Rilke’s Roses

Rainer Maria Rilke

“Who, though I cry aloud, would hear me in the angel orders?
And should my plea ascend, were I gathered to the glory
of some incandescent heart, my own faint flame of being
would fail for the glare.

Beauty is as close to terror as we can well endure.
Angels would not condescend to damn our meager souls.
And so I constrain myself and swallow the deep, dark  music
of my own impassioned plea.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, First Duino Elegy

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was fond of roses and so they were a recurring theme in many of his poems. He indulged himself in tending the roses he planted in the gardens of Muzot where he spent the last years of his life.   E. M. Butler writes in Rilke’s biography that “he kept roses in his room until they were really dead, then embalmed their petals in books and used them for pot-pourri” and that he “once sent a friend some fading flowers to die in her company because he was going away”.  Legend has it that the leukemia which caused his death was diagnosed when he pricked his hand on a thorn while gathering his beloved roses and the wound failed to heal. Rilke’s love of this beautiful flower ran so deep that he penned his own epitaph with reference to the rose –  “Rose, O Pure Contradiction, Desire To Be No One’s Sleep Beneath So Many Lids” – and  roses grow upon his grave.

In 1912, during a stay at the Castle Duino, Rilke began composing The Duino Elegies.  An elegy is a “song of lamentation” and so they are filled with sadness, but at the same time they are something utterly beautiful and comforting despite their theme of death that comes too soon and unfulfilled longings. A. S. Kline writes that the elegies “represent a reconciliation with life, and seek to bear witness to its underlying fountain of joy, the source and spring from which the stream of acceptance and creativity flows that allows us to endure our transient and often painful existence.” The Elegies came to Rilke in the form of a sudden inspiration as he stood on the cliffs of Duino when he found the words “Who, though I cry aloud, would hear me in the angel orders?”  Years later he finished them when his creativity returned in “a savage creative storm” when the poetic spirit took hold of him. 

Poems also come to me in a rush and a fury, but although I have thorns and beauty in my life, too,  I struggle to produce roses in my poetry. And so when I just can’t find the right words and seem to be producing weeds instead of roses, I can turn to the Elegies and find Rilke’s words which express so much of what I want to say. And because the themes are universal I don’t feel so alone in the sorrows of the world. I’m grateful that Rilke’s rose petals are still to be found tucked inside the pages of his books.

The Edge of Creativity

Lead me to the edge
and talk to me as I tremble there
precariously swaying against
winds of beauty and cruelty.

To fall away
or be drawn away
by changes in life’s weather
be it sunshine or storms, 
or whatever clouds blow my way.

Lone Cypress at Monterey

Yet I stand here so long and so often
that I’ve begun to put down roots.
Like the cypress on western cliffs 
I  grow strong enough to withstand
the heat of the sun,
the chill of the rain,
and I celebrate the beauty –
and the cruelty –
that we all cherish and endure.


The Duino Elegies translated by Robert Hunter
Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Glass Alfred A. Knoff  New York 1999
By The Cliffs of Duino- Existence and Ecstasy
The Fountain of Joy: A Line-by Line Commentary on Rilke’s Duino Elegies by A.S. Kline 2009
A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke  Donald Prater Clarendon Press Oxford 1986

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18 Responses to Rilke’s Roses

  1. magsx2 says:

    Beautiful poem.
    I hadn’t heard of Rainer Maria Rilke before, so I did enjoy reading the information you provided about this wonderful poet.
    Isn’t it amazing how his love of roses led him to became such a brilliant poet, and also led to the discovery of his illness.

  2. I like the “cypress on western cliffs” metaphor in your thoughtful poem.

    I never heard of Rilke until I saw one of his quotes on a magnet a few years ago. He’s been on my “to read” list ever since, but I still don’t know much about him – I appreciate the interesting information you included about his life.

    • There is a lot to discover in Rilke. You’ll probably see more of him here sometime. I’m curious about the quote. Do you remember what it was? His book “Letters to a Young Poet” is a great read for aspiring artists of any kind.

      • I believe it was from *Letters to a Young Poet.* I had the magnet on my refrigerator for a few years, when I was in the process of extracting myself from a highly dogmatic religion that supposedly had an answer for every question… Rilke’s words were so encouraging to me during that painful time…

        “You are so young; you stand before beginnings. I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
        ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

    • Thank you, that really is a wonderful quote and very timely for me to read today. Just what I needed to hear. (Of course!) I’m not surprised that it was so meaningful to you during that hard time.

  3. tornadoday says:

    Unbelievable story…….. Thank you for the depth of soul you put into sharing this piece.

  4. suncolor says:

    a new world and a new insight for me today. poetry as the product of love. thanks

    • Thank you very much, Suncolor, for stopping by and for your comments. I’m looking forward to gaining insights from your world, too. :) And, yes, love does bring out the poetry!

  5. I’ve never read about Rilke’s love for roses before.
    I completely understand he waited till the withered roses lost their petals, and then kept them between pages of books. If you have a close look at the texture of rose petals, you see something heavenly. Like a most beautiful skin.

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