Rainer Maria Rilke Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Rilke is generally considered the greatest German poet since Goethe, and his fame is by no means limited to his own country.

Early Life

Rainer Maria Rilke was born on December 4, 1875, as a member of the German-speaking minority in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His early life reads like a Freudian case history. His father, Josef Rilke, had been frustrated in a military career and had become a minor official on the railroad. His mother was temperamental, socially pretentious, and superficially Catholic. They separated in 1884. It is natural to associate Rilke’s troubled relations with his mother with his later troubled relations with other women; though he had innumerable affairs and some warm friendships, he could never settle down to a domestic relationship.

After his parents’ separation, Rilke, who for his first five years had been treated almost as a girl, was sent to military schools. He later represented his life there as miserable, though his grades were good and he was encouraged to read his poems in class. After he left military school at sixteen, he spent a year in a trade school at Linz; he studied privately for his abitur, or Gymnasium diploma; and he took university courses in Prague (1896) and Munich (1897), particularly in art history. Already he was trying to establish himself as a man of letters; although neither Rilke nor his critics thought much of the work he did in the 1890’s, the mere quantity of it is impressive: Not only is there a mass of poetry but also there is some fiction and ten dramatic works, a few of which were actually produced.

Before Rilke moved to Paris and began to write works of more maturity and individuality, he underwent two maturing experiences. One was his affair with Lou Andreas-Salomé, the Russian-born wife of a Berlin professor and the first biographer of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had proposed to her. She introduced Rilke to the Russian language and culture and took him with her on two visits to Russia, where he met Leo Tolstoy. Even after the affair ended, Lou remained Rilke’s friend and confidante. The second experience was Rilke’s sojourn in the artist’s colony of Worpswede near Bremen. There he continued his interest in art, and there he met and married a young sculptor, Clara Westhoff. They set up housekeeping and she bore him a daughter, but they found themselves unsuited to domestic life, and, depositing the baby with Clara’s parents, they took off for Paris. They never divorced but never lived together again, though they remained on good terms.

Life’s Work

Paris was Rilke’s favored residence until World War I, even though its size and impersonality and the depressing scenes of poverty he witnessed at first repelled him. Much of his time, however, was spent in travel: to Scandinavia, to Berlin and Munich, to Vienna and Trieste, to Rome and Venice and Capri, to Spain and North Africa. Some of this restlessness was not a matter of either culture or curiosity. Rilke was beginning to have an income from royalties and from lectures and readings, but to the end of his life he was not really easy in the matter of money. His personal charm and aristocratic manners made him friends at the highest levels of society. It was convenient for him to be a guest in people’s houses for long periods or to have the loan of a vacant apartment—or castle. A case in point is Duino, the castle of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis near Trieste, where he began the famous elegies.

The period in Paris was one of the most productive of Rilke’s life. When he came to Paris he had a commission to do a monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who had been Clara’s teacher. Rodin cooperated on the project, and the two became quite intimate; for a time, Rilke served as Rodin’s secretary, handling much of his burdensome correspondence. Then came a temporary estrangement, but not before Rilke had received from the master a confirmation of his conception of the artist as one who sees creatively, as well as a conception of art as a craft at which the artist must work steadily and systematically. The monograph was well received, as was an account of the artists at Worpswede. At this period, too, Rilke was an admirer and partisan of Paul Cézanne.

The period also produced poems that were no longer immature and derivative. In Das Stundenbuch (1905; The Book of Hours, 1941), through the persona of a Russian monk, Rilke explores different conceptions of art and of God and ends by making God a creation of the artist. Das Buch der Bilder (1902; the book of images) is of a more miscellaneous character, though it also contains some of Rilke’s most striking lyrics; one critic would see it as bound together by the recurring theme of seeing, of perception. The poems of Neue Gedichte (1907, 1908; New Poems, 1964) in keeping...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)

Rainer Maria Rilke Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The life of René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke can be described in its entirety as a productive, if not always successful, search for fulfillment in reaction to an inhibiting, psychologically destructive childhood. Critical elements of Rilke’s early experience contributed to his development as a hypersensitive individual unsuited to the demands of practical existence. They include the rapid failure of his parents’ marriage; the rape of his personality by a mother who dressed him in feminine clothing and reared him for a time as a replacement for a lost daughter; a partial education in military academies and a school of commerce to which he could never adapt; and a brief exposure to the university world in Prague. The young Rilke responded to a continuing feeling of being out of place by trying diligently to become part of active cultural and artistic circles. While still a student, he published his first lyric anthology, composed Naturalistic plays, contributed literary reviews to newspapers and journals, and founded his own periodical. He also participated in cultural organizations, lecture presentations, readings of drama and poetry, and similar activities.

