Rainer Maria Rilke

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The rich symbolic content and specific themes that characterize Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous lyrics also inform his narrative prose. Recollections of his boyhood and youth are given romantic, fairy-tale coloring in Vom lieben Gott und Anderes (1900; republished as Geschichten vom lieben Gott, 1904; Stories of God, 1931, 1963), a cycle of short tales that replace traditional Christian perceptions of God with depictions of a finically careful artist. Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1906; The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, 1932), a terse yet beautifully written story, is more like an epic poem than a prose work, especially in its emphasis on the power of the individual word and its intensely rhythmic language. The psychologically intricate novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930; also known as The Journal of My Other Self) is one of Rilke’s most profound creations. Written from the point of view of a young Danish nobleman living in exile in Paris, it offers in random sketches a peculiar summation of the central concerns of the author’s literary art.

In the decade between 1894 and 1904, Rilke wrote more than twenty plays, many of which were lost and never published. The most important of his remaining theatrical works are either pessimistically Naturalistic or intense dramas of the soul. Jetzt und in der Stunde unseres Absterbens (pr., pb. 1896; Now and in the Hour of Our Death, 1979) and Im Frühfrost (pr., pb. 1897; Early Frost, 1979) reflect the influence of Rudolf Christoph Jenny in their materialistic determinism, while later pieces such as Höhenluft (wr. 1897, pr. 1969; Air at High Altitude, 1979) and Ohne Gegenwart (pb. 1898; Not Present, 1979) document a development in the direction of Symbolism, motivated especially by the dramatic theories of Maurice Maeterlinck. Rilke’s best-remembered play is Die weiss Fürstin (pb. 1929; The White Princess, 1979), which in its lyric depth and power illustrates his view that drama and poetry have similar goals.

Apart from his writings in other genres, Rilke also produced a few works of nonfiction. Most notable among these are the biographical study Auguste Rodin (1903; English translation, 1919) and the descriptive lyric essays of Worpswede (1903). Much of his extensive correspondence has been collected and published. Especially important for what they reveal of his artistic personality and poetic process are volumes of letters exchanged with Lou Andreas-Salomé and Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis.


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Commonly ranked alongside Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan George as a giant of twentieth century German poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke is perhaps the most controversial of the three in point of critical and popular reception of his works. Although his substantial collections published soon after the turn of the century, especially The Book of Hours and New Poems, were greeted with uniformly favorable recognition, there is wide disagreement among critics concerning the literary value of both his early poems and those of his final, major creative period. A significant key to the divided viewpoints is his boldly daring, uniquely creative use of language in strange new relationships, his peculiar departures from traditional grammar and syntax, and his unusual forms of subjective and objective expression. The pure individuality of his poetic utterances often makes them difficult to understand and repels the reader who approaches Rilke’s art with anything less than full and active concentration. As a result, the most problematic of Rilke’s mature poems, especially the Duino Elegies , are regarded by some scholars as the most important German lyric creations of the first half of the twentieth century, whereas others dismiss them as lacking substance. Regardless of these disagreements, Rilke’s influence on the...

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development of German verse is unrivaled by that of any other German language poet of his time. His most lasting and important contribution remains the concept of theDinggedichte introduced in New Poems.

Early Poems

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Rilke’s earliest published poems, which appeared in the collections Leben und Lieder (life and songs), Larenopfer (offering to the household gods), Wegwarten (watch posts), and Traumgekrönt (dream-crowned), are marked by a naïve simplicity and a degree of sentimentality that are absent from his more mature writings. Under the influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen, he created particularly sensitive lyrics centered on nature, as well as penetrating psychological portraits of people. Among his favorite subjects were women and children. Even in these youthful creations, there is already a strong emphasis on visual imagery, although the artistic focus of attention is frequently not the object that is described, but rather the spiritual stirrings that occur within the poet because of what he sees.

Mir zur Feier

In Mir zur Feier (celebrating me), Rilke began to move away from the lyric forms and approaches of his student years, adopting in the transition techniques that he later perfected in his first broadly successful cycle, The Book of Hours. The poems of Mir zur Feier present in precise detail their creator’s innermost personal concerns, describing in tones of religious fervor his yearnings, prayers, and self-perceptions. Framed in language that is rich in texture yet soft in tone, the poems glorify things that cannot be comprehended through human volition. These verse productions represent a calculated justification of the poet’s art as a means of celebrating that which can be revealed in its essence and fullness in no other manner.

