|Rilke's "Blaue Hortensie" -- Cycling into the Eternal|
Rainer Maria Rilke's Neue Gedichte, published in 1907, and Der Neuen Gedichte anderer Teil, published the following year, were nearly all written during the time the author spent in Paris from 1902 to 1908. The conception and writing of "Blaue Hortensie" falls near the end of this period: it was, according to journal entries and critical evaluation, completed in July of 1906. As such it can be seen to occupy a central role in the development of the Neue Gedichte; this centrality is underscored by reports that Rilke, when publishing his newly completed collection, originally intended to use Blaue Hortensie and Rosa Hortensie as titles for the two volumes. During these Paris years, as shown in his voluminous correspondence, Rilke was reconsidering the earlier style of his poetry and was developing new theories and guidelines which were to shape the remainder of his poetic output. Under the influences of two masters of the visual arts -- Rodin, with whom he studied in Paris, and Cezanne, whose work was greatly esteemed by Rilke -- the new style came into being. True to their title, then, the Neue Gedichte are not merely the next installment in the poet's work, but mark a turning point in the Rilkean style: where his earlier works, neo-Romantic in the main, had been characterized by a highly charged emotional voice and a strong infusion of the poetic self, these new poems aim to be more objective. Here Rilke portrays the world of external reality -- plants, animals, and often works of art -- with the eye of the detached painter. His goal is, in his own words, a "sachliches Sagen," a description of surfaces and externalities through a poetic technique which seeks to reveal the object's innermost core and being. This focus on the "thing" itself, the attempt to approach it objectively and thereby engage in a type of dialog which lets the object portray its own existence, is termed a Dinggedicht; one critic explains the goal in these terms:|
The remarkably consistent character of the Neue Gedichte -- virtually any single poem can be selected as illustrating the prime characteristics of the new Dinggedicht form -- has made the work the subject of numerous critical studies. In many such analyses, attention is drawn to the cyclical nature of the poems. Whether or not critics agree, as Wolf notes, that the entire volume of poetry should be seen to have a unifying theme and progression, for example Rilke's "endeavor to show artistic creativity in various manifestations,"  there can be no doubt that the work contains many smaller cycles of poems, such as the famous "cathedral cycle" comprising the three "Portal" poems, "Die Kathedrale," "L'Ange du Meridien," and several others. When examining "Blaue Hortensie," then, it comes as no surprise to find that its position within the larger collection plays an important role in determining the function and nature of the individual poem: surrounded as it is by poems dealing with death and rebirth, the poem's central event -- the regeneration of life -- takes on an even more significant status, and its position within this small cycle becomes of no small importance to the interpretation.
The poem, deceptively simple as are so many of the Neue Gedichte, describes, in exquisite detail of observation, the appearance of a withering blue hydrangea which, upon closer observation, exhibits a process of self-renewal and regeneration:
The subject of the poem is, as the title states, a hydrangea, but more importantly here it is the color that is the focus of the poet's attention, not the flower itself -- no mention is made, for instance, of the smell, setting, age or other characteristics of the bloom. Only the blue and green -- the visual embodiments, such as a painter would portray -- are discussed. In fact, the color seems to make itself independent of the bloom: the blue and green are abstracted from the flower, but they are also substantiated, made into nouns; at first passive, they slowly gain momentum, calling up distant associations with paint, paper, and clothing; and they finally are embodied with self-motivated actions and emotional reactions quite independent of the poet -- in every sense, they have taken on a life of their own.
