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Featured Poem: As Once The Winged Energy Of Delight by Rainer Maria Rilke

Written by Rachael Norris, 20th April 2020

This week in our special series of poems to help us through testing times, Lisa Spurgin, The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, shares her thoughts on As Once The Winged Energy Of Delight by Rainer Maria Rilke

I imagine that quite a few of us have a poet, maybe more than one, who is our first port of call in times of trouble, when we need a confidence boost or a bolster to the spirits. Mine is Rainer Maria Rilke, ever since I came across some lines of his as a teenager and a loud chord struck within me upon reading them. This current time we find ourselves in is unlike anything the majority of us will have experienced before. No matter, I thought; surely Rilke, ever reliant, will have written something that will resonate, even in these strange and unprecedented circumstances.

I read a few of his poems in an hour of need, just before lockdown officially came into effect in the UK, and found myself returning to this one. I think it has a lot to do with the opening line, which is also the title of the poem:

As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood's dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.

Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.

To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions...For the god
wants to know himself in you.

Rainer Maria Rilke

‘Winged energy’ – I love that. It seems like an accelerated force, powered by something special. Wouldn’t we all like to have wings at the moment, to be able to fly for a while, safe and at our own distance, but travelling forward, taking in the endless space of sky? What’s more, I love that this energy is connected to ‘delight’. Usually I’d expect energy to be paired with something recognised as dynamic or more obviously purposeful, with a defined end goal; ambition, perhaps. Delight, and taking pleasure and enjoyment in things just for the sake of them, is all the more important right now, and it feels only right that it possesses an extra-special ability to lift us, propel us, and indeed that we don’t lose sight of this once things return to normal, as they inevitably will, at some point as yet unseen.

I was a bit troubled by ‘childhood’s dark abysses’ at first, but on re-reading I’m thinking of them as the gaps in our knowledge – an actual blankness - which are larger when we are younger and know less about the world. I think we’re all experiencing something like this at the moment, collectively; feeling our way through a situation none of us could have envisaged, and coping however we can, day by day or hour by hour. It feels good and comforting that we have ‘the great arch of unimagined bridges’ to help us cross these dark abysses, even if we’re building them as we go, placing down the pathways just steps after we have walked them.

‘Wonders happen if we can succeed in passing through the harshest danger;’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those lines are the ones that really speak to me at the moment. I have been limiting my news intake for the past few weeks and trying fervently to keep my scrolling to a minimum, but last week I did watch a documentary that was filmed during the course of one day within the UK, in homes and essential workplaces, showing people of all ages and circumstances. It was incredibly uplifting to watch and see ‘wonders’ of many kinds still happening, even with restriction – indeed, simply surviving seems all the more wondrous right now. We might not yet be through ‘the harshest danger’ but feeling people rallying, reaching out to one another and overcoming physical distance, being there for one another in spirit if not in person, gives me optimism that we will get towards even greater wonders in time to come.

I definitely feel that what we’re dealing with right now is ‘the indescribable relationship’, and we do work with it. We have to. In the fifth week of the new working-from-home routine I feel relatively settled. In some cases I’m doing things that I might not have thought about doing before, or perhaps meant to but always found other, more practical, things getting in the way. In other moments I feel myself floating away a little bit, wondering “is this really happening?” My ‘pattern’ does feel more intricate right now – I’m consciously making a timetable for myself during the week, doing things to keep myself actively distracted. Not just letting myself be ‘swept along’ by the worry and the uncertainty and the urge to hide under the covers, but maintain a sense of self, of knowing what I need to keep myself feeling good but also allowing myself to have moments to stop and feel, and let myself wonder and think about how, yes, this does feel really weird, even as I accept what’s going on.

I’m also really drawn to ‘practiced powers’. If someone were to ask me what my practiced powers were, I’d be inclined to panic and say “I don’t have any!” (perhaps I’d even say that panicking was one of them.) But we all do, and it’s in times of crisis that we’re more likely to take notice of them, consciously or not. Whether it’s being able to bake a really great cake, or reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets (check out our Sunday Reading Challenge, if that’s your thing), or to be a listening ear to a friend or loved one (that’s one of mine, for sure). It feels like the perfect time to keep practicing, and performing, and when we’re on the other side they’ll be stronger than ever, which is surely only a good thing.

Wishing you all well, and lots of delight with wings large enough to take you somewhere happy and peaceful for however long you need it.

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