Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Turning” is more than a poem; it is Rilke’s self-critique of his work up to that time and a declaration or manifesto of how he intended to change his vision of poetry. It marks a new stage in his efforts to combine art and life. To understand the change he desired, one must first understand how Rilke saw the world through his writing. His perception revolved around the idea of Schauen (observation, seeing, watching), a skill he consciously cultivated that reflected his personal philosophical view of the world. This perspective developed out of his lifelong love of art.

The interest in pictures came early to Rilke, beginning in his childhood with a love of the visual arts. He later studied art history (among other subjects) at universities in Prague and Munich, traveled to Florence (a city rich in art) in order to develop precise observation skills, and, as a young man, lived in the artists’ colony at Worpswede near Bremen, Germany. There he became involved with several artists, befriending the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and marrying the sculptor Clara Westhoff, and developed his skill of observation. Later in Paris he also worked for the sculptor Auguste Rodin, about whom he wrote a monograph. For most of his life he was interested in and exposed to the visual arts and the theories and techniques of artists. He looked at poetry as a craft to be honed and polished.

This artist’s vision is evident in the first part of “Turning” as the poet proudly lists his conquests of animals, buildings, nature, even the cosmos while bending the outer world to his will. Then he begins to doubt himself and his method. Rilke wrote that his “gazing outward” had “eaten him empty” and had no true relation with the outside world. He would have to turn completely away from his earlier convictions, which were cold and impersonal, and make “a devoted effort to achieve inner intensity.” In the latter half of the poem, he acknowledges the limits of his method of observation and realizes he must begin on a new journey to find love and “do heart-work” on the images he sees. He has suffered through a crisis about himself and his poetry but has successfully turned to a new, inward-looking direction for his future work.