And yet, the title, although it references the blue, does so as an adjective, a quality of the flower. With this wording, the hydrangea itself becomes important for our expectations of the description, for indeed, the specificity of the hydrangea underlines the rather unusual qualities of that particular species. Hydrangeas, we are expected to know, blossom in different colors, according to the chemical makeup of their soil. An acid soil, somewhat rare, produces blue or violet blooms, while a base soil gives rise to the more common pink varieties. Like many such flowers, they bloom in the late summer and fall, and although they go dormant and appear dead in the winter, they are perennials and develop fresh leaves in the spring. In addition, the blooms can either be sterile or fertile: the ones in Rilke's poem, described as forming an umbel ("Dolde"), are most likely sterile; fertile blossoms are much smaller, less petal-like, and form a cluster rather than an umbel. Most importantly for Rilke is the process of colorization and aging in the hydrangea: the color, whether pink or blue, does not set in immediately: new blossoms are green, and the color gradually progresses from the outside edge. After a week or two, the color then fades to a washed-out gray, exactly as Rilke describes, and the green leaves of a new bloom are evident underneath the old.  What we see in the poem, then, is this precise moment: the blue colorization has faded, and the flower appears to be dying; only on closer inspection can we peer between the dead leaves to see the new growth underneath.
The initial lines of the poem immediately situate the reader as the painterly observer of the withering flower. The poem opens with a simile -- one of three such devices, which will be shown to be instrumental to Rilke's style of description -- and immediately sets up the duality of color that is to characterize the entire poem. The green leaves, dry and rough, are juxtaposed with the blue umbels, who are weak, passive, and unable to carry their own color, but merely reflect it. The green, despite its dull and rough texture, is clearly the more powerful color here: it is localized on the leaves and carries the artistic simile to a "Farbentiegel" of its own accord. The blue, on the other hand, is "ungenau" and cannot be localized: it obviously belongs to the blooms, but it is constantly on the verge of disappearing; in addition, the blue blossoms are unable to to create their own similes, instead requiring the aid of yellow, violet, and gray to form the comparison to old stationery. This blue is washed out and used up, at the end of its life, but at the same time it seems somehow complete: it has seen such progress that nothing more can happen to it ("dem nichts mehr geschieht"). The power of the green to revitalize the plant is illustrated by the color's placement at the beginning and end of the poem: we see first the green, then the blue; the poet circles around the blue and attempts to describe it with analogies, only to discover that, at the end, the blue has given way to the new life of the green underneath.
The structure of the poem is thus similar to a musical sonata: ABA', or here, green-blue-green. This circular or cyclical structure, in which the green returns but is seen from a new perspective, is significant: the circle is an age-old poetic device which can symbolize eternity, rebirth from death, perfection, or simply the nature of life and time itself. Rilke's poetic circle also serves to establish the motion and progression that are essential to his style: within the stasis of the circle, which is itself a complete whole, there is fluidity and movement, a whole lifetime of development, bloom, decay, and rebirth. So too is there motion on the part of the observer -- both poet and reader in this case. The dynamics of perception are made evident by the continuous "wie" analogies, each one seeking to edify, but inevitably disrupting our attempts to truly understand the flower's essence. In his attempt to grasp and portray the surface (the color) and thus the essence and nature of the flower, Rilke is faced with the impossible: he must describe a purely visual perception -- color -- in terms that can be conveyed by a purely verbal medium. He thus resorts, each time, to analogy and simile. The comparisons "wie ... in Farbentiegeln," "wie in alten Briefpapieren," and "wie an einer Kinderschürze" are the only means to describe the colors the poet perceives, and yet each one is a reference to a world totally removed from the essence of the flower. In fact, the progression of these similes leads us farther and farther into a contemplation of human nature, until the flower breaks free of these bounds and asserts its own independence, almost heroically, in the final stanza.
