Authors: Rainer Maria Rilke

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

German poet

December 4, 1875

Prague, Bohemia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Czech Republic)

December 29, 1926

Valmont, Switzerland


Rainer Maria Rilke (RIHL-kuh) is the most important and influential German poet of the twentieth century; along with the Anglo-Irish William Butler Yeats and the French Paul Valéry, he caused a transformation of lyric poetry, opening up new directions and potentialities. He was born (baptized René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke) on December 4, 1875, in Prague, then within the dominion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest administrative unit in Europe. The Rilke family had long been established as fairly prosperous land agents near Prague and claimed descent from a long line of Carinthian nobility. Rilke’s father had begun his adult life as a career military officer, but he was forced to resign his commission because of a chronic throat problem. Thereafter he worked as an Austrian railroad official, eventually transferring his dreams of military glory to his son, who, he hoped, would triumph where he had failed. Rilke’s mother, a poet with aristocratic fantasies, had other ideas. {$I[AN]9810000899} {$I[A]Rilke, Rainer Maria} {$I[geo]GERMANY;Rilke, Rainer Maria} {$I[tim]1875;Rilke, Rainer Maria}

Rainer Maria Rilke

At the age of eleven, when Rilke had completed his early schooling, his parents’ marriage dissolved. Rilke was sent to boarding school; his father’s will prevailing, he entered a rigorous military academy. He later reported that the Prussian discipline traumatized him; although some critics have doubted the severity of the training, Rilke certainly reacted against the bourgeois values of a society that supported such institutions and ideals. Chronic illnesses, probably psychosomatic, eventually forced his withdrawal. He was expected to take over his uncle’s law practice in Prague, but he became increasingly disenchanted with law and attracted to poetry. With the publication of his first volume, Leben und Lieder (life and songs), in 1894, his vocation was set.

For the next several years he published regularly, though he would ultimately renounce as juvenile all this material, including his most popular work, The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, a rhythmical balladesque recounting of the experiences of a seventeenth century soldier, Rilke’s ancestor. Yet his real breakthrough as a poet had already begun. It started with his discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche, who instilled a philosophy of struggle, and of the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen, who taught him to look at nature as a source of images corresponding to emotional states. He followed this with two trips to Russia, where he was overwhelmed with both the immense landscapes and the combination of piety and fatalistic resignation in the Russian soul. Contact with an artists’ colony at Worpswede near Bremen fused these influences by helping him look for plastic equivalents for feelings, something akin to T. S. Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative. Finally he went to Paris in 1902; he found the modern metropolis terrifying and spirit-robbing. The sculptor Auguste Rodin took him in, insulated him against the shock of the city, taught him more about the way sculpture could shape poetic images, and hired him as a private secretary.

The employment lasted only eight months, but it moved Rilke to take an entirely fresh approach to lyric poetry. This revelation was disclosed only gradually. The first traces appear in The Book of Images, to the second edition of which (in 1906) he added thirty-seven poems, including some of those for which he is best known. Even before this he published The Book of Hours, in which he first adopts the persona of a Russian monk meditating on the interrelationship of humankind, nature, and God, then speaks as the poverty-stricken street people of Paris. These poems introduce a unique pantheistic mysticism, a celebration of natural religion that absorbs familiar Christian images.

The transformation reached full flower in his New Poems, especially in the second volume, published in 1908. These were different enough from anything he had done earlier that he distinguished them as “experiences”; the others were simply “feelings,” immature approaches to the complex whole. He presents a version of his Parisian transformation in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in which the title character is a fictionalized counterpart of Rilke experiencing the isolation and depression of the sensitive soul in the modern cosmopolis. It begs comparison with James Joyce’s parallel account in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), though it has never received the same public acclaim.

This frenzy of publication left Rilke exhausted. He sought solace in travel, first to North Africa, then to Spain, following which he occupied himself mostly in translations of French, Spanish, Italian, and English poets.

Finally, while spending a season at Schloss Duino on the Adriatic, he felt new inspiration. He managed to finish two components of what would become Duino Elegies, but he became oppressed first with fears of and then with the fact of World War I. That oppression kept him from writing for ten full years, until 1922. When inspiration returned, it came with a vengeance: His writing became so compulsive that he was left physically debilitated afterward. Yet he was able to finish Duino Elegies—and to alter the course of not only German but also world poetry in the process.

This book consists of ten wide-ranging poems, loosely linked in a cycle, which explore Rilke’s personal universe of spiritual struggle as a microcosm of the more general problem of human existence. The poems are obscure, dense, and laden with private symbolism, and unraveling them required the best efforts of a generation of scholars. One key, derived in part from his earlier poetry, has been found in Rilke’s concept of nature, which he sees as the source of both poetic experience and human action. In his vision, however, both poet and humankind are profoundly alienated from nature; the attempts of both to reestablish the vital link repeatedly end in frustration. Humans are doomed to suffer defeat in their efforts to restore themselves to their source in nature; this makes tragedy the norm of human experience. Worse, in attempting to disclose this reality, the poet must work with words and images that reflect only dimly the truth of experience.

Finally eased of this burden, Rilke turned to Sonnets to Orpheus, a Dionysian celebration that balances the Apollonian austerity of Duino Elegies. Rilke composed these fifty-five sonnets within a few weeks after finishing the earlier harrowing poems. The sonnets share the difficulty of style and obscurity of reference of Duino Elegies, but in all other respects they are a complete contrast. Their tone is ecstatic, celebratory, full of light, joyful rather than lamenting. The sonnets commemorate integration and reunion: Orpheus, the spirit of song, moves nature with his singing and harmonizes it with humankind. Imitating him, the poet becomes the means of spiritualizing nature and human experience in it. In balancing Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus demonstrates that Rilke’s aesthetic and mysticism embrace both polarities. Where he would have gone from this point remains conjecture. He died in Switzerland, of acute leukemia, in 1926.