Das Buch der Bilder

Das Buch der Bilder (the book of pictures), a collection written at about the same time as The Book of Hours, is in some respects poetically stronger. Under the influence of Rodin, Rilke made the transition from a poetry informed by blurred feeling to precise, objective, carefully formed verse characterized by the complete sacrifice of the poet’s immanence to an emphasis upon things in themselves. The creations of Das Buch der Bilder reveal the writer’s progress toward the establishment of a literary integration of visual impressions with sight-oriented components of language. The artistic process becomes a perfecting of the act of seeing, in which the poet organizes the elements of the visual image through subjective cognition of his external world. Although these lyrics do not attain to the plastic monumentality of Rilke’s later writings, they are forerunners of the Dinggedicht (thing poem) that are collectively the most important product of Rilke’s years in Paris.

The Book of Hours

The commemoration of self is a significant aspect of The Book of Hours, divided into three sections that were the product of diverse influences and experiences: Rilke’s impressions of Russia and Paris, his love affair with Lou Andreas-Salomé, the dramatic writings of Maurice Maeterlinck and Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas, and the cultural legacy of the Italian Renaissance. The work as a whole portrays the author’s movement toward an internalization of external phenomena in a poetic act of preservation and redemption. There is evident within the individual poems a new kind of friendly relationship between the poet and God’s handiwork that surrounds him. Nevertheless, what is presented is definitely not a traditional Christian attitude toward life. These lyrics are the product of an aggressively demanding mind; in them, a strongly individual interpretation of the religious dimension of experience is advanced without equivocation. The thrust of The Book of Hours is to refine the notion that God is not static, a complete and perfect being, but rather a continually evolving artistic creation. Rilke insists that the reader accept this idea on faith, equating his poetic message with spiritual revelation. The result is a celebration of “this world” which the poet continued to elaborate and modify until his death.

The three parts of The Book of Hours are discrete sets of deeply intimate confessions that arose out of special relationships and encounters that shaped Rilke’s artistic outlook. “Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben” (“Of the Monastic Life”), written in 1899, reflects the strong influence of the poet’s attachment to Lou Andreas-Salomé and the cultural, historical, and philosophical ideas to which she introduced him. His ecstatic love for Lou and their visits to Russia are the key elements that give “Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft” (“Of Pilgrimage”) its specific flavor, while “Das Buch von der Armut und vom Tod” (“Of Poverty and Death”) was a product of Rilke’s impressions during his first year in Paris. The individual poems of the three cycles are experiments in which Rilke tested various symbols and metaphors, metric and rhythmic possibilities, and rhyme schemes in documenting a deep worship of life as a sacred motivating force.

“Of the Monastic Life” is a series of prayerful outpourings of the spirit in which a young monk addresses God. In this context, prayer is an elemental religious act with two goals: self-discovery in the process of establishing and expanding personal modes of expression, and the “creation” of God and the growth of a sense of brotherhood with him in one’s relationship to nature. The fictive prayer situations provide the setting for a portrayal of the innermost stirrings of the soul in an endless reaching outward to illuminate the divine. Melodic language and strength of visual image are brought together with rich imagination to reveal the lyricist’s almost Franciscan sympathy with the world.

Specific items of the cycle “Of Pilgrimage” attain peaks of religious rapture in the glorification of the mystical union between man and woman, offered in newly intensified homage to Lou. Thematically, however, this portion of The Book of Hours focuses primarily on key aspects of the poet’s Russian experience. It emphasizes especially the idea that the pious Russian people are the embodiment of humility and spirituality within a topographical frame that is the archetype of God’s creation. Spatial relationships are particularly important as the vastness of the Russian countryside melts into the author’s inner landscape. A few of the lyrics reveal an inclination toward things that need man, presenting them in impressionistic trappings that show a predilection for that which is most immediate and intricate.

“Of Poverty and Death,” the final segment of The Book of Hours, anticipates the negative, sometimes melancholy tone of Rilke’s later collections. Its substance is human misery presented in variations that expose in stark coloration the world of the homeless, the infirm, the abandoned, and the afraid. Christian motifs and themes are employed to accentuate Rilke’s rejection of the Christian God, while rich images establish a substantial tie to “Of the Monastic Life” in the affirmation of God as an original poetic creation.


