Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2031
Article abstract: Rilke is generally considered the greatest German poet since Goethe, and his fame is by no means limited to his own country.
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.
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 with this conception of poetry, take their start not from an idea or mood but from some “thing” that must be seen and understood, even if it is ugly, such as a corpse in the morgue. Many of the poems tell a story from the Bible or classical mythology, showing it in a novel light. Thus, the story of the prodigal son may emphasize the oppressiveness of family life, while the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice may turn on the reluctance of Eurydice to return to the land of the living.
To this period also belong Rilke’s two important works of fiction; Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christof Rilke (1906; The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, 1932) and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958). The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke is a short novel or prose poem telling of the death of an ancestral Rilke at the hands of the Turks in Hungary in 1663. The night before his heroic death he spends in the bed of a countess who never learns his name. This book had sold more than a million copies by 1969; it was immensely popular with soldiers in World War I. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is in a way Rilke’s “portrait of the artist,” but he effectively distances himself more than does James Joyce. Brigge is a Danish poet living in Paris; his notebooks record both the present and memories of the past. The past is far more glamorous than Rilke’s own; Malte’s father is master of the hunt to the King of Denmark; his mother is beautiful and affectionate. The sordid realities of Paris are closer to Rilke’s experience, as is his conviction that he (and Malte) must learn to accept and record these realities. The realities are linked with death and Rilke’s conviction that one ought to die his own individual death, which had been with him from birth. The themes of the novel are supported by much anecdotal material, both Malte’s memories and (often obscure) episodes from history. The novel ends with another retelling of the prodigal son, who even in his return home asserts his own individuality. The writing of the novel left Rilke in a state of creative exhaustion. Nevertheless, in 1912, he began the Duino elegies, only to put them aside for years.
When war broke out in 1914, Rilke was in Germany and could not return to France, where he was now an enemy alien. The war years were comparatively unproductive. For a brief period in 1916, he served in the Austrian army; at the end of the war, he was an object of suspicion for his friendships with some of the leaders of a brief Bavarian Soviet. In 1919, he was invited to Switzerland to give poetry readings and remained there until his death. After the usual wanderings, he settled in the castle of Muzot, which a Swiss friend supplied free of charge. Six months after moving in, inspiration returned; he not only finished the Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1930) but also wrote the related Die Sonette an Orpheus (1923; Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936). During this period, he also managed a final trip to Paris, his second since the war. His health was deteriorating, however, and he died of leukemia on December 29, 1926.
After Rainer Maria Rilke’s death, says Norbert Fuerst, “began the battle of the critics, who admired him, with the ‘hagiographers,’ who loved him”—though the reactions of “ordinary people” might have been closer to Rilke’s heart. “Rilke is of all modern poets the one who translated the concerns of the non-poet most comprehensively, so that we do find them in his work . . . and can retranslate them into our existential concerns.” Different readers will find their concerns voiced in different poems or will find that different poems concern them at different times in their lives. The fame of the Duino Elegies suggests an appeal to troubled intellectuals who, like Rilke, feel in their emotional conflicts envious at once of the beasts, “simple-minded, unperplexed,” and of imagined angels, who represent a level at which all conflicts are resolved. In a different mood, the artist might respond to the Sonnets to Orpheus by feeling, in the exuberance of Rilke’s verse, that he, too, might have power over trees and stones.
The shorter lyrics are more likely to voice concerns familiar to “ordinary people.” One might turn to Das Buch der Bilder, manageable on the whole because there is likely to be only one idea expressed in each poem. Even for readers who know little German, these lyrics are best read in the original. The reader might start with such poems as “Pont du Carrousel,” “Herbstag” (autumn day), “Herbst” (autumn), “Abend” (evening), or from New Poems, “Letster Abend” (last evening), which has been adapted by Robert Lowell. Wolfgang Leppmann, a distinguished Rilkian, says that Rilke can be and should be read for fun. “Fun” seems an odd term to use of a poet who is often difficult, yet perhaps it is an appropriate description for the satisfaction that comes from simultaneously solving a difficult puzzle and having a human concern find expression.
Brodsky, Patricia Pollock. Rainer Maria Rilke. Boston: Twayne, 1988. An exceptional introductory work. Not only are there accounts of the major sequences but also there are a remarkable number of analyses of individual lyrics. There is a good, short description of Rilke’s life, and, in addition to the standard bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, there is a bibliography of translations.
Fuerst, Norbert. Phases of Rilke. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958. There are eight phases, “eight of his life, eight of his work.” Though the scheme is artificial and the writing somewhat impressionistic, this book is still an attractive medium-length introduction to Rilke. Fuerst tries to mediate between Rilke’s critics and his “hagiographers.”
Lange, Victor. Introduction to Rainer Maria Rilke: Selected Poems. Translated by A. E. Flemming. New York: Methuen, 1986. A brief but eloquent introduction to Rilke by a major Germanic scholar.
Leppmann, Wolfgang. Rilke: A Life. Translated in collaboration with the author by Russell M. Stockman. New York: Fromm International, 1984. A massive treatment of Rilke’s life and work, thoroughly researched and annotated. There are extensive bibliographies and a very detailed chronology.
Prater, Donald. A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Not a “life and work” but simply a life, this book takes advantage of the enormous amount of correspondence and other material that is gradually becoming available.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated by Reginald Snell. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1945. Rilke’s published correspondence comes to about thirty volumes in the original languages; only a few are available in English. They are a rich source of material on his life and thought and provide a basis for further interpretations of his work.
Sandford, John. Landscape and Landscape Imagery in R. M. Rilke. London: University of London Press, 1980. One of the many specialized works on Rilke. “Rilke’s search for a home . . . is the key to his experience and description of landscape.”