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 collection Das Stundenbuch (1905; Poems from The Book of Hours, 1941). These key Rilkean phrases are applied, however, in a new context. With respect to the notion of schauen (looking), the artist is asked to be so detached that he or she possesses and desires nothing, but only sees and portrays. In Paula’s gaze, Rilke finds the highest degree of such creative renunciation. That is, in her own eyes she had become a pure thing, an object among objects.
Next, the speaker reveals another crucial fact about Paula’s life, and he gradually realizes that it is the key to her current presence in his life. He says, “Let us lament together that someone/ took you out of your mirror.” As an artist, she had been in the process of transforming all of her powers into seeing and creating, but then, chance had forced her back into the world, where she gradually succumbed to its biological demands when she became pregnant. The words that Rilke uses to describe this transformation are brutal and culminate in the image of Paula digging up the unripe seeds of her own death and eating them before they are able to blossom into fruit. He further describes how she did violence to herself by diverting her blood toward the new life within her, while trying to persuade herself that her actions were not permanent or irrevocable. After the birth of her child, Paula steps in front of...
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her mirror once more, but her reflection is deceptive. The mirror of truth becomes distorted. The death that follows is not her own, since she has eaten its seeds prematurely by abandoning her calling and her true nature, and by returning to the world.
In the next section, Rilke mourns his version of Paula (the woman who had sacrificed herself in vain) but then moves from mourning to accusation. He does not blame her husband directly for her death. Rather, he accuses all people, himself included, who are infected with the disease of possessive love. The section closes with one of Rilke’s strongest affirmations of possessionless love: “For that is guilt, if anything is:/ not to increase the freedom of a loved one/ by all the freedom that one has at one’s disposal.”
In “Requiem for a Friend,” Rilke is clearly expressing genuine sorrow at the loss of a friend. That he was also thinking of himself becomes evident in the final section of the poem. The roles are reversed: At the beginning of the poem, Paula, a restless ghost, comes to the poet with a plea; now, Rilke turns to her, as one artist to another, and asks for help. He fears succumbing to life’s demands as she had: “For somewhere there is an old enmity/ between life and a great task.”