Rilke’s most lasting legacy and most important contribution to German poesy is the Dinggedicht (thing poem), an originally conceived interpretation of inner experience generated in response to encounters with external objects and phenomena that the poet transformed into symbols for the elements of human life. With New Poems, in which he perfected this particular form, Rilke made a breakthrough that was immeasurably far-reaching in its implications for the expansion of German poetry’s expressive domain.

A reflection of Rilke’s attention to impulses from Rodin’s sculpture and Cézanne’s paintings, the Dinggedicht is the product of disciplined and thorough scrutinization of its model. Outwardly, it seeks to offer the character and intrinsic constitution of an object that is described for its own sake in painstakingly refined language. On another level, however, it documents the acquisition of external things for the poet’s inner domain, thereby transforming the physical phenomenon into a precise and specifically calculated symbol for a portion of his re-creation of the world for himself. Some of the poems analyze people, buildings, natural and artificial scenes, plants, animals, and even motifs from mythology and the Bible; others are lyric translations of statues and paintings. Each provides a segment of Rilke’s new interpretation and clarification of existence. Unlike the earlier forms, the Dinggedicht renounces the commitment to melodic sound relationships and connected imagery chains. The exacting identification of the poem’s external object and its reduction to its fundamental nature permitted the poet to place it into an absolute domain of pure symbol.

New Poems

Rilke achieved his most representative mastery of the Dinggedicht in New Poems, a collection in which heavy stress is placed on negative moods in the explication of the view that God is the direction and not the object of love. In their extreme subtlety and refinement of language, their worldly elegance, and their moral and emotional engagement, the most representative poems of Rilke’s Paris period form the center of his work as a whole. The Dinggedichte of New Poems are a detailed reflection of his view that his poetic task was the interpretation and clarification of existence for the purpose of healing the world. By accepting, recognizing, and loving things for themselves, the poet places himself in a position to trace animals, plants, works of art, human figures, and other objects back to their true nature and substance. Precise seeing and artistic transformation enable him to project in symbols the content and meaning both of his surroundings and of that which is within him.

Divided into two loosely chronological parts, the poems in New Poems examine in objectively plastic, precisely disciplined structures representative manifestations and individuals that belong to the world of nature and to man’s most important cultural attainments, from the Bible to classical antiquity, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Mystical inwardness is projected in carefully defined symbols that objectively externalize the events within the poet that are stimulated by the process of seeing. Gloom, absurdity, and disintegration are common moods in poems that question the possibility for everything, including man, to exist and thereby to become the subject of literature.

“The Panther”

The symbolic portraits of New Poems focus on a broad variety of models. Among the most successful are those based on impressions from the Jardin des Plantes. “Der Panther” (“The Panther”), the earliest and most famous of the Dinggedichte, transforms its object into a symbol of heroic existence. By the very power of its seeing, the panther, like the poet, is able to create its own inner landscape, absorbing the visual impressions of external objects into itself, where it may modify, penetrate, or even destroy them. One of Rilke’s most vivid depictions of rapport with an object, achieved in the act of intense observation, is given in “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” (“Archaic Torso of Apollo”), the first work in the second volume of New Poems. The headless statue becomes a kind of spiritual mirror that directs the onlooker’s gaze back into the self, enabling him to recognize the need for change in his own life.

Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus

An important consequence of Rilke’s Paris experience was a reevaluation of his literary existence that led ultimately to a significant turning point in his career. The problem of an irreconcilable conflict between the demands of practicality and art was compounded by a philosophical crisis involving the tensions that he felt in his need to make a definitive break with Christianity and in his loathing of modern technology. Against this background, an encounter with Søren Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy led eventually to Rilke’s production of the mythologically exaggerated Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus as the peak of his literary endeavor. In these mature lyrics, the creative attitudes and symbolic devices of New Poems were refined and perfected. Rilke responded to many different stimuli—World War I, the works of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Heinrich von Kleist, Sigmund Freud’s psychology, among others—in creating a culminating synthesis of his own poetic view of human life and destiny. Dactylic and iambic meters, free rhythms, questions, and exclamations provide the frame for bold images that pinpoint once again the fundamental directions of Rilke’s work as a whole.

