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...
(The entire section is 2031 words.)