We begin, as we must, outside of the flower, in our own human world. The comparison to the painter's mixing-pot places us within the realm of art, of the attempts of humans to recreate or portray nature. Although a human endeavor, art is removed from ordinary human perception; it by definition seeks to portray and represent a given experience in a single, isolated medium. Thus we are situated, as is Rilke himself, as the observer who must discover the means, if any, by which the flower can be represented. Immediately, however, Rilke dives into an intense delineation of the color and quality he perceives. We are drawn in and swallowed by the leaves and petals of the flower: by the third line, we feel ourselves placed behind the petals, observing the natural world in its immediate presence, as if we have become a part of the flower. And yet, the second simile, the comparison of the colors to old writing paper, calls us out, reminds us of the human world in which the flower must necessarily be seen by us, its human observers. Even the colors -- gray, purple, yellow, and blue -- evoke the image of a human corpse. These external reminders continue and become even more evocative of the human experience: the colors call forth memories of a child's pinafore, a clear indication of the transience of life, the unstoppable march of time. As such, the ultimate futility of these similes is finally recognized, and is marked off by a colon and a change in tenor and tone of the poet's voice. This line -- perhaps the only intrusion of the true poetic self -- is the culmination to the march of analogies which ends in a purely contemplative, introspective thought: "wie fühlt man eines kleinen Lebens Kürze." Indeed, the remarkable difference of this line from all that came before bring the reader to a full stop. Syntactically, the colon causes a short pause, followed by a much longer one after the period. Formally, the experienced reader will pause before the last stanza, waiting for the ultimate resolution of the poem. And in content, above all, the reader must pause to consider this weighty philosophical observation, so unlike the descriptive images which preceded it.
True to our expectations, the last stanza puts an end to both descriptive analogies and to philosophical introspection: the color breaks free and asserts its own life and independence. No longer can it be bound by analogy to the human world, for it is not a part of that world: the similes collapse, and we are left with, at most, metaphors which help us to conceive of (but never fully join in) the essence of the flower. Only the flower -- not the paint-pots, the writing paper or the child's pinafore -- can possibly renew itself in this way. Only the flower has an eternal life, both as thing, as natural phenomenon, and as artwork in poetry. Remarkably, where previously the poet's description had attempted to compare his perceptions to familiar experiences, or to "feel" them as truisms or pronouncements about life, we now are presented only with visual processes: "man sieht" the new leaves, the blue "scheint" to renew itself, and we have become merely the observer once again, no longer able to share in the flower's being. On the contrary, while we impartially observe, the flower itself has become infused not only with life, but with emotion as well: we perceive "ein rührend Blaues sich vor Grünem freuen."
This epiphanous discovery is not only typical for the Rilkean Dinggedichte, but also for the form of the poem itself: it is a strict sonnet, and the last stanza, as so often in traditional sonnet form, begins with a newfound insight, a sudden change in perspective. The sonnet form, though, also betrays a deeper structure to the poem and to Rilke's manner of description: the progression from the decay of the flower's bloom -- causing the poet to draw comparisons to the process of human life -- to its ultimate rebirth, which is so far removed from human experience that the poet can only report and narrate the events as they occur. And yet: "ein rührend Blaues sich vor Grünem freuen." How are we to understand the "touching" blue and its rejoicing? This insight into the emotional life of the flower is clearly beyond the power of human observation. At most, the poet, as observer, could draw analogies to human emotions, or report his own inner feelings as he witnesses this rebirth -- but he does neither. Instead, we must understand this last line as the voice of the flower itself. The flower, the thing, has here gained the power to speak of its own inner being, to report not only on the events through which it passes, but on its thoughts and emotions as well. Thus the ultimate goal of the Dinggedicht has been realized: Rilke has portrayed the outward appearance of the flower and led us into a dialog or communion with the voice of the thing itself. The outward image of the thing, which we are accustomed to perceiving on our own terms and as something that we can manipulate, has here been made autonomous. We cannot, in fact, manipulate, control, or even completely comprehend the flower and its external form and color: the numerous similes which ultimately lead us astray have shown that the thing defies such a relationship. Instead, we must reach beyond our own expectations of the thing; allow it to reject our attempted perception, thereby allowing it to manifest and reveal itself to us. Then, and only then, can it speak to us and we can attempt an, albeit limited, understanding. As Ryan explains:
By denying, through form and style, the observer any true perception of the flower, then, Rilke has given the flower the means to portray itself, to speak and at the same time bring a sudden understanding, an epiphany, to the reader. This denial is accomplished, as we have seen, by the use of similes and analogies which fail to bring complete comprehension and resolve only in a new perspective, and also through the choice of the sonnet form itself. In typical Rilkean fashion, the poet has "asked the thing for the form," as Boa terms it.  The poet's own self and form is suppressed, perhaps even sublimated, into the impartial and "teilnahmslos" self-representation of the thing; the sonnet is here the poetic manifestation of the flower's form and being, a being which only opens itself to our understanding on its own terms. The octet and first half of the sextet here are concerned with the poet's (and our own) attempts to grasp the flower's essence: riddled with analogies to the human world, this process ends only with the application of the flower to our own mortality, our own "Lebens Kürze." But the break occasioned by the period and the end of that thought allow a newfound insight and communication with the flower; in the final stanza we are presented with the flower's joyful renewal and the eternality of life. The antithetical structure of the sonnet is here the perfect medium for carrying out this process of discovery.