Between 1912 and 1922, Rilke created the ten Duino elegies in monumental celebration of man as the final, most extreme possibility of existence. The ultimate refinement of the delineation of his own calling focuses no longer on the artist as interpreter and clarifier of his surroundings, but rather ordains the poet as a prophet and savior whose task is to preserve everything that has being. He thus becomes the protagonist and representative of humanity in a new religion of life that is an expression of unchecked aestheticism. By saving the world from a collapse that seems unavoidable, the poet engages in an act of self-purification and follows the only possible course of personal redemption.

Taken together, the elegies offer a mural of Rilke’s inner landscape. Internalization of travel experiences, the lonely scenery at Duino Castle, the flight of birds, mythological constructs, and other phenomena create a background of timeless “inner space” against which the author projects his coming to grips with the existential polarities of life and death. Progressing from lament to profound affirmation of mortality, the poems glorify the fulfillment of humanity’s promise to maintain all things of value through a process of transformation that rescues external nature by placing it in the protected realm of the spirit. The power by which this is accomplished is love, supremely manifested by lovers, people who die young, heroes, children, and animals. By bringing together earth and space, life and death, all dimensions of reality and time into a single inward hierarchical unity, Rilke sought to ensure the continuation of man’s outward existence.

In the first elegy, the poet states his view of the human condition: imperfection, the questionable status of man, the experience of transience, the pain of love. Upon this basis he builds a new mythology of life. Its center is the non-Christian angel who appears in the second elegy as a symbol for the absolute and unattainable, the norm from which man in his limitations deviates. In a valid transformation of psychoanalysis into images, Rilke pinpoints the threat that exists within man’s self in the power of natural drives. Illumination of the brokenness, ambiguity, superficiality, and mechanical senselessness of human pursuits is followed in the sixth elegy by identification of the hero as a symbolic concept that contrasts with average life. The seventh poem of the cycle breaks away from the lament of human insufficiency, suddenly glorifying the here and now in hymnic language that moves to a confessional peak. Renewed expression of the idea that the difference between man and the natural creature cannot be resolved is followed by an attempt to show that life must be accepted and made fruitful despite its limitations. The culminating elegy creates a balance between mourning and celebration that unites the antithetical problems in a grand, affirmative vision of pain and death as the destiny of man and the only true evidence of his existence.

Late Poems in French

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The verse written in French after Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus was anticlimactic for Rilke’s career. It lacks the depth and profundity of earlier works, although individual poems achieve lightness and sparkle in their reflection of a new rejoicing in mortal existence.

Discussion Topics

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Was Rainer Maria Rilke religious or irreligious?

What themes do you see in Rilke’s animal poems, especially those focused on felines?

Into what elegiac tradition can Rilke’s Duino Elegies be placed?

What is the relationship between transformation and growth in Sonnets to Orpheus?

Why does Rilke call his sonnet collection Sonnets to Orpheus?

What is a requiem? Is the emphasis in “Requiem for a Friend” on praising the friend or on coming to terms with the fact of a loved one’s death?


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Bernstein, Michael Andre. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing (Rethinking Theory). Edited by Gary Saul Morson. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Presents Rilke’s poetry in the context of the shift among German writers from Romanticism and aestheticism to twentieth century modernism.

Drees, Hajo. Rainer Maria Rilke: Autobiography, Fiction, Therapy. New York: P. Lang, 2001. Explores the autobiographical stratum of Rilke’s works, applying critical theories of autobiography and autobiographical fiction.

Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A helpful complement to Donald Prater’s definitive biography, this work draws extensive parallels between Rilke’s life and the content of his poetry. Also contains several photographs of Rilke and his family.

Kleinbard, David. The Beginning of Terror: A Psychological Study of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Life and Work. New York: New York University Press, 1993. A critical rather than comprehensive biography, attempting a psychoanalysis of Rilke and his published writing. Examines issues such as Rilke’s childhood, his relationships with his parents (both biological and surrogate), and his debilitating blood disorder and its effect on his work.

Prater, Donald. A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Reprint. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993. A definitive biography of Rilke; it concentrates especially on his European travels and correspondence with friends. Also, the bibliography is highly helpful for those who need a comprehensive, expert guide to Rilke criticism. Illustrated.

Ryan, Judith. Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Although Rilke saw himself as a more or less self-created writer, who needed extended periods of solitude in which to work, Ryan shows him in his relationship to other writers and even painters in the European culture of his day. Traces his movement from the art-for-art’s-sake school of writing into modernism.


Critical Essays