The reader seeking a brief overview of Rilke’s life or a succinct evaluation of his work will be disappointed. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke is a ponderous book, but for the scholar or student of this acclaimed poet, well worth the reading. Ralph Freedman fleshes out his portrait of Rilke by a steady accretion of details, resulting in a remarkably dispassionate view of this complex man.
Freedman, professor emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is an obvious admirer of Rilke’s work. This book, a labor of love, was initiated by a 1980 Guggenheim Fellowship and took more than fifteen years to complete. The synthesis that Freedman employs is impressive, interweaving events of the poet’s life with excerpts from his letters, poetry, and prose.
Translating Rilke seems to be an industry in itself; there is no standard English version of his work. Freedman offers his own translation of the prose and adds a striking new verse translation by Helen Sword, “There stands death, a bluish residue/ in a teacup without a saucer.” The book contains a number of portraits by Rilke’s artist friends, as well as photographs of family, friends, and places he lived.
Rilke was a man of contradictions. He was largely anti-Semitic, yet he had Jewish friends and was attracted to Jewish women. He felt the need to travel, yet once at his destination he longed to return. He acquired friends and lovers when convenient and dropped them when he had no further use for them. He visited wealthy patrons and charmed their guests. Many were faithful to his needs, opened their homes to him, and gave him money, yet he demanded more.
Some details of his life are familiar. In a world where one’s nationality was determined by heritage, not by birthplace, he was a German, although born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, which in 1875 was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Christened René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke, he was dressed in girls’ clothing by his mother until he was ready to go to school. At ten, in accordance with his father’s wishes, he was sent to a military academy near Vienna, where he was thoroughly miserable. During this time he developed migraine headaches, unexplained fevers, and depression, all of which would recur throughout his life. A victim of mood swings, he may well have suffered from a form of bipolar disorder.
Rilke left military school under questionable circumstances, having made clear that military life was not for him. Financed by a well-to-do uncle (basically for the rest of his life), he made a pretense of studying but had really decided, encouraged by his mother, to become a poet. He was not particularly adept to start with, but he made connections in the literary world and shamelessly sought support for his work. His writing was sporadic, with long dry spells.
Rilke envisioned himself as a footloose poet, a wanderer who always had difficulty remaining in one place. “For staying is nowhere,” he wrote, expressing his fear of being trapped by love or commitment. Freedman attributes Rilke’s attitude in part to a statement made by his mentor, French sculptor Auguste Rodin: “One must work, only work.” Everything must be sacrificed for the sake of art.
Freedman believes that Rodin and the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy served as Rilke’s surrogate fathers. Tolstoy disappointed Rilke by largely ignoring him in favor of his companion, Lou Andreas-Salomé; Rodin alternately inspired and rejected him in a long and sometimes troubled relationship. Freedman also views Lou—fourteen years Rilke’s senior, married, and a former lover of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—and his patron Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis as surrogate mothers. It was Lou who convinced him to change his name from René to the German form, Rainer. Although most other biographers discount the story, Freedman also suggests that Lou became pregnant by Rilke in 1898, with a resultant abortion, although she later denied it. Together with her and her husband, Rilke visited Russia, a land that inspired much of his early writing, including the three-part Das Stundenbuch (1905; The Book of Hours, 1941). Rilke always insisted that Lou was the only person who understood him, and even after they had ceased being lovers, she remained his friend until his death.