Themes and Meanings

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“Childhood” is a picture or evocation of childhood from Rilke’s collection Das Buch der Bilder, which he intended to resemble a picture gallery full of paintings. 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 the university, and as a young man he lived in the artists’ colony at Worpswede. There he became involved with several artists, befriending the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and marrying the sculptor Clara Westhoff. Later in Paris he also worked for the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rilke wrote monographs on Worpswede and Rodin, and his interest in and exposure to the visual arts played a significant role in his vision of poetry. He cultivated an artist’s eye, and his obsession with Schauen (observing), a word that appears in this and another childhood poem (“From Childhood”) in this collection, dominated his vision of what a poem should convey to its reader.

The child in “Childhood” is an observer of the outer world of school and play and the inner world of his reactions and emotions. The poem contains abundant visual images. Streets of children sparkle with “lights and colors,” the children’s sailboats are colorful “at a grayish pond,” the day’s “light fades away” slowly into evening, and a child’s panoramic view can “see into it all from far away.” Indeed, the poem’s last image is a child staring at his own reflection as he ponders the meaning of childhood. As painters employ chiaroscuro, an arrangement of light and dark elements, so does Rilke juxtapose light and dark images and emotions to produce a dramatic effect. The bubbling fountains, colorful children, and lively streets contrast sharply with the heaviness and stuffiness of school. The ecstasy of freedom is followed by loneliness, silent terror “all at once replaced by total trust,” the game of tag with anxiety. Rilke’s picture of childhood is not one-dimensional; it presents multiple shades of experience and feeling.

A recurring image of “Childhood” and other poems is that of Einsamkeit, which can be translated as both aloneness and loneliness. In other poems in this collection, Rilke writes of a “child still and alone” (“From Childhood”) and of being “so entirely alone” (“Vorgefühl” [foreboding]). He titled two of the poems “Einsamkeit” and “Der Einsame” (the solitary one or lonely one). In “Childhood” the feeling of otherness, aloneness, or loneliness is repeated throughout. Although literature is not necessarily biography or autobiography, in Rilke’s case much of his work reflects his personal experience. Some background to Rilke’s childhood can provide insight into the emphasis on the child’s feeling of isolation. Rilke was the only child of a mother who had wanted a daughter. He was dressed as a girl and treated as a daughter during the early years of his life. His father tried to counterbalance the influence of his mother by sending the boy to military school. The harsh discipline and other boys’ hostility toward him made a lasting impression. The atmosphere of the school was alien to his character, and he felt his lack of inclusion keenly. It was this and the loneliness he faced because of the boys’ shunning that turned him to writing. Rilke mentioned several times his feeling that he had been deprived of a happy childhood, and in his poetry he tried to redeem some image of a happier childhood for himself. “Childhood” does indeed contain some idyllic scenes of a carefree childhood, but the lurking shadows of sadness, anxiety, and otherness continually peer through the lighter images of play.

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