Author Works Poetry: Leben und Lieder, 1894 Larenopfer, 1896 Wegwarten, 1896 Christus—Visionen, wr. 1896–1898, pb. 1950 Traumgekrönt, 1897 Advent, 1898 Mir zur Feier, 1899 Das Buch der Bilder, 1902, 1906 (The Book of Images, 1994) Das Stundenbuch, 1905 (The Book of Hours, 1961) Neue Gedichte, 1907–1908 (2 volumes; New Poems, 1964) Requiem, 1909 (Requiem, and Other Poems, 1935) Die frühen Gedichte, 1909 Das Marienleben, 1913 (The Life of the Virgin Mary, 1951) Duineser Elegien, 1923 (Duinese Elegies, 1930; better known as Duino Elegies) Die Sonette an Orpheus, 1923 (Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936) Vergers, suivi des Quatrains Valaisans, 1926 Les Fenêtres, 1927 Les Roses, 1927 Gesammelte Werke, 1927 Verse und Prosa aus dem Nachlass, 1929 Späte Gedichte, 1934 (Late Poems, 1938) Poèmes français, 1935 Aus dem Nachlass des Grafen C. W.: Ein Gedichtkreis, 1950 Poems, 1906 to 1926, 1957 Poems, 1965 Gedichte an die Nacht, 1976 Uncollected Poems, 1996 Long Fiction: Am Leben hin, 1889 Die Letzten, 1902 Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, 1906 (The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, 1932) Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910 (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930; also known as The Journal of My Other Self ) Ewald Tragy, 1929 (English translation, 1958) Short Fiction: Zwei Prager Geschichten, 1899 (Two Stories of Prague, 1994) Vom lieben Gott und Anderes, 1900 (republished as Geschichten vom lieben Gott, 1904; Stories of God, 1931, 1963) Erzählungen und Skizzen aus der Frühzeit, 1928 Drama: Murillo, pb. 1895 (English translation, 1979) Jetzt und in der Stunde unseres Absterbens, pr., pb. 1896 (Now and in the Hour of Our Death, 1979) Höhenluft, wr. 1897, pr. 1969 (Air at High Altitude, 1979) Im Frühfrost, pr., pb. 1897 (Early Frost, 1979) Vigilien, wr. 1897 (Vigils, 1979) Ohne Gegenwart, pb. 1898 (Not Present, 1979) Waisenkinder, pb. 1901 (Orphans, 1979) Das tägliche Leben, pr. 1901 (Everyday Life, 1979) Die weisse Fürstin, pb. 1929 (The White Princess, 1979) Nine Plays, pb. 1979 Nonfiction: Auguste Rodin, 1903 (English translation, 1919) Worpswede: Fritz Mackensen, Otto Modersohn, Fritz Overbeck, Hams am Ende, Heirich Vogeler, 1903 Briefe an einen jungen Dichter, 1929 (Letters to a Young Poet, 1934) Wartime Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1914–1921, 1940 Tagebücher aus der Frühzeit, 1942 (Diaries of a Young Poet, 1997) Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1945–1948 (2 volumes) Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902–1926, 1947 Briefwechsel [zwischen] Rainer Maria Rilke und Marie von Thurn und Taxis, 1951 (The Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke and Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, 1958) Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé: Briefwechsel, 1952 (Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Correspondence, 2006 Sieh dir die Liebenden an: Briefe an Valerie von David-Rhonfeld, 2003 Briefwechsel mit Thankmar von Münchhausen 1913 bis 1925, 2004 Der Dichter und sein Astronom: der Briefwechsel zwischen Rainer Maria Rilke und Erwein von Aretin, 2005 Briefwechsel 1906–1926 / Rainer Maria Rilke, Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin, 2007 Briefe und Dokumente, 2008 Briefe an die Mutter, 1896–1926, 2009 Briefe von Gut Böckel: “Ich wohne hier in stiller Gastfreundschaft . . .”: 24. Juli–2. Oktober 1917, 2011 Bibliography Bernstein, Michael Andre. Five Portraits: Modernity and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing (Rethinking Theory). Edited by Gary Saul Morson. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Presents Rilke’s poetry in the context of the shift among German writers from Romanticism and aestheticism to twentieth century modernism. Drees, Hajo. Rainer Maria Rilke: Autobiography, Fiction, Therapy. New York: P. Lang, 2001. Explores the autobiographical stratum of Rilke’s works, applying critical theories of autobiography and autobiographical fiction. Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. A helpful complement to Donald Prater’s definitive biography, this work draws extensive parallels between Rilke’s life and the content of his poetry. Also contains several photographs of Rilke and his family. Kleinbard, David. The Beginning of Terror: A Psychological Study of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Life and Work. New York: New York University Press, 1993. A critical rather than comprehensive biography, attempting a psychoanalysis of Rilke and his published writing. Examines issues such as Rilke’s childhood, his relationships with his parents (both biological and surrogate), and his debilitating blood disorder and its effect on his work. Leppmann, Wolfgang and Russell M. Stockman, trans. Rilke: A Life. New York: Fromm International Pub. Corp., 1984. Contains biographical information as well as discussions of Rilke’s poetry. Prater, Donald. A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Reprint. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993. A definitive biography of Rilke; it concentrates especially on his European travels and correspondence with friends. Also, the bibliography is highly helpful for those who need a comprehensive, expert guide to Rilke criticism. Illustrated. Ryan, Judith. Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Although Rilke saw himself as a more or less self-created writer, who needed extended periods of solitude in which to work, Ryan shows him in his relationship to other writers and even painters in the European culture of his day. Traces his movement from the art-for-art’s-sake school of writing into modernism.

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