The First Christian: The Magdalene Sequence from Rilke’s “New Poems”

July 6, 2020

... Those — you envy them, almost — deserted lovers,
whom you found so much more loving than the satisfied.
— The First Duino Elegy

I: Visions of Christ and Visions of Mary

In 1898, in his early twenties and rebelling against the Catholic pieties of a difficult mother, Rilke completed a volume of poems entitled Visions of Christ. The sequence sharply contrasts with the delicacy of much of his early work. In it, he has Jesus coming down from the Cross to roam the earth as the Wandering Jew, decrying Christianity as a fraud. Among other sacrileges, a nun is seduced by her worldly lesbian sister and Christ falls sexual prey to a tavern temptress. Apart from serving as a conversation-starter with Lou Andreas-Salomé, the then 35-year-old married lover who weaned him from his prolonged adolescence, nothing much became of the poems. They remained unpublished in his lifetime and didn’t see print until the late 1950s — perhaps because of lines such as these, from “Night,” where Jesus sums up his post-coital mood:

We are the eternal hereditary curse of this world:
I, the eternal delusion — you the eternal whore.

At the other end of the impiety/piety spectrum is Rilke’s 15-poem cycle The Life of Mary (Das Marienleben), which was completed around 1913. It was a commercial success, with some 60,000 copies sold by 1922.

Given the book’s appearance after the first of the Duino Elegies and the lack of Christian solace in that sequence or elsewhere in later Rilke, one does wonder why the theme still attracted him. But believers and non-believers alike seem to find their separate ways to relate to The Life of Mary. One German critic, Hans Egon Holthusen, characterized the poems as “sublime parodies of the figures of Christian salvation.” The cycle, like Renaissance religious art, can be enjoyed as much for the presentation as the parable.

II: An Iconoclastic Pieta

Midway between the early Visions of Christ and The Life of Mary stands the naturalist sensibility of the New Poems of 1907 and 1908. Although both volumes contain many mythological and religious subjects, the New Poems are marked by a modern sensibility arguably a half-generation ahead of English-language modernism. Influenced by Auguste Rodin, Rilke wanted to make the lyric poem a tangible “thing” akin to a painting or sculpture, in which the poet’s persona is evident only in the brushstroke or chisel mark.

Around 1894, Rodin created a plaster-on-wood sculpture of a crucified figure embraced from below by a naked woman. One of only two marble versions, dating back to 1905, is now in The Getty Museum. The Getty’s notes state:

In this three-and-a-half foot marble sculpture, a dying man nailed to rock is mourned by a naked woman kneeling in front of him. Auguste Rodin titled this piece Christ and Mary Magdalene, but he also called it Prometheus and the Oceanid and The Genius and Pity, opening up the composition to multiple biblical, mythical, and secular associations. These themes, mixing the sacred and the profane, relate to Rodin’s conception of the creative life, which in his view inevitably involved suffering and martyrdom.

Rilke, Rodin’s secretary at the time, noted “the contrast between the two bodies, imposed by the marble, [which] immediately produces an impression of the boundless sadness emanating from this subject.” The piece also inspired a piece in New Poems (1907), entitled “Pieta.” Instead of the traditional scene of the Blessed Mother cradling her divine Son’s corpse, this poem speaks in the voice of Mary Magdalene mourning Jesus’s body and bemoaning the sexual relationship that should have been but wasn’t.

Unlike the tavern-temptress in the juvenilia, “Night,” who cynically offers to make Christ feel like a real king by exchanging his crown of thorns for one of fading roses, the Magdalene of “Pieta” is devotedly sincere in her feelings for a failed human Jesus. Those feelings are raw, powerful, and no less sexual for that sincerity:

Now you’re exhausted, your slack lips
have no use for my sad mouth. Ah Jesus,
Jesus, when was our appointed hour?
Now both our dreams are wreckage.

“Pieta” is preceded in New Poems (1907) by “The Garden of Olives,” where the speaker is Jesus in Gethsemane, confronting his own collapse of faith in God’s existence and preparing to meet death “blind” and abandoned. The “messiah” who admonished his disciples to forsake their parents and families to follow him finds:

The self-forsaken are altogether
forsaken. Left by their fathers to
die, spurned by their mothers’ womb.

Neither poem posits any spiritual solace or belief. But, similar to Rodin’s sculpture, they set their worldly narrative in the context of venerable sacred tradition. And in contrast to Rilke’s youthful Visions of Christ, the human figures of Christ and Magdalene here are presented with deep sympathy.

