It is, honestly, daunting approaching a book as timeless, and personal, and profound as "Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God". Written without the initial intention for publication, inspired by Rilke's experience of Italian Renaissance religious art in Tuscany, and his intimate relationship with Lou Andreas-Salome (she had called Rilke "the first true reality" in her life), there is a meditative melancholy to Rilke's verses that make them almost gritty, in a way, alternately praising his inner darkness ("I love the dark hours of my being"), and finding tranquility in God the neighbor, God the lover and God the embodiment of Nature, saying in a particularly haunting section, "Even when we don't desire it, God is ripening".
Structurally, the "Book of Hours" is divided up into three sections: "The Book of a Monastic Life", "The Book of Pilgrimage" and "The Book of Poverty and Death". "The Book of a Monastic Life" is the longest, describing a relationship with a deity at once personally close and beyond one's grasp - in one poem titled "Voice of a younger brother", Rilke writes: "All my cells/are open, and all/so thirsty. I ache and swell/in a hundred places, but mostly/in the middle of my heart." "The Book of Pilgrimage" continues along many of these themes, but pulls God into the definitions of a human relationship that is beyond human, saying, "I am the father; but the son is more./He is all the father was, and what the father was not/grows great in him. He is the future/and the return. He is the womb, he is the sea..."
The last section, "The Book of Poverty and Death" uses the metaphors of God in Nature as subtle a critique of cities, and humanity, and the poverty and suffering, man-made, that happens in them. He refers to, "The tightening fear/of the swollen cities/in which I suffocate...", and speaks of "great cities" that "are lost and rotting". He writes, "Beyond them waits and breathes your earth,/but where they are it cannot reach them."
It is this final book that brings this work, over a hundred years old, into the modern world with an uncomfortable clarity, decrying self-interest and the culture it creates, and the people who serve it, and its commercial excess: "Money keeps growing, takes all their strength,/and empties them like a scouring wind,/while they wait for wine and poisonous passions/to spur them to fruitless occupations."
(Yes, I felt uncomfortable reading that, and typing it out. Lack of comfort is a good thing, especially in poetry).
There is little in the way of a Happy End in this book, which is hardly unexpected. In the final verse, Rilke thanks the "deep power/that works in me ever more lightly...like a holy face, held in my dark hands." If, however, you are like me, and you like happy endings, Rilke does oblige lesser humans like us with an optimistic note, in the last part of the third poem from the end, and it is lovely, and searing, and all the more real because of the harsh reality surrounding it. When I read this book, I go back to this verse, and end it, here, as I will end my review, here, with the full expression of Rilke's beauty, and optimism:
"The most inward and loving of all,
he came forth like a new beginning,
the brown-robed brother of your nightingales,
with his wonder and goodwill
and delight in Earth..."