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Rilke, Rainer Maria (René) (1875–1926)


The German poet Rainer Maria (René) Rilke was born in Prague, the son of a minor railway official. His mother, who was of upper-middle-class origin, encouraged him in his early ambition to become a poet. The years 18861891, which Rilke spent at military academies in Moravia and Austria, had a traumatic effect on him, and not until 1920 was he able to come to terms with his unhappy childhood and family background. His first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, appeared in Prague in 1895. Desultory studies, mainly in the history of art, at the universities of Prague, Munich, and Berlin were followed by two journeys to Russia in 1899 and 1900 in the company of Lou Andreas-Salomé, a German-Russian to whom Friedrich Nietzsche had proposed marriage and who later became a follower and friend of Sigmund Freud. During the second of these journeys he met Lev Tolstoy. On his return Rilke joined an art colony in Worpswede near Bremen, and early in 1901 he married the sculptress Clara Westhoff, one of its members. They had a daughter, but the short-lived marriage was only an interlude in Rilke's essentially solitary and unsettled life. For the next few years, Rilke's attention was centered on Paris and on Auguste Rodin, to whose work he devoted a monograph in 1903. Although his job as Rodin's private secretary ended in a quarrel, Rilke never ceased to acknowledge the very direct inspiration he received from close daily contact with the sculptor. The first collection of poems that bears the authentic stamp of greatness, Neue Gedichte I (Leipzig, 1907), represents Rilke's aim to render in words the immediacy, concreteness, and intensity ("the inward reality") that he discerned in Rodin's work.

With a single-mindedness that has rarely been paralleled in modern literature, Rilke devoted his whole existence to the poetic task he felt called upon to accomplish, subordinating to it all personal and public considerations. The long list of his patrons, most of whom belonged to the aristocracy of central Europe and a few to the German and Swiss patrician bourgeoisie, testifies to the restlessness of his life, and so do his journeys to Sweden (in 1904, on the invitation of Ellen Key), Italy, north Africa (19101911), Spain (1913), and repeatedly to France. The long list of his friends (mainly female) and correspondents, among them Paul Valéry and André Gide, includes surprisingly few German writers. Two places were of major importance for the fruition of his poetry: Duino (1910 and 1912), a castle on the Adriatic that belonged to the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, where the first Duino Elegy was written, and the little castle of Muzot in the Swiss canton of Valais. It was at Muzot, in February 1922, as the guest of Werner Reinhart, that Rilke, in a storm of inspiration, wrote most of the fifty-five Sonette an Orpheus and several smaller collections of poems; and it was there, above all, that he completed his greatest work, which had been interrupted by World War Ithe cycle of ten Duineser Elegien, several of which were written in the span of a few days. Rilke died at Valmont, Switzerland, after a protracted and painful illness that was diagnosed as leukemia.

Rilke's mature poetry, written after 1907, displays a consistency of attitude and a coherence of poetic devices that make it representative of a whole era of European thought. Following in the wake of Nietzsche, this poetry is informed by an acute historical consciousness. We live in an age when a "religion" that is based on separating transcendence from immanence is no longer viable:

All of the living
Make the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions.
Angels (it is said) would be often unable to tell
Whether they moved among living or dead.

Our impoverished state is marked by our awareness that "we are not very reliably at home in the interpreted world." Hence, in order to regain for ourselves something that would equal the spiritual and existential fervor that characterized the ages of faith, we must take upon ourselves the task of endowing the world (which, for Rilke, is the world of things and of intimate personal relations) with the inwardness of feeling that other ages directed toward a divinity. Joy, love, and above all suffering and pain should not be diffuse sensations accompanying an unending series of vague hopes and regrets; they must become the objects of a total commitment. Thus, since we are "not yet" strong enough to give ourselves totally in love, we had better follow the example of the lover ("Gaspara Stampa") who drew her strength from an unrequited, "uninterrupted" feeling, or indeed of Narcissus, who used the natural world as a magnifying mirror of his feeling. Les saltimbanques, the traveling artistes of Pablo Picasso's "blue period" paintings, celebrated in the Fifth Elegy, most fully symbolize our condition. In a world in which all actions are liable to remain uncompleted ("We, though, while we're intent upon one thing, / can feel the cost and conquest of the other"), sufferingthe fullest possible realization and appropriation by the self of what is inflicted from withoutwill be the greater virtue:

Killing merely is a form of our wandering sadness 
Pure in the spirit serene
Is what we ourselves endure.

