Sheehy Paper


CONOR SHEEHY: Mixing Mobility, Machine, and Man:

Politics of Place, Tradition, and Change in Rilke’s “Sonnet !:24”

                  “Shall we reject our age-old friendship,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sonnet I:24” of his Sonnets to Orpheus begins, introducing the dynamics of time, cohesion, and uncertainty that pervade the rest of the poem (1). Written in the wake of the First World War, “Sonnet I:24” delves into the decidedly modern problem of the dynamo, which poses a threat to both tradition and nature, as even the value of human life has decayed under the metallic tracks of tanks and the noxious odor of nerve gas. In this time of so-called human progress, Rilke’s piece addresses both the destructive will of the machine and the decline in authentic artistry. Placing human society in a position of constant flight from the omnipresent, sometimes forgotten forces of the past and of nature, the poem exposes the failure of humanity to truly escape from the clutches of these alleged gods. Rather than roundly condemn the metals and machines that surround mankind in the modern realm, Rilke assigns responsibility for the race’s unsustainable course to the humans who continue to follow a foolhardy path, in spite of the warnings that seem to surround them. Ultimately, while the speaker does associate himself with this unfortunate collective, he also expresses hope for change in the near future, even if this change consists simply of a turn towards that which has come before. In “Sonnet I:24” of his Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke employs a variety of literary and rhetorical techniques in order to urge against the industrialization and fragmentation that dominate modern society, and to advocate a return to the roots of poetry and culture, as a means of positive change and communal salvation.

                  Rilke emphasizes the steely, obdurate, and disjointed qualities of human society in order to push for an altered course for mankind, and for a turn away from rigid regimentation and mechanization of the poet’s world. When he explains, “The hard / steel we have strictly schooled does not know [the gods],” the speaker establishes a teacher-student relationship between humanity and the metal of the machine world, in order both to demonstrate the importance of human agency in the modernization of society, and to comment upon the brand of education that has taken hold of the human world, in which people seem to treat “hard steel” just as they would young schoolchildren (2-3). The association drawn between students and steel suggests that the modern machinery of education fashions children as pieces of raw material, worthy of severe molding and absolute control on the part of the alleged educators. Even without this metaphorical reading, though, the apparent hardness of the steel and the steel’s lack of knowledge with regards to the gods also indicate that the current society values unalterable, unchanging compositions, and that it has turned away from the Classics. The steel’s hardness, which comes under attack in “Sonnet II:12” for its rigidity and its resistance to change, also speaks to the mindlessness machinations at work in the human spirit, or lack thereof, which has engulfed itself in isolation and solitude, despite the ever-increasing human population. The speaker addresses this seeming paradox when he notes that “lonelier now, wholly dependent / on one another, without knowing one another,” humans feel a desperate need for external contact, even as they become trapped within their individual, internal worlds (9-10). Rilke places the people in question in unrivaled proximity to one another, and therefore comments directly on the crowded claustrophobia of the modern realm, in which the individual still feels alone, despite having constant contact with those who surround him (9). The machine age has even restricted the flexibility of movement of humans, who “no longer lay out the paths as lovely meanders, / but straight,” as they move forward without the beauty or aesthetics of poetry (11-2). The hardness and isolation of the modern man make it difficult for him to alter his course or to unite with those around him, in large part because machines and regiments have done away with the ways of old.

                  Whereas the modern world described in the poem comes across as lonely and rigid, its ancient counterpart serves as a source of unity, beauty, and mobility. By pulling from the Petrarchan sonnet structure, in which the octave poses a problem for the sestet to either answer or complicate further, Rilke constructs his poem in a formally traditional fashion for the most part. Even the rhyme scheme of ‘abab cddc efe fgg’ does not depart drastically from the conventional mold of the sonnet, and the poem presents lines of fairly even length. While Petrarch does not hail from the Classical era, his position at the forefront of the Humanist movement draws a direct line between his work and that of the Classical poets, since Humanism placed its focus upon reviving and revitalizing Classical works, and since the poets in question favored a neatly ordered and formally cohesive style that emerges in Rilke’s “Sonnet I:24” as well. In this sense, Rilke’s sonnet hearkens back to the earliest days of the poetic tradition, and therefore, in itself, stands in opposition to the modern trend of casting aside the gods and the Classics in favor of the machinery of the new era. In addition to the poem’s formal structure and scheme, though, the sonnet’s content reflects a similar concern for the Classical era, especially with regards to community. When he offers up “banquets” and “baths” as examples of Greco-Roman cultural heritage that have found themselves “removed…afar” by modern mankind, the speaker showcases the communal cohesion of the Classical world, in which both “banquets” and “baths” served as events and places of societal interaction and gathering with a common purpose (7). Rilke thus draws a stark contrast between the companionship of the Classical community and the fragmentation and rugged individualism of the current society.

                  Still, even as he maintains a link with the Classics and celebrates their worth, Rilke also highlights the ongoing elimination of these works and their heritage from the cultural psyche, in the name of so-called progress. Formally, for instance, even as he maintains the basic Petrarchan mold for his work, Rilke utilizes near-constant enjambment and sudden pauses as a means of obstructing the traditional form and demonstrating the destructive power of modern machinery upon Classical roots. Beginning in the poem’s first stanza, Rilke allows each clause of the sonnet to run from line to line, rarely abiding by the end-stopped structure employed by much conventional poetry. Even Rilke’s choices with regards to which word should carry over for each line speak to the ceaseless drive of industrialization, especially since the sonnet enjambs expressions and words such as “steel” (3), “we always overtake” (9), and “but straight” (12), even in the original German, and since all three of these words and phrases refer directly to the path and mission of the modern man, whose iron will and push refuse to halt at the end of a line, and who thus creates a pattern of enjambment and resulting caesuras that adorns the poem as a whole with a jerky, drastically shifting speed that befits a machine more so than a piece of Classical literature. In this sense, especially in light of the work’s somewhat unconventional rhyme scheme, “Sonnet I:24” simultaneously pays tribute to and subverts the ancient poetical legacy, and, by doing so, formally showcases the influence of the ceaselessly moving modern sphere.

