’s ubiquitous and irreplaceable assistant in his old age; after his death she also took over his lucrative copyright. Rilke met Munthe one March day in 1907 and was shown around San Michele.
Initially Rilke was remarkably sceptical about Capri, judging from the letters he wrote to his wife: “I am always rather depressed in such displays of landscapes, before this clear, prized, unassailable beauty.” Capri is “ein Unding” (11/12 06). “I am not especially impressed with Capri, which seems created from misunderstood German admiration.” (13/12 06) ”Here both people and landscape are united in a boring measure of cheap rapture.”
“And there are both complaints about winter cold and winter storms, alternating with occasional powerful impressions of sea and moonlight.
One clear turning point can be dated to February 16, 1907: Rilke has obviously hiked up to Anacapri and on to the western point, Migliera, where there is a formidable view over sea and landscape. He may have been accompanied by the countess Manon, since in the evening he wrote a long poem to her, titled “Migliera”, and starting with the words “Close your eyes now.”
From now on he begins to “discover” Anacapri: over to Migliera and up along Monte Solaro above Anacapri he roams an “archaic” landscape with a view over a “Greek” sea, where he imagines that Odysseus once had himself tied to the mast so he could hear the song of the Sirens (as he writes in a letter 18/2 07). He also found a small chapel up there, Santa Maria a Cetrella, where Rilke found a “forgotten” Madonna, to which he devotes a poetic suite in a light naivist style. He seems to have taken the long and difficult walk up and back daily for a time.
Perhaps he felt a little confined in the little “Rose House” on Capri? Perhaps the hike up to Anacapri felt liberating. At any rate we can be sure that Rilke did not spend the evenings with other Germans in the beer hall with the bizarre name Zum Kater Hiddifeigei next to the piazzetta. Instead we can see from his letters a growing desire to return to Paris and the “great solitude” that he dreams of entering there.
“In other words Rilke did not behave like a good German tourist: he was more of an anti-tourist who preferred to roam alone in unmolested areas and above all he wanted to work: to write!
And what he wrote on Capri differs in several interesting ways from Capri literature: there are neither ecstatic descriptions of nature, tourist impressions, mythological fantasies, nor eroticised social environments. Rilke’s Capri is more a pretext or a stage that he uses to establish the poetic space that he needs for true reality. To reach this he needs to withdraw from the world more than he needs to meet or explore it. Or withdraw to explore. One suspects that the hikes up to Anacapri and Monte Solaro were really a way to distance himself from the unreality of Capri town and instead meet that which he in a letter calls “a world and much reality” (1/3 07). One can have similar experiences today:
“Capri city around the piazetta is filled with tourists, fancy shops, and eurotrash. But if you take a few steps away it starts to look like a normal Italian small town.
If you go up to Anacapri there is another contrast that is particularly effective during the winter, when Capri city is virtually dead while Anacapri lives its normal life. Monte Solaro provides a further contrast: nowadays you can take the funicular to the summit, which guarantees a flood of tourists, but if you walk down and take the path past Rilke’s Madonna in the little chapel, you can easily imagine that here is reality as it has always been.
Rilke’s tool for reality was as always: his poetry. With it he could create his own new world, more real than the real one, or better: a world that makes matter and space real. During his stay on Capri he wrote a small collection of lyrical prose that goes under the name “Notes from Naples and Capri”, as well as a rather large number of poems, of which 8 were included in the two parts of “New Poems” which was published in 1907.
Here is the best known of these: ”Song of the Sea”.
Capri. Piccola Marina
Uraltes Wehn vom Meer,
Meerwind bei Nacht:
du kommst zu keinem her;
wenn einer wacht
som muß er sehn, wie er
uraltes Wehn vom Meer,
nur wie für Ur-Gestein,
reißend von weit herein …
O wie fühlt dich ein
oben im Mondschein.
Timeless sea breezes,
sea-wind of the night:
you come for no one;
if someone should wake,
he must be prepared
how to survive you.
Timeless sea breezes,
that for aeons have
blown ancient rocks,
you are purest space
coming from afar...
Oh, how a fruit-bearing
fig tree feels your coming
high up in the moonlight.
We are at Marina Piccola on the island’s southern shore, at night, facing the sea. The poet really sees nothing of the little harbour, but just hears sounds: whining or howling from the sea.
“The German “When” loses in the translation to “breezes”, it can also be translated as “whining”, and can refer to the wind but also carries with it a sense of howls of complaint and birth pains.
The word occurs again with Rilke, 15 years later, in one of the “Sonnets to Orpheus” (I: 3), together with the wind. As with several of the poems and prose pieces from Capri, this poem presages the magic world of the “Sonnets to Orpheus”, but lacks the lightness of the “Sonnets to Orpheus”; where there is a light breeze, here it howls continuously from the archetypal mountain (“Ur-Gestein”, in translation here “ancient rocks”) like a continuous reminder of the unbearable weight of Being.
With internal rhyming and assonance the poet wishes to give the impression that his poem is also howling and in this way borrows authority from the “archetypical mountain” itself. The wind comes “from afar” but in the German is also “reißend”, “tearing” – I suppose that it means that it has been torn from the “purest space” that is its origin. It thus reaches us only fragmented or comes “for no one”; should it wake someone, they have to be prepared to “survive”.
“The German’s ”übersteht”is not so easy to understand; it can also mean to obscure, to hide, but here means to “withstand” or ”survive”.
This survival is a task that is both dictated by our being reached by the ancient howling’s reminder from the “ancient rocks” and the “purest space” and that we are ultimately separated from them. This is a fundamental experience for Rilke: through the poem we re-establish contact with the realer reality which we otherwise are without. The poem is a means of “withstanding” or “survival”.
Rilke at Marina Piccola one night in January: 1907: loneliness and vulnerability. But also the task: to withstand. The glimpse of a realer reality. A howl.
Rilke’s Capri poems disconnect from the concrete as well as the mystical Capri to create a poetic space that instead “is about” or approaches something greater, more remarkable, more constant: the realer reality that he calls the “purest space”. “The ancient rocks”. He himself must go to the sea at night or roam alone on Monte Solaro to elude the tourists and clamour of Capri and find the darkness and the silence where he could find himself and express himself.
Professor of Literature, University of Oslo