Rilke’s earliest published poems, which appeared in the collections Leben und Lieder (life and songs), Larenopfer (offering to the household gods), Wegwarten (watch posts), and Traumgekrönt (dream-crowned), are marked by a naïve simplicity and a degree of sentimentality that are absent from his more mature writings. Under the influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen, he created particularly sensitive lyrics centered on nature, as well as penetrating psychological portraits of people. Among his favorite subjects were women and children. Even in these youthful creations, there is already a strong emphasis on visual imagery, although the artistic focus of attention is frequently not the object that is described, but rather the spiritual stirrings that occur within the poet because of what he sees.
Mir zur Feier
In Mir zur Feier (celebrating me), Rilke began to move away from the lyric forms and approaches of his student years, adopting in the transition techniques that he later perfected in his first broadly successful cycle, The Book of Hours. The poems of Mir zur Feier present in precise detail their creator’s innermost personal concerns, describing in tones of religious fervor his yearnings, prayers, and self-perceptions. Framed in language that is rich in texture yet soft in tone, the poems glorify things that cannot be comprehended through human volition. These verse productions represent a calculated justification of the poet’s art as a means of celebrating that which can be revealed in its essence and fullness in no other manner.
Das Buch der Bilder
Das Buch der Bilder (the book of pictures), a collection written at about the same time as The Book of Hours, is in some respects poetically stronger. Under the influence of Rodin, Rilke made the transition from a poetry informed by blurred feeling to precise, objective, carefully formed verse characterized by the complete sacrifice of the poet’s immanence to an emphasis upon things in themselves. The creations of Das Buch der Bilder reveal the writer’s progress toward the establishment of a literary integration of visual impressions with sight-oriented components of language. The artistic process becomes a perfecting of the act of seeing, in which the poet organizes the elements of the visual image through subjective cognition of his external world. Although these lyrics do not attain to the plastic monumentality of Rilke’s later writings, they are forerunners of the Dinggedicht (thing poem) that are collectively the most important product of Rilke’s years in Paris.
The Book of Hours
The commemoration of self is a significant aspect of The Book of Hours, divided into three sections that were the product of diverse influences and experiences: Rilke’s impressions of Russia and Paris, his love affair with Lou Andreas-Salomé, the dramatic writings of Maurice Maeterlinck and Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas, and the cultural legacy of the Italian Renaissance. The work as a whole portrays the author’s movement toward an internalization of external phenomena in a poetic act of preservation and redemption. There is evident within the individual poems a new kind of friendly relationship between the poet and God’s handiwork that surrounds him. Nevertheless, what is presented is definitely not a traditional Christian attitude toward life. These lyrics are the product of an aggressively demanding mind; in them, a strongly individual interpretation of the religious dimension of experience is advanced without equivocation. The thrust of The Book of Hours is to refine the notion that God is not static, a complete and perfect being, but rather a continually evolving artistic creation. Rilke insists that the reader accept this idea on faith, equating his poetic message with spiritual revelation. The result is a celebration of “this world” which the poet continued to elaborate and modify until his death.
The three parts of The Book of Hours are discrete sets of deeply intimate confessions that arose out of special relationships and encounters that shaped Rilke’s artistic outlook. “Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben” (“Of the Monastic Life”), written in 1899, reflects the strong influence of the poet’s attachment to Lou Andreas-Salomé and the cultural, historical, and philosophical ideas to which she introduced him. His ecstatic love for Lou and their visits to Russia are the key elements that give “Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft” (“Of Pilgrimage”) its specific flavor, while “Das Buch von der Armut und vom Tod” (“Of Poverty and Death”) was a product of Rilke’s impressions during his first year in Paris. The individual poems of the three cycles are experiments in which Rilke tested various symbols and metaphors, metric and rhythmic possibilities, and rhyme schemes in documenting a deep worship of life as a sacred motivating force.
“Of the Monastic Life” is a series of prayerful outpourings of the spirit in which a young monk addresses God. In this context, prayer is an elemental religious act with two goals: self-discovery in the process of establishing and expanding personal modes of expression, and the “creation” of God and the growth of a sense of brotherhood with him in one’s relationship to nature. The fictive prayer situations provide the setting for a portrayal of the innermost stirrings of the soul in an endless reaching outward to illuminate the divine. Melodic language and strength of visual image are brought together with rich imagination to reveal the lyricist’s almost Franciscan sympathy with the world.
Specific items of the cycle “Of Pilgrimage” attain peaks of religious rapture in the glorification of the mystical union between man and woman, offered in newly intensified homage to Lou. Thematically, however, this portion of The Book of Hours focuses primarily on key aspects of the poet’s...