                  Nevertheless, even though the human race has evaded the “gods” to this point, the sonnet indicates that these “gods” still hold power, and that the modern path cannot sustain itself forever (2). Whereas most of the sonnets in the cycle open with invocations, declarations, or uses of the imperative mode, Rilke begins this poem in the interrogative form, as he asks his addressee if the human race should “reject our age-old friendship” with the “gods,” or whether humanity should endeavor to “suddenly seek them on a map,” and thus employ a manufactured tool in order to search for transcendent beings (1, 4). Rilke’s use of the interrogative mode betrays a sense of uncertainty and ambivalence on the part of the speaker, who has cast aside his usual confidence to ask two questions regarding the future of mankind with respect to the gods. Because of the sonnet’s larger context and its broad discussion of poetry and culture, the “gods” in question come across more as the forces of nature and tradition than as simply the gods of the Greco-Roman mythological religion (2). However, these forces clearly serve as deities for Rilke’s speaker, who fears that mankind has erred in attempting to flee from them, and who refers to them as “powerful friends,” thereby attributing force and strength to them, along with a sense of intimacy, like that of a personal relationship (5). Furthermore, by noting the “never-soliciting” nature of the gods, the speaker places the obligation and responsibility for the friendship squarely upon the shoulders of the human individual, who must, like the speaker, attempt to revive and revitalize the Classical tradition in an effort to escape ultimate destruction at the hands of the mysterious forces at work (2).

Even before the sonnet’s volta, the speaker acknowledges the potential danger and power of the gods, who maintain a constant presence, even in the most modern of societies. When the speaker, for instance, admits that the gods “take the dead / from us,” he confesses that the gods, and by extension nature, will always have ultimate power over humans, since, regardless of what type of afterlife does or does not follow death, the forces of nature have total control of fallen men and women, and the human race has no authority over the process (5-6). Still, the speaker also explains that these “friends…nowhere touch against our wheels,” and that the modern humans “always overtake” the overly slow “messengers” of the gods (6, 8-9). Nonetheless, by establishing a scene in which the messengers and gods pursue mankind, as human beings must flee by way of their machines, these moments also indicate that humanity must move relentlessly if it wishes to escape from the forces of nature and the gods, and that the cycle, indicated by the ceaseless motion of the “wheel” can only possibly end with the break of the machine or the slowing of the humans, since the presumably immortal gods thus never need to halt their chase (6). Additionally, the presence of “their messengers” necessarily points to the existence of a message from the gods with regards to humanity, and must logically contain a warning similar to the one that Rilke puts forth through the poem itself (8). Moreover, while the speaker’s claim that he and the rest of humanity “always” outrun and overtake these messengers, either to escape from them or intercept their messages and reports back to the gods, Rilke later repeats the word “always,” this time with regards to the “always” growing “hammers” lifted by the “fire” of the gods, who allow their flame to burn within the “boilers” of the machine age (9, 12-4). Since these hammers seem to spell doom for the modern human race, which they will crush with growing energy, the speaker’s two uses of “always” seem to contradict each other, but while the first use refers only to an observed pattern of victory for mankind, the latter, related directly to eternal fire and eternal beings, thus suggests “always” in the truest sense of the word, and indicates that the gods will ultimately drown the humans, who “diminish in strength, like swimmers,” and must therefore, by logical extension, eventually lose their ability to stay afloat, especially within a society that offers them no help, in spite of their “dependent” natures (9-14). Even the speaker, who seems determined to rekindle humanity’s friendship with the gods, who stand for nature and tradition, and who demonstrates a willingness to break through the hard steel of society in favor of change, cannot escape from the fate of mankind. By repeating the plural personal pronoun throughout the sonnet, the speaker essentially inserts himself into the collective “we,” and, in doing so, accepts the presumed doom that lies ahead for the modern race. Nevertheless, since the “fires” of the gods still power the machinery of the seemingly exclusively forward-looking men and women at society’s center, and since Rilke’s poem takes ahold of and reclaims certain Classical tropes and forms, the poem does appear to offer some hope for reconciliation between the modern world and the legacy of the gods (13).

                  In “Sonnet I:24,” Rilke employs a both literary devices and formal techniques in order to urge against the industrialization and fragmentation that dominate modern society, and to advocate a return to the roots of poetry and culture, as a means of change and communal cohesion. Given the horrors of WWI and the natural destruction pushed forth by technological advances, the sonnet’s attack on the machinery of the modern age, which sought to redefine and subvert traditional poetry, falls perfectly in line with the will of a poet who prided himself on his affection for the classics, and for nature. However, even beyond the work’s historical context, “Sonnet I:24” provides a call for movement and change, and an end to rigidity. These themes, especially with regards to moving past tragedy and softening a hard heart, play into both the tale of Orpheus, whose parting from Eurydice threatens to halt his music forever, and Rilke’s own autobiography, which features a fair bit of personal tragedy, in terms of both relationships and lost lives. Nevertheless, in addition to any sort of political or literary commentary along these lines that the piece offers, “Sonnet I:24” speaks to a desperate desire for friends and companions, amidst a world full of presumably lonely people, fragmented both from one another and from within. At least, then, Rilke manages to join the collective of the “we” within his poem, even if the “we” falls into the same traps and pitfalls that affect any society built on foundations of isolation.