Rainer Maria Rilke
BORN: 1875, Prague, Bohemia
DIED: 1926, Montreux, Switzerland
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama
New Poems (1907)
The Notebook of Malte Laurids Briggs (1910)
Duino Elegies (1923)
Sonnets to Orpheus (1923)
Rainer Maria Rilke. Imagno / Getty Images
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke is considered one of the greatest lyric poets of twentieth-century Germany. He is credited with creating the ‘‘thing-poem,’’ a form that involves describing physical objects in the most precise way possible. Because of his poetry, rich with imagery and intricate symbolism, Rilke has often been considered a mystic or prophet. In addition to poetry, Rilke wrote drama, short stories, and a largely experimental novel, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Briggs.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Unhappy Childhood and Preparation for Military Career. Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke was born in Prague on December 4, 1875, the only child of an unhappy marriage. (At the time, Prague was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, a Hapsburg.) Rilke’s father, Josef, was a retired officer in the Austrian army who worked as a railroad official at the time of his son’s birth. Sophie, Rilke’s mother, was the object of his hatred, and Rilke blamed her for his miserable childhood, even though she was the one who encouraged him to read and write.
Expecting his son to become an army officer, Rilke’s father sent him to military school when he was eleven, beginning what Rilke called ‘‘that evil and frightened decade.’’ One year after being transferred to the military upper school in Moravia, Rilke was discharged from the academy in 1891 because of health problems that he claimed were the result of being ‘‘exhausted and abused in body and soul.’’ He returned to Prague, where he received private instruction in preparation for university entrance exams.
Early Published Poetry. By the time Rilke had enrolled in the philosophy program at Prague’s Charles-Ferdinand University in 1895, he had already published his first volume of poetry, Life and Songs (1894), written in the conventional style of nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine and rejected by critics and readers alike for its naive sentimentality. Offering to the Lares (1895) and Crowned with Dreams (1896) soon followed, but these works, too, little foreshadow the genius that would emerge several years later. In 1896, Rilke moved to Munich, where he enjoyed the literary scene, had a few plays produced, and, most importantly at the time, was introduced to the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobson, whose work would influence Rilke throughout his career.
Fatherland and Family. Rilke’s cultural and personal experiences expanded considerably when he visited Venice in 1897. There he met the writer Lou Andreas- Salome, who encouraged him to change his name from ‘‘Rene’’ to the more masculine ‘‘Rainer.’’ From 1897 to 1900, Rilke traveled to Berlin, Italy, and Russia with Andreas-Salome and her husband. In Russia, Rilke met novelist Leo Tolstoy and the peasant poet Spirdion Droschin, whose work Rilke translated into German.
Captivated by both the people and the landscape of Russia, Rilke discovered what he called his ‘‘spiritual fatherland,’’ an indication of his transition to a mystical period of writing. During this phase, Rilke composed such collections as Of Pilgrimage (1901) and The Book of Hours (1905). Also during this time, Rilke wrote a draft of what would become the most popular work in his lifetime: The Story of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke (1906).
In 1900, Rilke settled in the German artist colony of Worpswede, where he met and married sculptor Clara Westhoff. Just over a year later, only a few months after the birth of their daughter, Rilke left his family and traveled to Paris to write a book about the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. During this time Rilke was Rodin’s secretary, and the artist instructed Rilke not to wait for inspiration but to observe material objects for ideas. This advice prompted a significant change in Rilke’s writing, culminating in New Poems (1907), a collection of ‘‘thing-poems,’’ or lyrical poems capturing the things he had seen and studied.
Wanderer. After the 1910 publication of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigg, Rilke did not publish a major work for twelve years. In a state of restless inner turmoil, Rilke traveled from country to country, including Algeria and Egypt, during which time he visited the Castle Duino on the Balkan coast of the Adriatic Sea. While there, Rilke claimed, an angel appeared before him, inspiring him to begin composing a cycle of elegies that would be his ultimate poetic achievement upon its completion in 1922.
