Continuing the German theme of a day or two ago, I decided to feature another work that I like – literally a tale of love and death, or to give it its proper title, The Song of the Love and Death of Standard Bearer Christoph Rilke –
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke
by Rainer Maria Rilke
This poem, composed in 1899, a story of war and its senseless waste, of the dreams and fleeting pleasures of vanishing youth, became a kind of bible for German soldiers travelling to the front in 1914. It is a true classic of German literature and almost certainly the most popular of Rilke’s works.
Right from the start it goes straight to the emotions with its picture of sagging courage and the intense longing for home::
‘Reiten, reiten, reiten, durch den Tag, durch die Nacht, durch den Tag …. und der Mut ist so müde geworden und die Sehnsucht so gross.’
[Ride, ride, ride, by day, by night, by day…. so weary our spirit, so great our longing.]
Eighteen-year-old Christoph Rilke von Langenau rides to war against the Ottoman Empire in the mid 17th century alongside a French marquis. As they cross harsh, dry terrain, they talk of their mothers and their sweethearts. They sit by watchfires and sing of their homelands. Language is no barrier because each and every man has a mother. The marquis takes a rose from inside his tunic and kisses it. When he and Langenau finally part to join their respective regiments, the marquis pulls off a petal and gives it to his young companion, who now ‘… lächelt traurig: ihn schützt eine fremde Frau.’ [smiles sadly: he is watched over by a foreign woman]
Langenau comes before the general, Count Spork, with a letter of recommendation and is appointed standard-bearer. The army rides out to engage the Turks, camps by the River Raba (a tributary of the Danube). Langenau begins writing a letter to his mother. They ride out again, find bodies, come to a castle, are welcomed by a fanfare and by barking dogs. The enemy is nearby.
[page L – Langenau writes to his mother – ‘Be proud – I bear the flag, do not worry: I bear the flag, love me: I bear the flag …’]
[page R – They ride over a slain peasant, eyes wide open, no heaven reflects therein. Later … a village …huts … a castle … Listen! Clammer, clatter, baying dogs … neighing, hoofbeats and shouts.’]
(photo from my own copy of ‘Die Weise’)
They are able to rest. There is food, wine, dancing, women and a proper bed. Langenau endulges his youthful fantasies, but it is not always clear where the dream begins and reality ends. ‘Die Turmstube ist dunkel … Fast wie Kinder … drängen sie sich einander ein. Er fragt nicht “Dein gemahl?” Sie fragt nicht “Dein namen?” ‘ [The room in the tower is dark … they cling to one another like (fearful) children. He doesn’t ask about her husband, she doesn’t ask his name.]
[last page – In the castle, his tunic was burned, his letter too, and the rose petal of a foreign lady. – The following spring, one that came sadly and coldly, a courier from Baron Pirovano rode slowly into Langenau. There he left an old woman weeping.]
(photo from my own copy of ‘Die Weise’)
The remainder of the poem returns to the realities of war. The enemy attacks and fires the castle. Langenau seizes the flag and goes out to meet them, throws himself among them. He smiles – he imagines himself in a garden. – He is surrounded and cut down: ‘… die sechzehn runden Säbel, die auf ihn zuspringen, Strahl um Strahl, sind ein Fest. Eine lachende Wasserkunft.’ [the sixteen scimitars that rush towards him – flash upon flash – are a celebration – a fountain.]
I found it helpful in understanding the text to read up on the historical background. Without it, the character of the marquis and the reference to many languages are a little puzzling. In 1663, the Ottomans attacked Transylvania, part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire. Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor raised an army to oppose them. Even Louis XIV of France responded and a mish-mash of German, Hungarian, Croatian and French troops eventually drove the Grand Vizier’s army back.
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod is something of a fantasy of youth, one filled with metaphor, romantic ideas and sensual language. But it has realism too in its description of the desolate, war-torn countryside and in the build-up to the final battle.
3 thoughts on “Another Tale of Love and Death”
I read this when I was very young – probably the right time in life to do it. You are right, it was maybe the most popular book of the pre-WWI generation and even today is Rilke’s most popular book. The cover photo of the edition you show is Insel Bibliothek No. 1, the first of this very important series of books which is until this day collected by many book lovers in the German-speaking world. Thanks for the nice review.
Yes, it is indeed the Insel Bib. No 1. I got it as a present in 1987.
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