A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
A scholar and translator makes a pilgrimage to the Swiss castle where Rainer Maria Rilke finished the Duino Elegies and received the gift of all 55 Sonnets to Orpheus.
This morning the waiter told me over breakfast that the weather would be bad. “The Crows”, he nodded sagely, and as I looked at him with confusion, he explained that they fly low in the Sierre valley when the snow is moving in. And he was right. As I hiked up the mountainside through the barren vineyards large flocks of crows settled on the roofs of houses and black tree branches below. The mountains – Bella Lui, Mont Bonvin, Daubenhorn, Illhorn, and Six des Eaux Froides – were hidden in the fog. The clouds cleared only once in the distance to give me the sense that I was in the Alps, but quickly the bright light vanished and the snowflakes came down harder. At first, I felt sorry for myself that I went on this pilgrimage in the dead of winter. But then I remembered that this was exactly the time of year and the kind of weather that surrounded the Château de Muzot when, in February 1922, Rilke finished the Duino Elegies there and received the gift of all 55 Sonnets to Orpheus. On the day he was buried in Raron on a cold January afternoon in 1927, the peasant children who, according to local custom, stood in a circle around his grave with touching endurance, held up wreaths in hands blue with cold. Rilke was no stranger to the harshness of long winters: although Muzot sits in the balmy Valais that Rilke loved so much because it reminded him of Spain and Provence, it has withstood the terrible storms of alpine winters since the 13th century when it was built.
The way from Sierre to Route de Moulin # 6 in Veyras goes through vineyards and old towns which Rilke would have recognized, but much of the untouched landscape of his time is now studded with mansions and holiday chalets. I saw a beautiful large, gold-stuccoed house where the owner, in hopeful summer fantasies, had planted three large palm trees in the garden, but two of them were by now only tall stumps. A scenic vintner’s hut sat huddled amid its precise, snow-covered rows of vines, and I took my last photograph there. Then my phone died. I felt a flurry of fear because my GPS was gone too, and I was not sure how I would find the way there and home again. But perhaps Rilke had something to do with it. He would not have wanted my eyes busy checking the visible landscape for a frame and my hands fiddling with the phone. It suddenly seemed poetic justice and completely right that technology ceased to function on the Rue de la Vannire. As I now saw the fog, felt the snow settle on my coat, and heard only the silence of a landscape without people, I gradually felt closer to the “intimate topography” Rilke spoke about: every visible thing, when it is allowed to truly address us, is an opening to a more intense presence — Being announcing itself in “muted splendor.” I remembered reading the introduction Rilke gave on his Swiss tour of poetry readings. Here is an excerpt:
The work — of which I will show you some examples — starts from the conviction that it is possible to give a pure view of the wideness, multiplicity, and even the fullness of the world. And yes, I have hoped to raise the poem to such a view and through it become capable of lyrical understanding of all appearances, not only those with an emotional appeal: of setting each thing – animal, plant, every event – in its own special domain of feeling. Do not be misled by my frequent invocation of the past. The past, too, is alive in the profusion of events, if we think of it in terms of its intensity, not its content. We are members of a world which produces movement upon movement, force upon force and it seems to plunge us irresistibly into a less and less visible state; and we are dependent on that superior visibility of the past if we want to present an image of the muted splendor that still surrounds us. (From a manuscript in the Rilke Archive)
How easy it must have been to feel the fullness of this valley in the summer…. Now it closes in on itself, the old houses huddled under their low drawn roofs, the mountains veiling themselves. But that, too, is part of this topography, more intimate perhaps because it speaks of storms and lostness and the human need for shelter, home, and kindness. Rilke found his refuge at Muzot after 7 years of wandering around Europe — an eternal guest in other people’s homes. Muzot gave him shelter and silence and allowed him to gradually reconnect with his poetry, which had been interrupted by the first world war. Even today the “tower” (as Rilke called the chateau) sits on a slope by itself, sheltered by hedges, trees, meadows and vineyards, its only neighbor a small pilgrims’ chapel dedicated to St. Anne a short distance away. Rilke also called Muzot his “knightly armor” and despite its small footprint it has an imposing presence with its plain golden stone facade, stepped roof silhouette, and a row of arrowslits in the attic. Rilke finally found the fullness of his voice “in des Turmes umschliessenden Geviert….” (“in the enclosing fourfold of the tower…”).
When Rilke found the tower in 1921 it had a “wonderful poplar” at the roadside in front of the chateau: “like a symbol again and an exclamation mark, as though it were saying, confirming: look, this is it!” The poplar is not there anymore, it was actually cut down in Rilke’s time, which left him deeply unsettled and violated. Someone planted 13 poplars in its stead, perhaps in his memory, and his friends gave him a Gingko (which was also Goethe’s favorite tree) growing next to his balcony in the garden. They have survived him by almost a century.
The tower is not open to visitors, but I walked through a meadow around the perimeter of the fence to see it from all sides. The angelus bells were tolling the noon call to prayer from a distant church in the valley, giving Muzot the feeling of having fallen out of time. I took my phone out of my pocket, and to my surprise it turned on! Muzot allowed me to take a few lovely pictures as it rose in muted colors out of the winter landscape.
On my way home I stopped in at the Veyron church, where Rilke had sat in a pew to listen to the children’s choir practicing, and then went through the lych-gate behind it, because Rilke had said that whenever you come to a town you should visit the cemetery. I wandered through the rows of graves, reading the names of people who lived and died here. A few were children in Rilke’s time, and perhaps they knew him as he stepped into the church to listen to their song. Sheltered in a corner was the children’s cemetery: a handful of graves of those who died when they were two and five and ten years old; and another handful of tiny stone enclosures which held the bones of infants. One was graced with the stele of an angel. Another one had a smiling, snow covered garden gnome on it.
Eva-Maria Simms is the Adrian van Kaam Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University. Her essays about Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as her translations of his poems, have been widely published.
Copyright 2020 Eva-Maria Simms