Study Guide

Childhood

by Maria Rainer Rilke

Childhood Summary

Introduction

“Childhood” was first published in 1902 in a collection entitled Das Buch der Bilder. The work has been translated variously as “The Book of Images” or the “The Book of Pictures.” The Book of Images was published just before what is considered as one of his most renowned works, Das Stunden Buch, translated as “The Book of Hours.” The Book of Hours, first published in 1907, was followed quickly by another great collection entitled Neue Gedichte, translated simply as “New Poems.” Rilke experienced remarkable growth from The Book of Images through New Poems as the early works hinged more to sentimentality than poetic imagery. As expected from an intelligent, only child born into an unhappy marriage, Rilke’s “Childhood” explores loneliness. In the poem, Rilke expresses amazement and confusion about human existence. There are carefree, child-like elements coupled with deep, existential questions of concerning trust, solitude and endlessness. Many of Rilke’s works were inspired by his difficult childhood. He was frail and delicate, not at all prepared for the military school he was forced to attend. Thus, when he became an adult and pushed forward with his poetry and prose, it was not uncommon for Rilke to be affected by his tormented memories and sad, solitary childhood.

Childhood Summary

Stanza 1
Rilke’s “Childhood” begins with a young man’s longing for the end of the school day—a memory nearly every grown-up has at one point in his or her life. The boy is bored with “endless dreary things,” such as studies and teachers. Each moment in the classroom is one of anxious solitude, a bottomless yearning to leave studies and enter the world outside. Quickly, the tide changes when the boy is released from his deliberate academic prison. Outside the child is free, “fountains leap … and in the gardens all the world grows wide.” However, Rilke’s child sees himself unlike the other children. Even outside the constraints of the classroom, the child is “so unlike … the others.” The child is still draped with a sense of loneliness that the other children do not bear.

Stanza 2
Here the child is observing not only adults or possibly his own parents, but he is envisioning his future as he “look[s] far off into it all.” The world around him represents what his future holds – the other men, women and children, the dogs, and the houses – and that someday he will have something like all of it. Yet this vision does not leave him with a feeling of peace. The child sees a “soundless terror changing back and forth with trust.” From what may be a direct descendent from his parent's terrible marriage, Rilke’s child has a foresight into the unspoken balance that plays out between men and women in...

(The entire section is 517 words.)