The beast that never was …
After a weekend of animal encounters (raven, coyote, deer), for some reason I started thinking about the series of 16th century tapestries “The Lady and the Unicorn” – which are hung at the Musée Cluny in Paris. There are six tapestries, themed for the five senses, with the sixth titled “My One Desire.” I was lucky enough to see them a few years ago and spent quite a long time sitting in the dim, oval room where they were hung, studying them as the crowds came and went. They were fading, but splendid, complex and seemingly endless works of art. Since then the tapestries have been restored and I can only imagine how glorious they are now.
The poet Rilke loved the tapestries, and described them in his (strange but gorgeous) novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He also wrote poems about unicorns, including this one from The Sonnets to Orpheus which references the panel “Sight,” showing the young woman holding a mirror up to the unicorn.
To me it’s a poem about the power of the imagination.
Rainer Maria Rilke – Sonnets to Orpheus, Book II, IV
(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Oh this beast is the one that never was.
They didn’t know that; unconcerned, they had
loved its grace, its walk, and how it stood
looking at them calmly, with clear eyes.
It hadn’t been. But from their love, a pure
beast arose. They always left it room.
And in that heart-space, radiant and bare,
it raised its head and hardly needed to
exist. They fed it not with any grain,
but always just with the thought that it might be.
And this assurance gave the beast so much power,
it grew a horn upon its brow. One horn.
Afterward it approached a virgin, whitely—
and was, inside the mirror and in her.