"where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night . . ."
like you, i recall how my teacher in my german-language kindergarten would often quote this famous passage of herder’s, that dreary proto-champion of the teutonic volk:
Herder writes in his Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Samtliche Werke, ed. Suphan, vol. XIII, p. 355):
A breath of our mouth is the picture of the world, the type of our thoughts and feelings in the soul of another. Every human thing that man has ever thought, willed, done, and will do upon earth has depended on the movement of a bit of air; for we would all still be wanderers in the woods if this divine breath had not inspired us and hovered on our lips like a charm.
The breath by which those who risk more risk more does not only or primarily mean the hardly noticeable (because fleeting) measure of a difference; rather, it signifies directly the word and the essence of language. The ones who by a breath risk more risk it with language. They are the saying ones who are saying more. For this one bread by which they risk more is not just saying in general;rather, the one breath is an other breath, a saying other than what human saying usually is. The other breath no longer solicits for this or that objective thing; it is a breath for nothing. The saying of the singer says the integral entirety of worldly existence that grants its space invisibly in the world inner space of the heart. Song does not even pursue first what is to be said. Song is the belonging in the entirety of the pure attraction. To sing is drawn [gezogen] from the draft [Zag] of the wind of the unheard center of full Nature. Song is itself: "A wind."
So, then, the poem in its poetry does after all unambiguously say who they are who risk more than life itself does. They are the ones who "by a breath risk more." There is a point to the ellipsis that follows in the text of the poem after "by a breath risk more." It says what is silently withheld.
Those who risk more are the poets, but poets whose song turns our defenselessness into the open. Because they reverse the departure against the open and inwardly remember its unwholeness [Heil-loses] into the integral [heile] whole, these poets sing the integral in disintegration [im Unhezlen das Heile]. The remembering reversal that is made inward has already overtaken the turning away against the open. It is "ahead of all departuren” and surmounts, in the world inner space of the heart, everything objective. The reversing inward remembrance is the risk that is dared out of the essence of man in that he has language and is the one that says.
Modern man, however, is called the one who wills. The ones who risk more are the ones who will more, in that they will in another mode than the deliberative self-assertion of the objectification of the world. Their willing wills nothing of this nature. If will remains only self-assertion, they will nothing. They will nothing in this sense because they are more willing. They comply rather with the will which, as the risk itself, draws all the pure forces unto itself as the pure whole attraction of the open. The willing of those who risk more is the willingness of those who say more, who are resolute [ent-schlossen], no longer shut [verschlossen] in departure against the will by which being wills beings. The willing essence of those who risk more says more sayingly (in the words of the Ninth Elegy):
Earth, isn’t it this your will: invisibly
to rise within us? — Isn’t it your dream
to be invisible one day? — Earth! invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent mission?
Earth, dear one, I will.
In the invisibility of world inner space, as the unity of which the angel appears, the wholeness of worldly beings becomes evident. Only in the widest compass of the whole is the holy able to appear. Because they experience unwholeness as such, poets of the kind who risk more are underway on the track of the holy. Their song sanctifies over the land. Their song celebrates the unbrokenness of the globe of being.
The unwhole, as the unwhole, traces for us what is whole. What is whole beckons and calls to the holy. The holy binds the divine. The divine brings God closer.
Those who risk more experience defenselessness in unwholeness. They bring mortals the track of the fugitive gods in the darkness of the world’s night. Those who risk more, as singers of what is whole, are "poets in a desolate time."
The distinctive mark of these poets consists in the fact that for them the essence of poetry has become worth questioning, since they are poetically on the track of that which, for them, is to be said. On the track to what is whole, Rilke arrives at the poetical question: when may song be that sings essentially? This question does not stand at the beginning of the poetic path, but rather at the point where Rilke’s saying arrives at the poetic vocation of the poetry that answers to the coming world-era. This era is neither decay nor decline. As destiny it lies in being and lays claim to man.
Hölderlin is the forerunner of the poets in a desolate time. That is why no poet of this era can overtake him. The forerunner, however, does not go away into a future, rather he arrives from it in such a way that in the advent [Ankunf] of his words alone the future [Zukunf] presences. The more purely the advent takes place, the more essentially, the more essenced, it remains.
The more what is coming is secretly conserved in the foretelling, the purer the arrival. That is why it would be erroneous to say that Hölderlin’s time would come only when "everyone" understands his poetry. It will never come in such a deformed way. Its own desolation is what puts at the disposal of the era the forces by which, knowing not what it is doing, the era prevents Hölderlin’s poetry from becoming timely. The forerunner [Erganger] can as little be overtaken as he can pass away [verganglich ist], for his poetry remains as something that has been in an essential way [Ge-wesenes]. What essences [das Wesende] in the advent gathers itself back into destiny. What does not fall into the course of passing away [Zrgehen] overcomes at the start all that is transient [Verganglichkeit]. What has merely passed away is already, in advance of its passing away, without destiny. What has been in an essential way, by contrast, is the destining. In what we suppose is eternity, something merely transitory [Vergiingliches] has been concealed, put away into the void of a now without duration.
If Rilke is a "poet in a desolate time," then only his poetry will answer the question why he is a poet, what it is his song is underway to, where the poet belongs in the destiny of the world’s night. This destiny will decide the question of what within his poetry remains destining.