When Rilke left the university in 1896, he went to Munich. An incurable restlessness dictated his lifestyle from that time forward. His serious evolution as a writer began under the influence of significant figures whom he encountered in Munich; friendships with Jacob Wassermann and Wilhelm von Scholz were especially productive. Wassermann acquainted him with the writings of Jens Peter Jacobsen, which Rilke soon learned to treasure. Still more important was the...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Rainer Maria Rilke Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Rainer Maria Rilke (RIHL-kuh) was born on December 4, 1875, in Prague, Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in the Czech Republic), as René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke. His father, Josef Rilke, aspired to a military career, but circumstances forced him into an early retirement. His mother, Sophia Entz, grew up in an aristocratic atmosphere; her father had been a merchant and an imperial councillor. Dissatisfied with her husband’s humble social status, she attempted to create the illusion of affluence in the family.

Due in part to his mother’s pretentious and hypocritical display of Catholicism, Rilke later abandoned Christianity entirely. His hostile attitude toward established religion, combined with a genuine and profound spiritual tendency in his nature, was to lead Rilke to search for a divinity within and for a means to express it. This search for “God” contributed to some of the central images and themes in his writing.

Rilke’s personal and artistic development was seriously affected by another element in his mother’s personality. His mother, prior to giving birth to Rilke, had lost a female child; he then became the girl whom she never had. For his first five years, Rilke was kept in long curls and dresses and was given dolls with which to play.

Although their marriage was a troubled one almost from the start, Rilke’s parents separated in 1884, and in 1886 Rilke was sent to a military school, where he remained for five years. It was there that he began to write, as much from loneliness and desperation as from a desire to explore and represent the world around him. Rilke left military school in 1891, at the age of sixteen, ostensibly for health reasons. The next year, his parents sent him to trade school in Linz to prepare for a business career. In 1895, Rilke entered the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague as a philosophy major. Within six months, he had switched to law, and by September, 1896, he had left Prague for Munich to study art history.

While living in Prague, Rilke tried to establish himself as a writer. His style, however, was sentimental and imitative. Passionately interested in the theater, he wrote several plays heavily influenced by naturalism; two of them were performed at the German Volkstheater in Prague. Between 1894 and 1896, he also published three volumes of poetry.

In October of 1896, Rilke moved to Munich. There, he became acquainted with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a critic, novelist, and writer of philosophical essays. Married and fourteen years Rilke’s senior, she was to become one of the most influential people in his life. She would become his mistress, companion, teacher, and...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)

Rainer Maria Rilke Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

As a lyric poet, Rainer Maria Rilke focuses on the microcosm of human consciousness. The past, a heightened state of awareness and inwardness, and the subtle play of intellectual distinctions are important aspects of his poetry. The extraordinary intensity of Rilke’s sensory and emotional perception combines with a unique and intuitive way of seeing things.

The specifically modern dimension of Rilke’s poetry lies in its view of the reality of humanity as something outside and apart from any conception of fate, as something beyond any given situation; what Rilke’s poetry expresses first and foremost is pure, unadulterated Being, feeling made tangible.

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Rainer Maria Rilke Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Rainer Maria Rilke (RIHL-kuh) is the most important and influential German poet of the twentieth century; along with the Anglo-Irish William Butler Yeats and the French Paul Valéry, he caused a transformation of lyric poetry, opening up new directions and potentialities. He was born (baptized René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke) on December 4, 1875, in Prague, then within the dominion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest administrative unit in Europe. The Rilke family had long been established as fairly prosperous land agents near Prague and claimed descent from a long line of Carinthian nobility. Rilke’s father had begun his adult life as a career military officer, but he was forced to resign his...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)