Rilke wrote “Requiem for a Friend” in memory of a young painter friend of his, Paula Modersohn Becker, who died at the age of thirty-one shortly after giving birth. Although her name is never mentioned, it is apparent that she is the subject of the poem.
The speaker of the poem addresses the woman, who, unlike other dead figures—friends and figures from his poems—does not rest in peace but returns to haunt him. He believes that she comes with some request of him, the nature of which he tries to ascertain. He offers to travel to a distant land where she has never been, but which is spiritually part of her. There, for her sake, he will see and learn as much as possible. About a third of the way into this long poem, Rilke introduces the first of a series of significant facts regarding Paula: She was a painter whose insight, skill, and objectivity he admired.
Much personal detail is condensed in this section. In the speaker’s opinion, among the best of Paula’s works are a number of still lifes with fruit. Yet she also painted many admirable pictures of the women and children of Worpswede. In these paintings each face is uniquely itself, as distant and distinct as a piece of fruit or a watchful animal. The phrase “you balanced their weight with colors” introduces into the poem an important facet of Rilke and Paula’s relationship. It was Paula who first made Rilke aware of the artist Paul Cézanne, and by weaving ideas about Cézanne into his discussion of her art, Rilke is both acknowledging a debt to her and praising her own work.
The section in which Paula steps naked before her mirror is a reference to her nude self-portraits, particularly to one of her final ones, in which she stands posed only in an amber necklace, gazing at the viewer with an expression as detached as the fruits in her paintings. Her gaze is “without possession,” an echo of Rilke’s conception of love; also, it is full of “true poverty,” an echo of the virtue espoused in the figure of Saint Francis in Rilke’s...
(The entire section is 834 words.)