Rilke, the German poet, whilst staying at Duino castle near Trieste on the Adriatic sea heard the first words of what he later called the Duino Elegies whilst walking on the cliffs . They are both lament & lyric. The first begins:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic

Orders? And even if one were to suddenly

take me to its heart, I would vanish into its

stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but

the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,

and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains

to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.

(Note: The translation is by Leishman in the 1930s; he translates Dasein by existence and resisted the temptation to replace existence by Being - as Rilke uses the common german Dasein for this - to bring out echos with Heiddeger; but this would be anachronistic).

Rilke is equating Beauty and terror; how can such an equation work? For Plato Beauty & the Good were identical; or at least different modes of each other. Is Rilke claiming that the Good is terrifying?

Its clear from Rilkes letters that his angels are not the ones known from Christian Angelology but Islamic which he had learnt from his studies of the Islamic civilisation of Al-Andalus; and in fact he echos the initiation of the Prophet Muhammed in the cave of Hira into prophecy - in the act of his composition and in the first lines of the elegy; the parallels with a hadith that Khadija (Muhammeds wife) narrates, and collected by Bukhari are striking:

Till suddenly the Truth descended upon him [Muhammed] while he was in the cave of Hira...The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.

A similar note is struck by Yeats, in his first political poem, Easter 1916 which marked the Easter Rebellion of Irish nationalism - which was put down within a week with many of its leaders executed:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

The event marks Ireland to a before and after; tt also marks the sacrifice of Christ; the two events linked poetically elevates the executions into crucifixion and martyrdom.

Possibly the aesthetic notion that can resolve these questions is the notion of the sublime. The sublime, as theorised by Edmund Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful where he states the Beautiful is what is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas the Sublime is what has the power to compel and destroy us; In Aristotelian causal terms - the formal and material cause of Beauty is Love of Harmony, and for that of the Sublime is Fear of the Infinite; similar arguments are sustained by Kant in Observations of the feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.

Thus it appears the distinction between Beauty and the Sublime is maintained.

How then can one say that 'beauty is terror' or that 'a terrible beauty is born'?

Are they oxymorons in the terms set and outlined by traditional or untraditional aesthetic theory?

1 Answer 1


It seems to me that the quote from Rilke is quite consonant with a Platonic understanding of Beauty. If we recall, Plato believed that our earthly existence is a pale imitation of a deeper Reality. In the quote Rilke is picturing a direct encounter with creatures more Real than he is, the Beautiful angels.

His terror stems from the conviction that his own lesser reality will melt away and vanish as as result of the encounter, as the shadow is destroyed by the light. His larger claim is that our perception of beauty is intimately tied together with the terror of an encounter with the Real, a terror tempered only by our understanding that the Beautiful has no intent to destroy us.

This conception of beauty is probably closer to the Kantian or the Aristotelian "Sublime" than the Kantian or the Aristotelian "Beauty" --it would seem that Rilke views Beauty only as a safer, less immediately dangerous variant of the Sublime.

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