During this period, Rilke’s native country, like much of Europe, was embroiled in World War I. The heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by nationalist terrorists in 1914. His death set off a domino effect as most countries in Europe were allied. Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany and Turkey to form the Central Powers against France, Russia, Great Britain, and, later, the United States, known as the Allies. When World War I broke out, Rilke was detained in Germany for nearly five years, mostly in Munich. The war proved destructive and costly to human life for both sides, but the Allies emerged victorious in 1918. In the aftermath, the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed and Austria was reduced to its German-speaking sections. The new republic of Austria was formed.
After the war, in 1919, Rilke began a lecture tour in Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life. In an explosion of creativity, he finished Duino Elegies (1922) and wrote Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) within three weeks, both of which brought him international recognition as a major writer. In bad health, Rilke spent his final years visiting various health spas in Switzerland. In 1926, he died of leukemia at Valmont in Montreux.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rilke's famous contemporaries include:
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967): American author. Sandburg won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln (1940), the other for The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg (1951).
Clarence Darrow (1857-1938): American attorney. This lawyer's most famous case was tried in 1925, when he defended John T. Scopes, a teacher accused of teaching evolution instead of divine creation.
Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936): Spanish poet and playwright. His work shows his conviction that art is an essential part of everyday life. His plays include Mariana Pineda (1927).
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946): American photographer. The husband of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, he helped photography achieve the same status as an artistic medium as painting and sculpting. His pictures include The Hay Wagon (1922) and Equivalent (1931).
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959): American architect. He developed the Prairie School of architecture in which houses were designed with low-pitched roofs with overhanging eaves, open floor plans, and horizontal lines.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Russian composer. Because of its musical daring, fights broke out in the audience at the premiere of his ballet, The Rite of Spring (1913).
Works in Literary Context
Throughout Rilke’s life of extensive travel, he was most influenced by Paris, the city where he met sculptor Auguste Rodin and painter Paul Cezanne, artists who inspired him to regard his poems as carefully crafted objects. Encouraged by the visual arts of Rodin and Cezanne, Rilke developed a new style of writing in which he attempted to capture visual techniques in his poetry. At the end of his life, Rilke, inspired by poets Paul Valery and Jean Cocteau, translated French poetry into German and wrote three short volumes of his own in French. Rilke was also influenced by Danish writer, Jens Peter Jacobson.
Thing-Poems. With incredible skill, Rilke uses uncomplicated vocabulary to describe tangible subjects and objects encountered in everyday life. Rilke’s thing-poems, sometimes referred to as object poems, describe physical objects as simply and precisely as possible, ideally not as they appear on the surface, but as if the writer inhabits the things from within. Observing Rodin’s artistic method, Rilke learned that the sculptor approached a piece of marble not with a predetermined plan, but with complete openness to the creative possibilities within the stone. Speculating whether this approach could be applied to writing poetry, Rodin and Rilke made a list of things in Paris that could be potential subject matter for Rilke.
Working his way down the list, Rilke visited the Paris zoo, which became the inspiration for many of his best- known thing-poems. Swans, blue hydrangeas, gazelles, flamingoes, the merry-go-round at the zoo—all were transformed into subjects for Rilke. Of the poems written during this time, ‘‘The Panther,’’ is the most famous and demonstrates quite clearly Rilke’s mastery of the poetic form. With beautiful minimalism, he shapes the panther out of words, as if he is a visual artist molding the animal out of clay.
Legacy. Though his work was respected by a number of European artists at the time of his death, Rilke was virtually unknown to the general reading public. That anonymity came to an end in 1936, however, when his work was introduced into the English literary world by several translators. In addition to influencing such poets as Stephen Spender, Robert Bly, and W. H. Auden, Rilke’s work has interested several philosophers over the years, including Ludwig Wittgenstein. Because of his striking powers of perception and literary technique, modern scholars consider Rilke to be the greatest lyric poet of Germany.
Works in Critical Context
Because of such underdeveloped collections as Life and Songs, Rilke’s early poetry was dismissed as maudlin and immature. In fact, looking back at his early poems from the vantage point of an older, experienced poet, Rilke himself agreed with the judgment of those critics at the beginning of his career. For many years, scholars considered Rilke’s work to be that of a religious dreamer or a mystic prophet, thus lacking literary merit. After World War II, however, Rilke was increasingly acknowledged as a writer of philosophical poetry, as well as one of literature’s first postmodern poets.