Likewise, the syntax, rhyme, and rhythm of the poem are determined by the object of our consideration. As stated, the poem begins not with the immediate jump into floral color, but with the comparison to art, to "das letzte Grün in Farbentiegeln." The rhythmic emphasis given to the qualities of the colors is consistent throughout: "trocken, stumpf, und rauh" all have primary stress and immediately become underscored, just as "verweint und ungenau," despite their connotations of weak pallor, are emphasized as parallels. The remarkable substantives "Verwaschnes" and "Nichtmehrgetragnes" gain prominence through their syntactical placement, and underscore the efforts of the poet to find adequate comparisons. The placement of the colon and the effect of the penultimate stanza has already been delineated; in addition, of course, comes the triple stress on "kleinen Lebens Kürze," which prolongs the effect of the pronouncement and contributes to the break between the stanzas. In the final stanza, the emphasis on "sieht" as a masculine foot is noteworthy and accentuates the impartial observation which has taken over the poem.
The sonnet form is maintained throughout, and there is very little enjambement; however, the rhyme scheme deviates slightly from traditional models. For the entire poem, the scheme -- abba-bccb-ded-fef -- makes use of six instead of the traditional four rhymed pairs. The pairs are by no means arbitrary, of course: even from the beginning, the careful reader is aware of the match between "rauh" / "Blau" and "ungenau" / "Grau". More importantly, perhaps -- for the rhyming of "Blau" to "Grau" can hardly be unexpected -- comes the pairing of "Kinderschürze" to "Lebens Kürze"; this serves as a remarkable reminder of the tie between children, life (birth), and death, as well as a premonition of the final stanza, when life is renewed. The final rhymed pair is perhaps the most significant of all: the match of "verneuen" to "freuen," although not unexpected, gives pause for thought: what seemed a natural process devoid of emotional commitment is now set off with fervent passion, as if the precondition for renewal is the act of rejoicing alone.
The regeneration undertaken by the flower in "Blaue Hortensie" is remarkable in its own right, and the poem is exemplary in form, style, and content. Also important for a greater understanding of the poem, however, is its place within the volume (or cycle) of the Neue Gedichte. As stated, critics remain undecided about the overall "theme," if one exists, for the entire collection of poems, and I am hesitant to draw a conclusion about the work as a whole without extensive further research. But the fact that many groups and smaller cycles of poems are recognized within the confines of the collection is well-established. "Blaue Hortensie," for its part, has been grouped in conjunction with other similar poems, such as its direct counterpart in the second volume, "Rosa Hortensie," as well as with other flower-poems and nature-themed Dinggedichte. Superficially, such groupings are valid; on closer inspection of the thematic nature of the poem, however, it seems clear that the pivotal moment in "Blaue Hortensie," when the flower becomes active and renews itself in joy, should be considered in the context of a span of poems around it. Accordingly, the group of five poems surrounding "Blaue Hortensie" in the Neue Gedichte -- four before, with "Blaue Hortensie" as the culmination -- can, I believe, be termed a thematic `cycle,' one which leads us from life into death and back into life or rejuvenation again. This circular nature, which is at the heart of any cycle, but particularly one so focused on the processes of time and life, will be seen as representative of Rilke's aesthetic stance on poetry as well.
