Rodin’s L’Adieu – Michigan Quarterly Review

Rodin’s L’Adieu

In December 1905, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a letter to Arthur Holitscher describing Auguste Rodin, “a wise and great man,” and Rilke’s encounters with the sculptor. Published below is an excerpt from Rilke’s letter on Rodin and a new, original poem by Dan Gerber, “Rodin’s L’Adieu.” The poem takes it name from one of Rodin’s sculptures, L’Adieu, an image of which also appears below.

Rodin's L'Adieu
By Dan Gerber

The title would have us believe
the fine sculpted head of the slender young

woman is being reclaimed by the marble 
from which she seems only just now emerging.  

Her hands, cupped before her mouth 
(as if to warm them with her breath) 

appear to be pulling the rough surface stone 
around her shoulders, a shawl against the cold

from which the old man is urging her existence, 
each brave hammer strike directing the 

chisel's sublime subtraction 
to a veiled beauty resisting his love.

And there my life is.  A little as Rodin’s secretary…learning slowly, learning this: to live, to have patience, to work and never to miss an inducement to joy.  For this wise and great man knows how to find joy, friend: a joy as nameless as one remembers from childhood, and yet full of to the brim with the deepest inducement, the smallest things come to him and open up to him; a chestnut that we find, a stone, a shell in the gravel everything speaks as if it had been in the wilderness and had meditated and fasted. And we have almost nothing to do but Listen; for work itself comes out of this listening; one must lift it out with both arms, for it is heavy.  My strength often fails, but Rodin lifts everything, lifts it out beyond himself and sets it down in space.  And that is a nameless example.  I believe in age, dear friend, To work and to grow old, this it is that life expects of us.  And then someday to be old and still not by any means to understand everything, no, but to begin, but to love, but to sense, but to link up with what is distant and inexpressible, even into the stars.  I say to myself; how good, how precious life must be, when I hear this old man so grand in his speaking of it, so torrential in his silence.

            Often indeed we do not know this, we who are in the difficult up over our knees, up to our chests, up to our chins.  But are we then happy in the easy, aren’t we almost embarrassed in the easy?  Our hearts lie deep, but if we are not pressed down into them, we never go all the way to the bottom.  That is the point.

            Bon courage, Rodin says to me sometimes, for no apparent reason, when we part in the evening, even when we have been talking of very good things; he knows how necessary that is everyday…

– Letter to Arthur Holitscher, December 13, 1905

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