History, for Rilke, is not a social phenomenon but a pageant of situations and persons in whom the ideal of completion and strength of feeling was realized, just as the contemporary world is a series of images that portray our deprivations and stunted responses. To make something of one's fate, of one's experiences, is to give them the permanence (essentially poetic) of a moment of intensity. Similarly, the supreme task, set by the imminence of death, is to repair the adventitiousness of death by drawing it into my life, by making of it "my own death."

The immensity of the task of creating a new spirituality is betrayed by the complex, and quite conscious, ambiguities of Rilke's images of transcendence, chief of which is the image of the Angel, as he appears in the Elegies. He is a messenger (angelos ) from another sphere; hence, there must be one who sent him. But the Angel comes upon us with a terrible majesty and strength which, to us who are weak, is all his own. In many such astonishing images Rilke expresses the "pure [=necessary] contradiction" that he sees as the root of our being: only by living in total commitment to "the Earth," the here and now, can man transform it into "the heart's inner space," and thus wrest some eventual transition into a "soundless" Beyondwrest it from he knows not whom. The most accomplished practitioner of such transformations is Orpheus, the poet-maker who, in the creative act, stills all strife by transforming it into song, eternalizes the moment by making of it a monument of inwardness, and transfixes suffering into the eternally valid image of "Lament" (Tenth Elegy).

In a world yearning for the security of faith and finding it in ideology, Rilke's vertiginous images were reduced to prosy precepts for living, becoming thus at once esoteric and banal. Rilke's poetry is not necessarily esoteric, and the creative activity he extolled is closely related to the poetic; but he addressed himself to the single individual. The social sphere of modern life is branded as wholly inauthentic (Rilke either ignored or briefly satirized it); all concerted action is an escape from defective selfhood. He understood and expressed velleities supremely well; his poetry hardly offers a nostrum to cure them.

See also Freud, Sigmund; "My Death"; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Valéry, Paul.


works by rilke

Only the most recent four-volume edition, Gesammelte Werke, edited by Ernst Zinn (Frankfurt, 19551961), shows the magnitude of Rilke's work. In addition, some eight collections of his letters are of major importance. The two-volume edition of Selected Works (London, 19541960) includes J. B. Leishman's brilliant translations of all of Rilke's major poetry.

works on rilke

No English biography has appeared since E. M. Butler, Rainer Maria Rilke (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1941). H. E. Holthusen, Rainer Maria Rilke in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1958), is a succinct and discriminating account of the poet's life. See also N. Purtscher-Wydenbruck, Rilke: Man and Poet (London, 1949), and E. Buddeberg, Rainer Maria RilkeEine innere Biographie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1955). A brilliant assessment of Nietzsche's influence on Rilke is Chapter 5 of Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Cambridge, U.K.: Bowes & Bowes, 1952). E. C. Mason has devoted many studies to a critique of Rilke's work, among them Lebenshaltung und Symbolik bei R. M. Rilke (Weimar, Germany: H. Böhlaus Nachf, 1939) and Der Zopf des Münchhausen (Einsiedeln, Germany, 1949). Two exegetic works of major importance are Jacob Steiner, Rilke's Duineser Elegien (Bern: Francke, 1962), and Romano Guardini, Rilke's Duino Elegies: An Interpretation, translated by K. G. Knight (London, 1961).

J. P. Stern (1967)

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