From the recent explosion of publications on the subject of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) which has brought readers Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translations of Rilke’s poems and Letters to a Young Poet comes this translation of Wolfgang Leppmann’s 1981 Rilke—Sein Leben, seine Welt, sein Werk, the first full-length biographical study to appear in many years. Rilke was a singularly private man, incompletely known even to persons biographers would have to consider his intimates. As such, he presents no small challenge to his would-be biographer. Leppmann, fully aware of this dilemma, chooses therefore to opt for speculation about many of the particulars of the poet’s life, and must turn instead to the work, the result being an example of that currently conspicuous genre of literary publishing, the so-called literary biography. Its patchwork design leads the reader now into what can be recovered of the writer’s life, now through the complexities of the literary output, as if to acknowledge and attempt to compensate for the fact that the writer is almost by definition the man or woman who resigns from life in order to write, that most solitary of activities.
This very separation between the life and the work is in fact a function of the aesthetic modernism of which Rilke, the heir of literary symbolism, is so exemplary. Rilke, no less so than Stéphane Mallarmé or Marcel Proust, elevated art to the status of a cult, if not of religion itself. It has become a commonplace to observe that this effort springs in part from the need to fill the void left by the removal of traditional belief. Many of Rilke’s most moving poems are infused with a longing for God which persists in the face of post-Nietzschean pessimism with regard to such a quest. Such a crise de foi alone, however, does not account for the modernist quarantine of art from other aspects of life, for Rilke’s symbolist, fin-de-siècle world intensified the romantic aloofness toward bourgeois culture. The sanctity of art was increasingly proclaimed against the real or perceived Philistinism of bourgeois society. The artist, by definition, was not like other people, and this isolation was at once his punishment and his liberation.
As Leppmann makes clear, Rilke endured multiple forms of differentiation. Born in Prague as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, his identity with the German-speaking minority of what was later to become Czechoslovakia constituted his original estrangement. He was to be even more reduced within that narrow circle, for the circumstances of his upbringing bordered upon the outrageous. Apparently to console herself for the death of the infant daughter whose birth preceded his, Rilke’s mother had him christened René Maria Rilke and dressed him as a girl until he reached the age of seven. His hair was arranged in long ringlets. Then, at the age of ten, his stereotypically cold, absent father enrolled him in a military school. That Rilke’s developing personality survived the shock of these incongruities is nothing short of a miracle, although Leppmann advises the reader that the military academy’s regimen fell far short of the degree of harshness which the poet later ascribed to it. In fact, Leppmann argues, having lived the two extremes of culturally sanctioned gender experience, Rilke was better suited than nearly anyone else of his time to empathize with the experiences of the opposite sex. Leppmann even sees Rilke as a man “before his time” in his enlightened sexuality, but his would seem to have been a theoretical, not a practical, form of sexual liberation. Leppmann, for example, acknowledges Rilke’s failures as a husband and as a father. His daughter, Ruth, received only intermittent attention from the father who apparently regarded her as an occasional visitor with no permanent claim on either his affection or his responsibility.
Sensitive and frail, Rilke would appear to have been the sort of boy that is singled out for special persecution by his schoolmates. Leppmann, however, at some pains to present the military academy as a moderate example of such institutions, argues that Rilke was appreciated by the other students precisely because of his poetic nature. He was frequently called upon to read his poems aloud in...
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