Intuition and the Creation of a Better World

Raine, Kathleen

It is the poets whose proper task it is to bear witness to the qualities and values of the world; and I would remind you of one of the two or three supreme poets of this century: Rainer Maria Rilke. Near the end of his life, in a brief period of continuous and prophetic inspiration, he completed his two greatest poetic works, the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. In our secular world it is customary to look to scientists for the truth, to the arts for entertainment: I suggest that this attitude is deeply mistaken. Perhaps it should be reversed, for it is the part of the poet to present to us that total view and experience of reality which includes all aspects of our humanity in the context of every age. Or that situates every age, rather, in the context of the everlasting. Such poets have, even so, written in this century; I think of Valery and St John Perse, of Rilke and of Yeats, indeed of T.S. Eliot and of Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins, of Robert Frost; and there are others less complete or less illustrious. I know no poetry that goes beyond that of Rilke in stating - suggesting rather - who we are, what our place in the universe. Rejecting institutionalized religion he was the more free to experience those 'angels', intelligences of the universe, from 'behind the stars'. What are we, he asks, beside these great transhuman orders? And he replies:

Praise this world to the Angel, not the untellable; you can't impress him with the splendour you've felt; in the cosmos where he more feelingly feels you're only a novice. So show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age till it lives in our hands and eyes as part of ourselves. Tell him things.

To the things of this earth it is mankind who gives their reality. It is these only we can tell the Angel:

Above all, the hardness of life, The long experience of love; in fact purely untellable things. But later, under the stars, what use? the more deeply untellable stars? For the wanderer does not bring from mountain to valley a handful of earth, for all untellable earth, but only a word he has won, pure, the yellow and blue gentian. Are we, perhaps here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit-tree, Window, ÷ possibly: Pillar, Tower ·

It is we who give meaning to these things by our words, by performing Adam's appointed task of 'naming' the creation. Thus we bestow on the creatures not a merely natural, but a human, an imaginative and invisible reality. And Rilke continues his thought that we are here 'just for saying' the names:

but for saying, remember, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be. Is not the secret purpose of this sly earth, in urging a pair of lovers, just to make everything leap with ecstasy in them?

The world finds in us an intenser, a totally new mode of being; as if we are here to perform an alchemical transmutation of crude base 'nature' into the gold of Imagination. And to the Angel we can show 'how happy a thing can be, how guileless and ours'; even in their transience:

These things that live on departure understand when you praise them: fleeting, they look for rescue through something in us, the most fleeting of all. Want us to change them entirely, within our invisible hearts into ÷ oh, endlessly ÷ into ourselves. Whosoever we are.*

Whosoever we are. That is a mystery which we cannot in our very nature hope to resolve. It has been the hubris of science to hope to know everything, to play Sherlock Holmes with the mystery of being itself. The poet, more humble, seeks to discern who and what we are within a totality greater than ourselves, a finally unknowable order. We are nevertheless the custodians and creators of that order of values and realities that are properly human, that human kingdom of the Imagination 'ever expanding in the bosom of God'. That 'divine body', the human Imagination, is the underlying order which bounds, embraces and contains the human universe.

Kathleen Raine, in David Lorimer (ed), The Spirit of Science, pp. 232-234 * Translated by Lieshman and Spender.

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