O Trees of Life, when is your winter?
That’s the way Rilke chose to open the fourth of the Duino Elegies. I guess if you are able to write a verse like that one, you have already accomplished more than all the myriads of the pseudo-poets going around there…That includes me, of course!
Now, I think it is always interesting is to try to discover the reasons why this verse is great. The answer might lie precisely in the fact that the verse is great in English, in the original German or in whatever language you may translate it to. Its power lies not in rhyme or any other musical quality, but rather in the meaning of the words and the relation between the images those words convey.
This is precisely what Ezra Pound calls phanopoeia in “How to Read“: the casting of images upon the visual imagination. The more the words are charged, the more images they will cast. But when Pound speaks of images we have to understand them not just as those the imagination can produce but rather in a wider and deeper sense. Images can be concepts, memories, relations… a whole series of ideas and thoughts that come with the words -as if they were hiding inside the text- waiting for the reader to uncover them. A person who has never read the Bible will read “trees of life” as a very nice phrase, while for someone well versed in Holy Scripture , the expression will evoke both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation, the story of original sin, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… and who knows what else! The more he has, the more he will get out of the text. There is a curious effect then: if poetry is “charging” words to the highest level, its effect will be boosted by the reader’s own charge of knowledge and capacity to discover. In other words: we are always learning how to read and we can always read better. Even more surprising is the fact that the text can say more than the author ever imagined. It has a life of his own.
But my idea was to try to think about the phanopoeia of this specific verse, not to reflect about how to read in general… Rilke presents two images separated -as it were- by a terrible trench. On one side the evergreen trees of life, always alive and fruitful: always the same. On the other, the voice that addresses them, a voice haunted by decay, a voice filled with a desire to last. This unreachable desire is in fact present throughout all the elegies as a leitmotif. Let’s look at the tenth elegy: the Land of Laments:
We were once a great race, we Laments,… once we were rich (…) And she leads him gently through the vast landscape of Lamentation, shows him the columns of temples, the ruins of castles, from which the lords of Lament ruled the land, wisely.
All that glory is gone, the once rich country is gone forever, powerless against almighty decline that leads to death. In the tenth elegy despair is developed slowly, phrase by phrase, while in the verse of the trees of life all the impotence bursts out in one of the most basic feelings man is capable of: envy. I can do nothing, I cannot last, I am helpless… why don’t you share my destiny? Precisely because envy is so base an attitude, it is able to get across the idea of despair very effectively: there is no need to say more. My despair is clear enough.