Life of a Poet

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The reader seeking a brief overview of Rilke’s life or a succinct evaluation of his work will be disappointed. This is a ponderous book, but for the scholar or student of Rilke, it is well worth reading. The synthesis that Freedman employs is impressive, interweaving events of the poet’s life with excerpts from his letters, poetry, and prose.

An obvious admirer of Rilke’s work, Freedman fleshes out his portrait of the poet, offering a remarkably dispassionate view of this complex man. Christened Rene, Rilke was dressed in girls’ clothing by his mother until he went to school. At ten, in accordance with his father’s wishes, he was sent to a military academy near Vienna.

No wonder 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. His wealthy patrons were faithful to his needs, opened their homes to him, and gave him money, yet he demanded more.

Freedman is unerringly fair in his treatment of Rilke, who was truly a great poet, as his work testifies, but a sad excuse for a human being—a charming hypochondriac with no concept of the value of money, whose manipulation of others was continuous and obvious. He adopted a fatherly interest in young women but was a wretched father to his own daughter, admitting that he was more comfortable around dogs. Freedman’s only judgment on the man appears on the book’s final page: “His life was no model.”

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXVII, April, 1996, p. 112.

Booklist. XCII, January 1, 1996, p. 777.

Chicago Tribune. May 5, 1996, XIV, p. 6.

Library Journal. CXX, December, 1995, p. 108.

The Nation. CCLXII, April 1, 1996, p. 27.

The New Republic. CCXV, July 1, 1996, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 28, 1996, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 8, 1996, p. 51.

The Wall Street Journal. March 19, 1996, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 31, 1996, p. 5.