III. A 1908 Relook

The 1908 volume of New Poems includes a number of revisits of the preceding year’s book. In it, “The Garden of Olives” is echoed by “Crucifixion” — a depiction of bureaucratic brutality. The victims, the execution squad, and the wailing “Mary” are all participants in a squalid workaday tragedy that’s somehow redeemed, not by religion, but by its sheer unblinking humanity.

“The Risen” is the 1908 continuation of 1907’s “Pieta.” It draws on John 20, where Mary Magdalene, visiting the tomb, is confronted by the risen Christ — who in the Gospel rejects her touch. Rilke’s scene takes place not in the garden but in the inner crypt, and the poem can be read to infer that it is only Magdalene, not Christ, who has risen, borne spiritually aloft by the “enormous storm” of her ordeal.

The fertility of thwarted love is a recurring theme in Rilke. And certainly his portrayal of Magdalene reflects that broader leitmotif. But in the John Gospel, Magdalene is also the first to be entrusted with the news of the Resurrection — the nascent faith’s core mystery. And thus she might be characterized as the first Christian. Read in that context, Magdalene becomes, in these “thing poems” (Dinggedichte), simultaneously an object sculpted from natural earth and a numinous sacramental touchstone.

My thanks to Paul Vangelisti and Silvia Kofler for their critical input on translating these poems.


The Garden of Olives

He arose and went out under the grey
foliage into the bleak abandoned olive
grove and rested his dusty forehead in his
hot dusty hands. After all of it: This.

Just like this, it’s over. I’m departing
utterly blind. And how can You still
ask me to proclaim you exist, when
I no longer find you anywhere?

You’re nowhere now. No, not in me.
Nor any of the others. Not even in this stone.
I can’t find you anymore. I’m alone.

Alone with the totality of human
grief that I wanted to ease with your name,
You who aren’t – what nameless shame …

Later, the stories said an angel came …

Why an angel? Ah, night came
and riffled idly in the leaves.
The disciples turned in their dreams.
Why an angel? Ah, only night came

A night that wasn’t special, no
different than a hundred others,
where dogs sleep and stones lie
in a night as sad as any that awaits
just another dawn. Because

angels don’t answer such prayers
and nights don’t offer much help.
The self-forsaken are altogether
forsaken. Left by their fathers to
die, spurned by their mothers’ womb.




So it’s like this, Jesus, I see your feet again.
They were a sweet stripling’s feet then, when
I nervously undressed them to wash –
the way they stood confused in my hair
like a white deer caught in brambles.

So this is how I see your never carressed naked
limbs for the first time: On this Liebesnacht.
We never did lie down together.
Now I can only imagine and wonder.

But look how your hands are torn –
not, darling, by my love bites. Your
heart is pierced for anyone to enter.
The doorway should have been mine, alone.

Now you’re exhausted, your slack lips
have no use for my sad mouth. Ah Jesus,
Jesus, when was our appointed hour?
Now both our dreams are wreckage.




Inured as they were to the routine
of dragging riff-raff to the barren gallows
hill, the sturdy work crew hung around, now
and then flashing big grins at the three

they’d finished off. But the clumsy
execution so hastily accomplished
loomed over the men as if they too,
dangled like appendages in their leisure.

Until one (bloodstained as a hog butcher)
said: Captain, this one just screamed
something. And the captain, looking
from his horse: Which? Because it seemed

to him he’d also heard a call: Elijah.
All of them were happy to watch. And
to prolong his failure, they sponged
his rattling cough with vinegar.

Because they hoped there was still
some fun to come, maybe even Elijah.
Then some ways off, Mary screamed,
and the one in question howled and failed.



The Risen

He never, to the very end, refused
their love or denied her showy pride.
And she collapsed under the cross
in a gown of pain bejeweled with that
love’s most precious stones.

But then at the grave, when
she came in tears to anoint
him risen just for her, he
beatifically told her: No –

Only in their cave did she see
how, strengthened by his death,
he finally forbade her the comforting
oil’s anticipated touch to mold

from her the lover who no longer
bends to her beloved because
borne by enormous storms
she soars beyond his voice.



Illustration: Auguste Rodin, Christ and Mary Magdalene.


Art Beck is a poet, essayist, and translator with a number of university and small press journal credits, as well as volumes of both original poetry and translations from the late 1970s onward. His Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone — versions of the sixth-century CE North African Roman poet Luxorius, published by Otis Books — won the 2013 Northern California Book Award for translated poetry. Mea Roma, a 130-some poem “meditative sampling” of Martial’s epigrams was published by Shearsman Books in 2018. His Etudes, a Rilke Recital is forthcoming from Shanti Arts Publishing.