I have never met you. How could I have? You died twenty-seven years before I was born. That is why I am at Duino Castle in northeast Italy on the border with Slovenia, hoping to sense your presence when you were a guest of Princess Marie of Thurn and Taxis between October 1911 and May 1912, when you began composing your magnificent Duino Elegies. Early this morning I got into my car at my apartment in Frauenfeld, Switzerland, and drove seven and a half hours east then southeast through Austria and followed the SS14 until I spied the castle, perched high on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. You, however, arrived by a chauffeured car arranged by the Princess and were greeted by the same view. Much more romantic an arrival than mine in my Skoda.
That is how I imagined a trip to Duino Castle two years earlier. The reality was slightly different. In January 2023, my daughter, Philippa, and I left Zürich in her larger Volkswagon Kuga at 5:00 am. Instead of driving through Austria, we took the route south through the Gotthard Tunnel, to the village of Duino-Aurisina, the site of the Castello di Duino. Duino is small, has about 1500 residents and is bilingual. Signs are in Italian and Slovene. We were lucky to find a parking place in the centre of the town next to the post office. We got out and looked around for the castle. The dramatic photographs I had seen, which were views from the Gulf of Trieste, seemed to depict a very large and grand yellow fortress perched on Karst cliffs leading steeply and perilously down to the water. But we could not see the castle. Instead, across from us was an arch formed of grey and white stones over a cobblestoned path. We approached it and were surprised to find that it was the entrance to the castle grounds. Philippa and I were the latest to arrive, following those much more illustrious: Franz Joseph I of Austria, Franz Liszt, Mark Twain, and Victor Hugo. We passed under the arch, and in my imagination, on the other side, it was January 1912, not 2023.
Did you, Rainer Rilke, walk this path, kicking pebbles ahead of you as I am doing? I am trying so hard to imagine you here and strain to hear the echo of your voice as you first conceived the First Elegy:
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich den aus der Engel Ordunungen?
Who, among the hosts of angels could hear me if I cried out?
This is the same path you walked, but your presence is obliterated. Is it too much to expect that the ghost of your voice might pierce the not-so-quiet conversations of the tourists with me on the path?
It was quiet when you came here, quiet while you wrote, quiet while you gathered inspiration; the stillness was only broken by the crashing of waves below the cliff. Still, you left the castle with the Elegies barely begun. What kept you from finishing them here? Your ten Elegies spawned on the Adriatic Coast, were finished finally in 1922, only after the guns of World War I, which shattered the peace of the old world, silenced your creative voice for a time.
What precipitated your crisis of creativity? Did you conflate the memories of your ill-fated stint in a military school in your youth with the cacophony of the guns and the chaos of world war? Did the resounding noise destroy any hope of regaining the peace-in-solitude you required to create? Other writers are stimulated and challenged when surrounded by noise. Those are they who write in coffee shops. You and I must seek another way. You, your castle; me, the dead of night, when even the squirrels in the rafters have ceased their commotion.
I had to laugh when I learned that Princess Marie nicknamed you “Doctor Serafico” – “Doctor Seraph” – not only because you were composing poems about angels, but because you could not stand the uproar made by the Turn and Taxis children. We are indeed kindred souls!
How did you conceive of these angels, denizens of a different dimension, who are yet so at home in ours that they easily breach the divide? Do they, from time to time, forget that they are dead and seek out the sites of their former mortal lives?
I pull myself back into the present and look at the long path to the castle entrance. It is lined with tall statues and looking between them, I can see down to the Adriatic Sea; an impossibly brilliant blue and, even in January, dotted with sailboats. The castle, compared with what I had imagined after seeing photographs, was petite; the walk narrow. I can see across the water to the ruins of the old castle and wonder what had happened there. Why was it allowed to collapse, while the new castle was kept more or less in repair? A castle built in the 10th century is not, in the grand scheme of passing time, much older than one built in the 12th. There is romance in that pile of stones left to decay. I gaze at it, trying to guess who the last person was to leave and why they never returned. I like that it had been left to deteriorate on its own terms, although that means that one day it will no longer have the shape of a castle and will be reduced to piles of potential building stones for modern developments.
It reminds me of a visit I made to Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, England, also built in the 10th century and partially destroyed during the English Civil War. It was also left a ruin, but not left to choose its own final demise. It was tended and beautified with gardens and lawns and will never be allowed to collapse. A Disneyesque version of a ruin: at any moment I expected to find that Rapunzel had scaled one of the remaining walls and was preparing to let down her hair and then the prowling tourists, forming a flash mob, would suddenly burst into a well-choreographed song and dance.
There are no flash mobs at Duino and sitting here amongst the statues, I do not feel in the least like singing. Instead, I am an on-looker. In Rilke’s Eighth Elegy, he writes that we are all onlookers “always looking into, never out of” and yet we are filled even though it is our lot to “live, and [always be] taking leave.” That insight is a comfort to me, a peripatetic young woman who was at home nowhere, yet desperately wished to be someplace where she would never have to say goodbye. Just like Rilke’s angels, who wander blindly through both their own heavenly sphere and our mortal sphere, never realizing where they have landed, I wander through the memories of what was and what might have been (sometimes forgetting which is which.) Now I realize that I, that all of us, are pushed by that wind which tears through both realms alike, taking us willy-nilly to places we have never dreamed of.
I wander to the terrace on the edge of the rock, now named after Rilke, where he wrote. His table is still there, cracked but evocative of the hours the author spent hunched over it writing and looking out to the sea.
Then Philippa and I spend some time in the courtyard, surrounded by stone-columned outdoor passages, with the old tower (which once served as a prison) to one side, and we wonder if any of the family is looking down at us through the small windows two storeys above. I keep closing one eye and then the other as I turn around, in an attempt to not see the tall crane in the middle of the yard. The castle is crumbling; the tower is now only partially passable. The elements and the damage caused by gunfire during World War II have taken their toll over the seven centuries the castle has existed. The family is doing all that is possible to keep it from succumbing to the same fate as the old castle. So far, it seems the family is just barely winning.
Finally, my daughter and I enter the castle proper. I am mesmerized by the red-carpeted spiral staircase the guide terms a “palladio staircase,” which resembles a snail. I run my hand along the handrail and wonder if my hand is wandering where Rilke’s once did. I climb the stairs with my characteristic two-step, taking twice as long as everyone else (and trying to ignore the loud sighs of those who are stuck behind me.) Rilke, a comparative youngster at 36, probably leapt up it, two steps at a time.
For those of us weaned on the castles of Ludwig II – Neuschwannstein and Hohenschwangau and Linderhof – in Bavaria, these rooms seem shabby and pedestrian. The rooms open for viewing are decorated primarily in red. I look in vain for the music room shown in guidebooks, decorated with too many instruments to count: cellos, violas, violins, even a couple of double-basses. However, I was able to admire the piano Liszt once played on and smiled at a curio cabinet full of snow globes, as if a call had been sent out to the many grandchildren to send their own tourist souvenirs to decorate one of the passages. As I walk through the rooms, I try to look at things not straight on, but obliquely, because in doing so, it often seems as if I can see what used to be. And, so, I try to look not ahead, but sideways, hoping to see Rilke’s shadow passing through the rooms, parallel with me in place, if not in time. And occasionally it seems that I can see, as it were, around a corner, peering into Rilke’s world. He and his angels are all there, looking back at me, and I feel the power of existing for a brief moment in two worlds: my own and his.