The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Turning” is a poem of fifty-four lines divided unevenly into ten stanzas. The title suggests a turn or change in some important issue, and that is, indeed, the focus of the poem: a turning away from the poet’s previous vision of the task of poetry to a new phase in his development as a poet. The poem is written in the third person, a device often used to distance the poet from the speaker or subject of the poem. In this case, however, it is clear that the poet is Rainer Maria Rilke himself. He sent the poem to a friend, saying that “it portrays the turning that will certainly have to come if I am to live.” This poem can be read as a history of Rilke’s poetic focus on observation of the outer world and a transition to bringing his vision inward.

The poem opens with a slightly altered quote from the philosopher Rudolf Kassner, a friend of Rilke: “The way from intensity to greatness leads through sacrifice.” The quote is quite appropriate, as the poem represents a time during which Rilke was turning away from his intense exterior observations to look into himself for poetic inspiration. The poem can be divided into two main sections. The first, longer section describes his former way of seeing and creating poetry. The second section, beginning with the sixth stanza, reveals his doubts of his earlier perspective and describes his new intentions for his poetry.

Rilke lets his reader know from the very first line that a change is imminent: “For a long...

(The entire section is 610 words.)