In analyzing this small cycle -- one might name it the cycle of circular time -- a detailed investigation of Rilke's form, language, and style could certainly be of use, but for the purposes of this paper, I believe it is sufficient to concentrate on the poems' imagery and content. The first poem in the cycle is the remarkable "Die Erblindende." Here, the object of the poem, a woman going blind, is still very much involved in life. She appears at first like any other woman, sitting with the others, having tea, and smiling. Only when she gets up to walk does the peculiarity of her movements strike the observer: she follows the others at a slight distance, and her manner is somewhat reserved or "verhalten." With the help of the title, her difference becomes clear. Surprisingly, however, in the midst of this lively and active portrayal, the tone of the poem darkens substantially, and it becomes clear that the woman is near to death. She walks slowly, "als wäre etwas noch nicht überstiegen" -- the "etwas" being death itself, to which she has not yet succumbed. But the image of death that we receive here, however resigned the poem's tone may seem, is not at all negative or fearsome; indeed, after death, "nach einem Übergang," it seems as if she will no longer walk, but fly. A rather joyous image, after all, of a life resolving into the flight (angelic, perhaps) of an afterlife.
The next poem continues this rather positive stance toward death. "In einem fremden Park" is, as the title hints, set in a graveyard. The tone of the poem is far more personal; the poet speaks directly to a "Du," who erringly embarks on the wrong path in the cemetery and is suddenly confronted by solitude and death: "auf einmal bist du im Rondel alleingelassen wieder mit dem Steine." A strong image, to be sure -- and striking as well for its evocation of a circle-based dance form -- but not as frightening as it first appears. We learn, for instance, that the "Du" of the poem often comes to this place, and seems to enjoy it; it appears almost as his imaginary refuge, since although he has been here before, the "Ulmenplatz" is "niebetreten." Indeed, Death, however imaginary, is here portrayed as a curiosity, an as yet unexperienced pleasure; Death "verlockt" the figure to stay and observe the natural world around him. Only in the final lines of the poem, however, do we sense a foreboding: the moths which flitter around are described as "verloren," although the word could equally apply to the "Du"-figure as well.
The next step, in which the presence of death is no longer imaginary or even distant, but instead immediately apparent, is the famous "Abschied." Although it is not the poetic self's own death which is discussed here, it is nonetheless an immediate experience: he has directly felt "was Abschied heißt," and the loved one he has lost is gone forever. Death is no longer a pleasant curiosity nor a promise of life hereafter, but rather "ein dunkles unverwundnes grausames Etwas," which has now come so close the poet that it cannot be named, only feared. Death is destructive: it "zerreißt" the formerly "Schönverbundnes," but it is also gloating, first holding the treasure up to be seen before destroying it. The poetic self is "ohne Wehr" before Death, and has no power or ability to hold on to his own life. Although the moment passes and the self is spared, the self is left bewildered and powerless to explain what has occurred. Thus, unlike the flower, his hold on life is transitory, even haphazard, and subject to recall at any time.