Duino Elegies. Many literary scholars contend that Rilke’s Duino Elegies is one of the twentieth century’s most important works of poetry. Duino Elegies ‘‘might well be called the greatest set of poems of modern times,’’ asserts Colin Wilson in Religion and the Rebel. ‘‘They have had as much influence in German-speaking countries as [T. S. Eliot’s] The Waste Land has in England and America.’’ In the ten elegies of the Duino Elegies cycle, Rilke reflects upon the purpose of life and the task of the poet to help reconcile art and life, because art holds the ultimate creative power in the universe. Furthermore, he questions how humankind is supposed to survive in a world that is progressively becoming inhumane.
Many scholars have commended Duino Elegies for its acceptance of all facets of life, including the world’s destructive forces. In his Collected Criticism, Conrad Aiken notes that ‘‘no poet before him had been brave enough to accept the whole of [the dark side] of the world, as if it were unquestionably valid and potentially universal.’’ For Rilke, the darkness was fundamentally part of the light.
Feminist Perspectives. More recent criticism comes from a feminist perspective, which analyzes Rilke’s attitude toward women. Several feminist critics argue that although Rilke’s view of women is kind, he confines them to the same idealistic pedestal as his predecessors. His depiction of mother figures, as well as the female/male relationship in general, continues to be of interest to scholars such as poet Adrienne Rich, who, in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, calls attention to the fact that ‘‘the young woman is to mediate for [the male] in his ‘monstrous’ inner life, just as the mother mediated in his childhood.’’ Overall, feminist critics contend, Rilke gives female characters stereotypical virtues, including selflessness and an unconditional— often unrealistic—capacity to love, virtues that he would never assign to men.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In the latter part of his life, Rilke carried on a five-year correspondence with Franz Xaver Kappus, a young poet who had sent Rilke some poems of his own, seeking the older man's advice. Collected and published after Rilke's death, Letters to a Young Poet (1929) provides insight into what Rilke believed necessary for Kappus—or anyone—to be not only an artist, but also a complete person. Listed below are other works that use correspondence as a way to gain insight into a person's life and work:
Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963 (1975), a collection of letters by Sylvia Plath, edited and selected by her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath. Written when she was in college, Plath's letters to her mother reveal both her drive for success and her periods of deep depression.
The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845-1846, Part One (2005), correspondence between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. The eloquent love letters exchanged between these two significant writers resulted in a passionate marriage that lasted until Barrett's death.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), a film directed by Clint Eastwood. This movie is based on letters home from General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander in charge on the island of Iwo Jima when it was attacked by American troops in 1944.
Responses to Literature
1. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, ‘‘Poems are, with the best knowledge and intention, not to be translated without losses. I always think one should stick with the original.’’ Given this statement, why do you think Rilke chose to translate works by the French poets Andre Gide and Paul Valery? Find two different translations of one of Rilke’s poems and write a paper that addresses questions like the following: What differences do you see between the two translations? What do you think caused these differences?
2. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes to Kappus that young people ‘‘are not yet capable of love.’’ In the context of our own cultural habits and expectations, do you find this a shocking statement? What does Rilke mean when he says that society provides ‘‘conventions’’ as ‘‘life-preservers’’ for the common disillusionments of love? Write an essay in which you address these issues.
3. Select three everyday objects and make lists for each one in which you note sensory details and as much physical description as possible. Next, choose the one object you feel most familiar with and write your own thing-poem of at least fifteen lines.
4. In the essay ‘‘On Transience,’’ Sigmund Freud describes a walk with two unnamed companions— who might have been Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome, Freud’s former love, as well as Rilke’s. The trio is discussing human creativity from a psychoanalytic viewpoint. Drawing on what you know about Rilke’s stance on art and the artist, write a script for the conversation that might have taken place among Rilke, Freud, and Andreas-Salome.
Aiken, Conrad Potter, and Ivor A. Richards. Collected Criticism.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Komar, Kathleen L. Transcending Angels: Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.’’ Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Peters, H. F. Rainer Maria Rilke: Masks and the Man. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton, 1986.
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
The Academy of American Poets. ‘‘Rainer Maria Rilke.’’ Retrieved April 7, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/printpoet.php/prmPID/295.
Strathausen, Carsten. The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision around 1900. Retrieved April 9, 2008, from http://uncpress.unc.edu/chapters/strathausen_look.html.