Winged Rook Delights in the Rain: Plath and Rilke on Everyday Miracles

In her 1960 poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” American-born Sylvia Plath relays the feeling that a miracle has alighted in the form of a black rook. The bird’s beauty takes her off guard in a preternatural way on an otherwise dreary day, and she momentarily feels a connection with the natural and the supernatural. Generations earlier, in 1924, Austro-German writer Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of the need to believe in this sort of miracle in his poem “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight.” Rilke implores the reader to be open to the celestial with a childlike heart and look for miracles in the ordinary patterns of life. Plath’s and Rilke’s poems both incorporate the theme of God communicating with human beings through commonplace objects and experiences. Plath apprises the reader of one particular chance encounter with the miraculous, while Rilke takes a more proactive approach to encountering, and even creating, miracles.The protagonist’s mood in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” is characterized by the rain. She walks through the day in a state of “total neutrality” while “Trekking stubborn through this season / Of fatigue.” She has grown tired and world-weary. She says she does “not expect miracle,” but then goes on to say “Any more.” The use of any more insinuates that there was a time when she fully expected miracles, a time, perhaps in her childhood, when she felt more in touch with God.In “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight,” the mood of the poem is hopeful. Rilke writes about how a child’s faith “carried you over many chasms early on.” He tells the reader to regain that childish wonder and “now raise the daringly imagined arch / holding up the astounding bridges.” The arch between humankind and God is not a solid structure built of the “backtalk / from the mute sky” that Plath desires in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” but, according to Rilke, something that is “daringly imagined.” To experience the miraculous, one must be open to recognizing and acknowledging the divine: “being carried along is not enough,” Rilke tells the reader.The black rook, an unexceptional and common bird, acts briefly as the bridge between the celestial and earthly for Plath. She describes watching the bird “Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain” and similar experiences in her life “As if a celestial burning took / Possession of the most obtuse objects.” Rilke, likewise, asserts that “Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing.” The protagonist in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” is able to appreciate the magic of the moment because she allows herself to believe that the experience is out of the ordinary. In “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight,” Rilke says that “To work with things is not hubris / when building the association beyond words.” He is saying that man needs to suspend humanly pride and be open to associations that stretch beyond the ordinary, beyond words.As an adult, Plath doesn’t look for “design” any more like she did in her youth, but lets “spotted leaves fall as they fall.” She is reluctant to try to draw vast significance from anything. Rilke, on the other hand, seeks design in the ordinary, and for him, “denser and denser the pattern becomes.” He works at building associations. Where Plath settles in for “The long wait for the angel, / For that rare, random descent,” Rilke goes in search of the miraculous. He beseeches man to bridge the abyss between heaven and earth with the lines “Take your well-disciplined strengths / and stretch them between two / opposing poles.” Rilke is not content to wait for God to initiate contact like Plath is but rather looks for the divine on his own. God must do all the work in “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” God “seizes” Plath’s senses and “haul[s] her eyelids up.” In “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight,” conversely, the author is laboring toward unity with God, and “miracles become miracles in the clear / achievement that is earned.”Plath feels a “brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality” and hopes that “with luck” she will be able to “Patch together a content[ment].” Even when faced with a miracle of sorts, her ingrained pessimism remains. This experience touches her, but she is reluctant to call it, and other such occurrences, miracles and instead believes they may be just “spasmodic / Tricks of radiance.” God is distant in Plath’s life. For Rilke, however, the spiritual and material realms coexist on earth. Rilke embraces “the winged energy of delight” in a childlike manner, and he finds solace in his spirituality. For Rilke, “inside human beings / is where God learns.” Rilke has an inherent optimism with the spiritual playing an integral role. Although Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight” address the link between the celestial and terrestrial realms through everyday miracles, the two writers put a different spin on the theme in their own lives. Plath does not linger on the thought of miracles. When Plath was thirty years old, she placed her head inside an oven and turned on the gas. She died while her children slept in the next room (Wagner-Martin). Unlike Plath, Rilke was a romantic and dreamer to the end. He died at the age of 53 from undiagnosed leukemia, but he told the friends that surrounded him at the end that he contracted an infection when a rose’s thorn pricked his finger (Liukkonon). Works CitedLiukkonon, Petri. “Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).” 2008. Pegasos. Web. 29 March, 2011.Plath, Sylvia. “Black Rook in Rainy Weather.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, Third Edition. Eds Carl Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981. 880-1. Print.Rilke, Rainer Maria, “Just as the Winged Energy of Delight.” Trans. Robert Bly. The Winged Energy of Delight. Ed. Robert Bly. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 177. Print.Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Two Views of Plath’s Life and Career.” 1995. Modern American Poetry. Web. 29 March, 2011.