De Quincey & Rilke: Language of Profound Spiritual Resonance

The major religions have ancient texts documenting their foundations, vivifying their forms, and ritualizing their ethics. Here, language is both intensive and comprehensive in its functional purposes, is both poignant and audacious in its poetic purposes. Those great old texts are considered by most to be exemplary collections of profound spiritual utterance. Those great old texts, like the Bible, are indeed impressive written occasions of language moving toward possible transcendence. Assuredly, they are powerful books, some even conjuring with words the timeless lineaments of a deity into necessary and contractual being.

But there are other, profounder occasions of language with a spiritual resonance.


from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it as I had of manna or of ambrosia, but no further. How unmeaning a sound was it at that time: what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances!

*  *  *  *

And at that time I often fell into these reveries upon taking opium; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I could overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of L-, at about the same distance, that I have sate from sunset to sunrise, motionless, and without wishing to move….

The town of L- represented the earth, with its sorrows and its graves left behind, yet not out of sight, nor wholly forgotten. The ocean, in everlasting but gentle agitation, and brooded over by a dove-like calm, might not unfitly typify the mind and the mood which then swayed it. For it seemed to me as if then first I stood at a distance and aloof from the uproar of life; as if the tumult, the fever, and the strife were suspended; a respite granted from the secret burthens of the heart; a sabbath of repose; a resting from human labours. Here were the hopes which blossom in the paths of life reconciled with the peace which is in the grave; motions of the intellect as unwearied as the heavens, yet for all anxieties a halcyon calm; a tranquillity that seemed no product of inertia, but as if resulting from mighty and equal antagonisms; infinite activities, infinite repose.

*  *  *  *

Oh, just, subtle, mighty opium!….

–thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles–beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos, and “from the anarchy of dreaming sleep” callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties and the blessed household countenances cleansed from the “dishonours of the grave.” Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!


De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey (1785 – 1859)



Requiem for a Friend

Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

I have my dead and I have let them go and was amazed to see them so contented, so at home in being dead, so cheerful, so unlike their reputation. Only you return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock against something, so that the sound reveals your presence. Oh don’t take from me what I am slowly learning. I’m sure you have gone astray if you are moved to homesickness for anything in this dimension. We transform these Things; they aren’t real, they are only the reflections upon the polished surface of our being.

I thought you were much further on. It troubles me that you should stray back, you, who have achieved more transformation than any other woman.That we were frightened when you died…no; rather: that your stern death broke in upon us, darkly, wrenching the till-then from the ever-since — this concerns us: setting it all in order is the task we have continually before us. But that you, too, were frightened, and even now pulse with your fear, where fear can have no meaning; that you have lost even the smallest fragment of your eternity, Paula, and have entered here, where nothing yet exists; that out there, bewildered for the first time, inattentive, you didn’t grasp the splendor of the infinite forces, as on earth you grasped each Thing; that, from the realm which had already received you, the gravity of some old discontent had dragged you back to measurable time. This often startles me out of dreamless sleep at night, like a thief climbing in my window.

If I could say it is only out of kindness, out of your great abundance, that you have come, because you are so secure, so self-contained, that you can wander anywhere, like a child, not frightened of any harm that might await you… But no: you’re pleading. This penetrates me, to my very bones, and cuts at me like a saw. The bitterest rebuke your ghost could bring me, could scream to me, at night, when I withdraw into my lungs, into my intestines, into the last barechamber of my heart, — such bitterness would not chill me half so much as this mute pleading. What is it that you want ?

Tell me, must I travel ? Did you leave some Thing behind, some place, that cannot bear your absence ? Must I set out for a country you never saw, although it was as vividly near to you as your own senses were ? I will sail its rivers, search its valleys, inquire about its oldest customs; I will stand for hours, talking with with women in their doorways and watching, while they call their children home. will see the way they wrap the land around them in their ancient work in field and meadow; will ask to be led before their king; will bribe the priests to take me to their temple, before the most powerful of the statues in their keeping, and to leave me there, shutting the gates behind them. And only then, when I have learned enough, I will go to watch the animals, and let something of their composure slowly glide into my limbs; will see my own existence deep in their eyes, which hold me for awhile and let me go, serenely, without judgment.

