Farming the Footnotes
IMAGE: Ariel and Prospero by William Hamilton (1797)
I’ve been revisiting The Tempest again (and truly, is there a better play, ever? okay, maybe Superman: The Musical) and I’ve discovered that my reading of the text has become inseparably entwined with the Rainer Maria Rilke poem ‘Der Geist Ariel’, or ‘Ariel’, which he wrote after himself adoringly absorbing the play. So much so, in fact, that I have had to slip a copy of the poem into my edition.
I will confess immediately that I don’t speak German, and thus cannot read Rilke’s luminous work in its original, but I have found Stephen Mitchell’s translations to be rather striking. You can get a marvellous Selected edition (which includes the Duino Elegies and ‘Ariel’) from Vintage International (here). Likewise, as fans of the book will attest, Mitchell’s translation of Letters To A Young Poet captures the wonder and consolation that Rilke offers to any soul-starved (though frankly a little whiny) artist awaiting inspiration (here).
But back to The Tempest and the multi-layered, enriching experience of Rilke’s cross-pollination: ‘Der Geist Ariel’ is a wonderful short poem, The Tempest proving itself to be perfectly suited to Rilke’s sensibilities. Themes of the agony of longing; the tremulous bonds of love that quiver with desire and despair; ghostly images of absence and loss; Rilke explores them all, tracing the immaterial bonds that unite us all in a tidy summary of Ariel and Prospero’s relationship:
And half imperious, half almost ashamed,
you make excuses, say that you still need him
for this and that, and, ah, you must describe
how you helped him. Yet you feel, yourself,
that everything held back by his detention
is missing from the air.’
Come on. That’s good stuff.
For much of the poem the narrator speaks to Prospero as though in the midst of a dialogue, but at its conclusion Rilke projects himself into the eyes of Ariel, in a nicely embedded parenthesis, watching as Prospero surrenders his power, becomes merely a man again, and asks the audience for the indulgence of their applause. And what a magnificent moment! Shakespeare, through the character of Prospero, is dropping his authorial mask at the end of his ‘final’ play to ask his audience to bid him and his work a fond farewell, but Rilke’s manner of respecting this request is to instead slide into the text, putting on the mask of Prospero’s newly freed spirit to admire his once-master as a grateful participant in the fiction, swooning in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of Artistry. It’s lovely.
Ultimately, this exchange got me wondering about other examples of such artistic and authorial conversations, where one work directly responds to the stimuli of another masterpiece. Obviously there are the famous ones – Keats’ ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ and its description of Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, or for that matter, William Carlos Williams’ collection Pictures From Brueghel – but are there ever famously negative responses? Reactions against a work that in its revulsion creates art? ‘I Hate Madame Bovary And Here’s Why’, a haiku? Traditionally we think of the artist sitting in stunned bliss or giddy excitement, striving to scratch out their response to a work that has rocked them to their very core, but the artist can be notoriously petty. The genius even more so. (I’ve heard that that elephant who paints with his trunk is a complete bastard.)
I’m positive that there are numerous such examples of writers responding with rebukes rather than regard, but my enfeebled brain is struggling to think of one. And I guess that for now I am happy enough to swim through the warmer waters where everyone is struck with a dreamy wonder.
p.s. I don’t hate Madame Bovary. I think she’s funny.