Two factors appear above all to have shaped the imagery of Rainer Maria Rilke’s verse: his many travels and his love of the visual arts. These experiences fed a mind and spirit uniquely sensitive to space, to distances and volume, and to relationships and correspondences between richly experienced external and deeply felt internal worlds. Born in Prague in 1875, the child of German- speaking parents, Rilke, by education and family tradition, seemed destined to find his place within the hierarchies of the Austro- Hungarian state. Yet after five unhappy years at a military academy (1886-1891) the young Rilke returned to Prague and began an odyssey that would lead through studies in philosophy, literature, and art history in Prague, Munich, and Berlin to a discovery of his true vocation as a poet. Throughout his life Rilke found people and landscapes that served to guide him toward the experience of those inner spaces that lie at the core of his poetic vision. His travels with Lou Andreas-Salomé to Russia in 1899 and 1900 were both a spiritual homecoming and awakening; his life among the artists of Worpswede, where he met and married the sculptor Clara Westhoff, and the years in Paris that followed sharpened the discernment of his eye.
Rilke’s travels and seasonal peregrinations, made possible in large part by the support and hospitality of a great number of wealthy and cultured patrons, took him from Scandinavia to Northern Africa, from the Dalmatian coast to the rocky hills of Spain, and brought him into contact with such eminent artists and writers as Leo Tolstoy, Richard Dehmel, Emile Verhaeren, André Gide, and Romain Rolland. Europe was never more cosmopolitan than in the years immediately preceding World War I, and Rilke—who translated Chekov and Dostoevsky, Guérin and Gide, Michelangelo, Kirkegaard, and Barrett-Browning, and, late in life, inspired by the works of Valéry, which he likewise translated, wrote a remarkable series of poems in French—was the consummate cosmopolitan.
Among the strongest influences upon his development was the sculptor Auguste Rodin, about whom he wrote a monograph and to whom he for a time served as a personal secretary. It was Rodin’s dispassionate dedication to his craft that inspired Rilke to hone his own poetic skills, and his study of Rodin’s work, as well as that of Paul Cézanne, influenced specific aspects of his poetic technique. By the first decade of the century Rilke had established his mastery with the collectionsNeue Gedichte and Der neuen Gedichte anderer Teil (1907-1908) and the novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). In these works Rilke achieved a fusion of world and self in a language of striking and vivid concreteness that left his earlier fin de siècle mysticism behind for a language of chiseled intensity. It was not until after the war, when Rilke had moved permanently to Switzerland, that he again published any collections of poetry. The Duiniser Elegien, begun in 1912, were finally completed in 1922 and followed almost immediately by Die Sonette an Orpheus. Both were published in 1923, three years before Rilke’s death in Valmont in 1926.
The great silence of that thirteen-year span between the appearance of his novel and the completion of the elegies and sonnets was interrupted only by the appearance of translations and a trickle of occasional poems. The tragedy of World War I and Rilke’s own withdrawal in the years that followed lent credence to speculation that these were years of crisis during which the unfinished fragment of the Duino Elegiesweighed heavily upon him. Only after the publication of Rilke’s complete works—the six-volume Sämtliche Werke, edited by Ruth Sieber Rilke and Ernst Zinn (1955-1966)—did it become fully evident that the flow of his poetic inspiration had never ceased. Scattered in his notebooks and in his correspondence, in guest books and inscriptions, were more than five hundred items ranging from aphoristic fragments to magnificently wrought two- and three-poem groupings.
Shortly after the appearance of the complete German edition, the uncollected poems were first made available in English in 1957 with the publication of Poems 1906 to 1926, translated by J. B. Leishman. It was an edition, writes Edward Snow, that “served in its near-unreadability as a kind of death’s-head keeping English-speaking...
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