I will have the gardeners come to me and recite many flowers, and in their small melodious names I will bring back some remnant of the hundred fragrances. And fruits: I will buy fruits, and in their sweetness that country’s earth and sky will live, again. For that is what you understood: ripe fruits. You set them before the canvas, in white bowls, and weighed out each one’s heaviness with your colors. Women too, you saw, were fruits; and children, molded from inside, into the shapes of their existence. And at last you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped out of your clothes and brought your naked body before the mirror, you let yourself inside down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense, and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is. So free of curiosity your gaze had become, so unpossessive, of such true poverty, it had no desire even for your yourself; it wanted nothing: holy.

And that is how I have cherished you — deep inside the mirror, where you put yourself, far away from all the world. Why have you come like this and so denied yourself ? Why do you want to make me think that in the amber beads of your self-portrait, there was still a heaviness that can’t exist in the serene heaven of paintings ? Why do you show me an evil omen in the way you stand ? What makes you read the contours of your body like the lines engraved inside a palm, so I cannot see them now except as fate ? Come into the candlelight. I’m not afraid to look the dead in the face. When they return, they have a right, as much as other things do, to pause and refresh themselves within our vision. Come; and we will be silent for a while. Look at the rose on the corner of my desk: isn’t the light around it just as timid as the light on you ? It too should not be here, it should have bloomed or faded in the garden, outside, never involved with me. But now it lives on in its small porcelain vase: what meaning does it find in my awareness ? Don’t be frightened if I understand it now; it’s rising in me, ah, I’m trying to grasp it, must grasp it, even if I die of it. Must grasp that you are here. As a blind man grasps an object, I feel your fate, although I cannot name it. Let us lament together that someone pulled you out of your mirror’s depths.

Can you still cry ? No: I see you can’t. You turned your tears’ strength and pressure into your ripe gaze, and were transforming every fluid inside you into a strong reality, which would rise and circulate, in equilibrium, blindly. Then, for the last time, chance came in and tore you back, from the last step forward on your path, into a world where bodies have their will. Not all at once: tore just a shred at first; but when around this shred, day after day, the objective world expanded, swelled, grew heavy — you needed your whole self; and so you went and broke yourself, out of its grip, in pieces, painfully, because your need was great. Then, from the night-warm soilbed of your heart you dug the seeds, still green, from which your death would sprout: your own, your perfect death, the one that was your whole life’s perfect consummation. And swallowed down the kernels of your death, like all the other ones, swallowed them, and were startled to find an aftertaste of sweetness you hadn’t planned on, a sweetness on your lips, you who inside your senses were so sweet already.

Ah, let us lament. Do you know how hesitantly, how reluctantly your blood, when you called it back, returned from its greater circulation ? How confused it was to take up once again the body’s narrow circulation; how, full of mistrust and astonishment, it came flowing into the placenta and was suddenly exhausted by the long journey home. You drove it on, you pushed it forward, you dragged it up to the hearth, as one would drag a terrified animal to the sacrificial altar; and wanted it, after all that, to be happy. Finally, you forced it: it was happy, it surrendered. And you thought, because you had grown used to other measures, that this would be for just a little while. But now you were in time, and time is long. And times goes on, and time grows large, and time is like a relapse after a long illness.

How short your life seems, if you now compare it with those empty hours you passed in silence, bending the abundant strengths of your abundant future out of their course, into the new child-seed that once again was fate. A painful task: a task beyond all strength. But you performed it day after day, you dragged yourself in front of it; you pulled the lovely weft out of the loom and wove your threads into a different pattern. And still had courage enough for celebration.When it was done, you wished to be rewarded, like children when they have swallowed down the draught of bittersweet tea that perhaps will make them well. So you chose your own reward, being still so far removed from people, even then, that no one could have imagined what reward would please you. But you yourself knew. You sat up in your child bed and in front of you was a mirror, which gave back everything. And this everything was you, and right in front; inside was mere deception, the sweet deception of every woman who smiles as she puts her jewelry on and combs her hair.

And so you died as women used to die, at home, in your own warm bedroom, the old-fashioned death of women in labor, who try to close themselves again but can’t, because that ancient darkness which they have also given birth to returns for them, thrusts its way in, and enters. Once ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent. Where can we find such customs now ? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned. That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted. Can you hear me ? I would like to fling my voice out like a cloth over the fragments of your death, and keep pulling at it until it is torn to pieces, and all my words would have to walk around shivering, in the tatters of that voice; if lament were enough.

But now I must accuse: not the man who withdrew you from yourself (I cannot find him; he looks like everyone), but in this one man, I accuse: all men. When somewhere, from deep within me, there arises the vivid sense of having been a child, the purity and essence of that childhood where I once lived: then I don’t want to know it. I want to form an angel from that sense and hurl him upward, into the front row of angels who scream out, reminding God.

