Ring them bells so the world will know / That God is one BOB DYLAN Ring Them Bells
Part Two, Sonnet XXIX
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent Earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
RILKE The Sonnets To Orpheus (translated by Joanna Macy)
Variation on a Theme by Rilke
(The Book Of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
DENISE LEVERTOV Breathing The Water
Denise Levertov wrote several poems with the title Variation On A Theme By Rilke, and I thought it might be interesting to pair one of them with a Rilke poem (not the one from The Book Of Hours which directly influenced this Variation, but the last sonnet from The Sonnets To Orpheus.) As you can see, there are some striking correspondences.
The image of the bell is central to both poems, and each poem ends with a declarative I am or I can. Rilke's poem is set at night, Levertov's by day - which is rather neat, as the symbolic resonance of the bell itself unifies all polarities: the bell summons us to both contemplative prayer and interrogative reflection, to both mourning and celebration; and is therefore an audible marker of both joy and sorrow, life and death, day and night.
Rilke's sonnet contains the idea that suffering is an inevitable, indeed necessary part of life. We are all bells rocking this way and that, buffeted by life. And the bruising clapper of the bell strikes us painfully but resoundingly awake. There's also the idea that this transformative experience is not some random event we have to await passively, but that we can influence events ourselves by moving back and forth, by turning ourselves to wine, by saying to the silent earth: I flow. The wonderful, self-willed assertion of I am at the end of the poem affirms the meaning, importance and ultimate wholeness of our individual existence - despite the enigmatic silence of nature and the indifference of the rest of the world.
Levertov's own poem contains a similar idea - though her transformation of self seems to be more an awakening to a whole self that was already there: less self-willed, and more the result of the action of an outside agency, granted as if with / the flat of a sword.