Just as the poetic self in "Abschied" is unable to comprehend the power and being of death, so too the self in "Todes-Erfahrung" claims that "wir wissen nichts von diesem Hingehn, das nicht mit uns teilt." Death is here, however, not something to be feared or hated, even though we cannot understand it: it simply exists, regardless of our own opinions. The world is a stage, Rilke claims. The metaphor is old but retains its power: mankind plays at life, distracted by reality only when death comes to call. And yet, this distraction brings with it "ein Streifen Wirklichkeit," the "Grün wirklicher Grüne." Here we have at once two notable poetic events. On the one hand, death is seen as the only true reality; not something to be feared or avoided, but merely a part of life. And death brings with it a natural reality, standing in sharp contrast to the fictitious stage-world of the poetic self. For the first time in this cycle, we have mention of the reality and, by extension, the eternal truth of the natural world. The consequence is, of course, that when the shadow of the departed passes over him, "wie ein Wissen von jener Wirklichkeit," the self realizes, if only temporarily, the eternality of a different life, and the limitations of his own. He has no power to achieve this eternal existence, however, and must continue to play at life, "nicht an Beifall denkend." The self is powerless over death, but has come to recognize the connection between death and life, the circular nature revealed by the eternal truth.
It is thus only fitting that the next poem, "Blaue Hortensie," should show this eternality and the circular nature of life; renewal is not, as in the previous poems, something mankind can only intimate or guess at but never accomplish, but rather the completely natural process of rebirth. And with this poem we reach the pivotal point that will lead us back to where we began. "Die Erblindende" began with life, albeit a threatened one; the poems thereafter continued with various receptions and conceptions of death, attempts for the most part by mankind to gain control over death. "Blaue Hortensie," after a failed attempt to force meaning out of the flower, returns us to life and restores the image of death as a natural process, the key to the experience of circular time. The flower can rejoice even in death, for it, unlike the poetic selves in the previous poems, instinctively understands the nature of time. The poem leaves us in life, secure in the knowledge that although death will come again, the cycle will continue -- as indeed it does, for even the next poem, "Vor dem Sommerregen," returns us to a dying landscape which encroaches upon the viewer.
Naturally, the theory of circular time is deeply tied to that of eternality, and therefore to Rilke's theory of art itself. Only as a "thing" -- either in art as a "Kunstding" or in an almost Platonic existence as a "Ding" itself -- can the eternal be achieved. This conception of the "thing" arose during the writing of the Neue Gedichte, and Rilke found specific resonance in his studies of Cezanne and Rodin. For Rodin, sculpture, and art in general, must produce an exact representation of the surface and the form in order for the inner being of the object to be brought to life. The observer must not only be objective; he must totally remove his own self from the thing -- so that the thing may portray itself, without reference to the artist's preconceived notions of its being. This shift in emphasis from the observer to the self-representation of the thing itself, if properly conducted, would lead to the clear perception of the eternal truth of the object. In Ryan's words:
The "Kunstding" -- the thing as preserved eternally in art or poetry -- is autonomous and self-enclosed. We cannot force it open to our viewing. We can, however, allow it to portray its own essence, as Rilke hoped to achieve in his Dinggedichte. When this occurs, the thing reveals to the observer in part its own inner core, but it also reveals a truth about the observer. By displaying its own permanence as a work of art and a thing, it shows to us our own eternal existence as things. Like the hydrangea, which as a living flower is subject to the vagaries of time, but as a poem and thing finds eternal renewal and is excluded from the natural passing of time, so we too can recognize in ourselves an eternal existence. As "Blaue Hortensie" and the cycle around it make clear, death is another part of life, a necessary part which can lead to renewal and eternal preservation. The circular nature of life, death, and time itself are underscored repeatedly by circular and cyclical motions in the poem. The perspectival changes and attempts to forcibly understand or gain control over the flower's essence are successful only when the circle is completed and the flower chooses to reveal itself, which, in conjunction with the larger cycle of poems, brings an insight into the nature of mortal existence. By encapsulating the "Blaue Hortensie" in the form of the Dinggedicht, Rilke has given it immortality as a "Kunstding" -- an immortality in which we all, like the the flower's blue, can share and rejoice.
Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1998 for German 940 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Rilke's "Blaue Hortensie" -- Cycling into the Eternal." Website Article. 14 May 1998. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/940Brilke.html>.