For this suffering has lasted far too long; none of us can bear it; it is too heavy — this tangled suffering of spurious love which, building on convention like a habit, calls itself just, and fattens on injustice. Show me a man with a right to his possession. Who can posses what cannot hold its own self, but only, now and then, will blissfully catch itself, then quickly throw itself away, like a child playing with a ball. As little as a captain can hold the carved Nike facing outward from his ship’s prow when the lightness of her godhead suddenly lifts her up, into the bright sea-wind: so little can one of us call back the woman who, now no longer seeing us, walks on along the narrow strip of her existence as though by miracle, in perfect safety — unless, that is, he wishes to do wrong. For this is wrong, if anything is wrong: not to enlarge the freedom of a love with all the inner freedom one can summon. We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.

Are you still here ? Are you standing in some corner ? You knew so much of all this, you were able to do so much; you passed through life so open to all things, like an early morning. I know: women suffer; for love means being alone; and artists in their work sometimes intuit that they must keep transforming, where they love. You began both; both exist in that which any fame takes from you and disfigures. Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly, as one would lower a brightly colored flag on the gray morning after a holiday. You had just one desire: a year’s long work — which was never finished; was somehow never finished. If you are still here with me, if in this darkness there is still some place where your spirit resonates on the shallow sound waves stirred up by my voice: hear me: help me. We can so easily slip back from what we have struggled to attain, abruptly, into a life we never wanted; can find that we are trapped, as in a dream, and die there, without ever waking up. This can occur. Anyone who has lifted his blood into a years-long work may find that he can’t sustain it, the force of gravity is irresistible, and it falls back, worthless. For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work. Help me, in saying it, to understand it.

Do not return. If you can bear to, stay dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks. But help me, if you can without distraction, as what is farthest sometimes helps: in me.



Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926)


The other, deeper and higher texts – De Quincey’s opium-addled memoir, Rilke’s dark-ecstatic poems – complement an aspect of being farther flung and aesthetically richer than any ancient religious writing. After all, the cosmos is too physically excessive and being is too metaphysically vast to be mere artifacts of a godly forgone conclusion. What is ordained and bathetic is akin to stasis, which makes a sensitive consciousness recoil and retard.

The strangeness of being implicitly points toward an unanswerable question of ever-supple textures, of ever-elusive contours. And as the poet Joseph Brodsky reminds us: aesthetics precedes ethics. A spiritual structure requiring belief and morality over wonder and beauty is a form of being that is insufficiently uncanny, that exudes a forced perspective. It wants to box in reality, impose order and narrative and scruple, mark strident time, leave no loose ends. What is lacking in the liquid qualities of dream and poem is instantly stale, claustrophobic, and artificial.

The atmospheres of dreams and the trances of poems are subtler modes of spirit. They lead to textual soundings of richer timbre than the conventional language of religious orientation. The conventional leaves us spiritually thirsty. The light is too harsh there, not enough shadows. Religious texts lack a burnished surrealism and a mourning sublimation. Certain opium dreams and certain German poems aren’t lacking. They provide medicine for cultural anemia and sustenance for the imagination. Both De Quincey and Rilke give us language luxuriating in the shadows and in the two most spiritual conditions of all: haunted memory, equivocal presence.


from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

….I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever reascend. Nor did I, by waking, feel that I HAD reascended. This I do not dwell upon; because the state of gloom which attended these gorgeous spectacles, amounting at last to utter darkness, as of some suicidal despondency, cannot be approached by words.

….Of this at least I feel assured, that there is no such thing as FORGETTING possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever, just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas in fact we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil, and that they are waiting to be revealed when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.

*  *  *  *

To my architecture succeeded dreams of lakes and silvery expanses of water: these haunted me so much that I feared (though possibly it will appear ludicrous to a medical man) that some dropsical state or tendency of the brain might thus be making itself (to use a metaphysical word) OBJECTIVE; and the sentient organ PROJECT itself as its own object….

The waters now changed their character–from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans….Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting….Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens–faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.


A Walk

Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.


The ambiguous and the labyrinthine, whether stimulated by a phantasmal analgesic or an elevated poetic mood, allow an opening onto the ever-weird Mysterium. Spiritual buoyancy is about written gesture toward the Unsayable lurking within a beautiful nightmare or a visionary poetic melancholy. Spirit lives and breathes in the half-forgotten, spectral halls of consciousness.



Blossoms in the Night by Paul Klee, 1930


Posted by Tim Buck


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