Rilke’s Redefines Poetics

During a critical twelve-year period of his life, Rainer Maria Rilke composed ten highly influential elegies that revolutionized the poetic process.

Summary of Event

In 1910, Rainer Maria Rilke, already a well-known writer and familiar figure on the European art scene, visited his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis at Duino, her remote and strangely beautiful castle on the coast of the Adriatic, near Trieste. He returned again to Duino in the winter of 1911 and, in one of those rare moments in the history of artistic composition, fell under a kind of aesthetic trance or spell, during which time he conceived the work that would become Duineser Elegien (1923; Duinese Elegies, 1930; better known as Duino Elegies). He would brood over the project for the next twelve years, experiencing several false starts before finishing the entire work during a brilliant explosion of creativity that took place during the month of February, 1922, while he was living in a chateau in Muzot, Switzerland. During that same month, Rilke also managed to complete the masterful Die Sonette an Orpheus (1923; Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936). Sonnets to Orpheus (Rilke) In the following months, he was to see both of these masterpieces come off the press at almost the same time. Duino Elegies (Rilke)
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[kw]Rilke’s Duino Elegies Redefines Poetics (1911-1923)[Rilkes Duino Elegies Redefines Poetics (1911 1923)]
[kw]Duino Elegies Redefines Poetics, Rilke’s (1911-1923)
[kw]Poetics, Rilke’s Duino Elegies Redefines (1911-1923)
Duino Elegies (Rilke)
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[g]Italy;1911-1923: Rilke’s Duino Elegies Redefines Poetics[02740]
[g]Switzerland;1911-1923: Rilke’s Duino Elegies Redefines Poetics[02740]
[c]Literature;1911-1923: Rilke’s Duino Elegies Redefines Poetics[02740]
Rilke, Rainer Maria

In many ways, Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus represent the capstone of Rilke’s artistic career. Duino Elegies, in particular, stands as one of the magisterial works of twentieth century art, a unique synthesis of poetic vision and linguistic creativity. In Duino Elegies, Rilke expanded the possibilities of the German language for the writing of poetry while offering a new idiom and a revolutionary attitude toward the making of art. Rilke created his own idiom, one that differed markedly from the prevailing style of leading German poet Stefan George and his followers.

Rilke was certainly well prepared for these undertakings. He came to this formidable task not as a neophyte but as an accomplished author of such major works as Das Buch der Bilder (1902; The Book of Images, 1994) and Auguste Rodin (1903; English translation, 1919), as well as a number of other books of lesser importance. Indeed, Rilke belonged to the last magnificent generation of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, a generation that produced a virtual renaissance of the arts in the German-speaking central European countries.

This German arts movement, which had its focal points in Prague, Munich, Vienna, Zurich, and Berlin, gave the world many lasting treasures in the decades preceding and following World War I. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the radical physics of Albert Einstein, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the nightmarish fiction of Franz Kafka, the new philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the mythological studies of Carl Jung, and the geometric furniture designs of the Bauhaus movement are only some of the more notable high points of this period of cultural enlightenment. Even World War I, with its prolonged and bloody trench warfare, could not completely extinguish the gleam.

Rilke was able to assimilate this culture and, in the process, find his own poetic voice largely because of his many close contacts in the arts world. He married the artist Clara Westhoff, and during the first months of their rather casual marriage, they lived near the arts colony of Worpswede, near Berlin. Before and after his marriage to Westhoff, Rilke had profound contacts with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a brilliantly creative woman who took Rilke to all the important arts centers of Europe and also introduced him to the Russian landscape, culture, and language. Rilke was also on close personal terms with the greatest sculptor of the period, Auguste Rodin, whom he served briefly in the capacity of private secretary. It is no exaggeration to state that Rilke could enter any capital city in Europe and call on a good friend who was well connected in the artistic or literary life of the country.

Clearly, many other artists had similar opportunities. What made Rilke a genius was the unique vision he brought to his writing. Duino Elegies belongs to the great body of visionary poetry that includes the work of Dante, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and Hart Crane. Like those poets, Rilke saw poetry as an outgrowth of his own spiritual life. Rilke was an intensely meditative poet who believed in the coexistence of the material and spiritual realms. For this basic reason, he must be considered a mystical writer; he populated Duino Elegies with “angels,” the perfect beings of this spiritual realm. His elegies can be read, then, as the records of his most important imaginary contacts with these transcendent creatures.

In the ten elegies, Rilke meditates on a few profound themes: time and eternity, life and death, art versus ordinary things, the mortal poet versus the immortal angel, and the need to lament but also to celebrate or praise existence in primal sound. There is no recognizable locale or time for these poems; conceivably, they could have been written almost anywhere or at any time. As such, they possess genuine universality.

A tone of melancholy, at times bordering on unbearable pain and sadness, dominates Duino Elegies. In the tenth elegy, for example, Rilke imagines day-to-day life as a kind of grotesque circus in which happiness is an elusive target in a sideshow and everyone becomes a juggler and acrobat. Money is featured as a monster whose organs are put on display. Yet an even deeper sadness permeates these works, as in the eighth elegy, where human beings are shown to be mere spectators in life, grasping its beauties momentarily only to lose them again and again.

The angels exist both to mock the insufficiency of human efforts and to inspire greater achievements. Liberation from this cycle of human limitation occurs through the process of transformation—looking into the ordinary pleasures of the world so profoundly as to transcend them and approach the angelic state. Transformation occurs as human beings begin to love both one another and the things of the world. Through language, the poet is redeemed; the world itself exists through the simple act of naming.


One way to define a literary classic is as a work that has never gone out of print. By that measure, Duino Elegies is certainly a classic, a book that continually attracts new generations of readers, both in the original German text and in many translations into other languages. Clearly, then, Duino Elegies has had a broad international influence. There are also many concrete and specific instances of the powerful influence of the book’s ten poems.

In England, France, and the United States—as well as in Germany—Rilke’s work has been absorbed by a variety of poets, critics, and translators. In some instances, one person has functioned brilliantly in all three of those roles. The English poet W. H. Auden, Auden, W. H. for example, not only wrote passionately and insightfully about Rilke but also patterned significant images and attitudes in his own poems after those he found in Duino Elegies. These tendencies are most apparent in Auden’s sonnet sequence titled In Time of War (1939), In Time of War (Auden) in which Rilkean angels appear, along with a reference to Rilke himself. Auden also wrote an important essay on the effect of Rilke’s verse on poets writing in English. Titled “Rilke in English,” this essay appeared in 1939 in the widely read magazine The New Republic.

Another British poet of the same period who also exhibited Rilkean flourishes in his verse and who actually echoed some of the opening lines of Duino Elegies was Sidney Keyes. Keyes, Sidney Unfortunately, Keyes was killed during military action in North Africa during World War II, but the very fact that he was imitating a German poet while fighting German soldiers speaks eloquently about the power of Rilke’s poetry to transcend the narrow confines of national boundaries. During this same period, in the year 1939, a team of British translators, J. B. Leishman Leishman, J. B. and Stephen Spender, Spender, Stephen completed their translation of Duino Elegies. Spender was a famous poet in his own right, and the Leishman-Spender translation established a standard of literary accuracy and fluency that few succeeding translators have been able to match.

Rilke’s international influence is also evident in the enthusiastic response of French writers and critics to his work. This approbation is especially noteworthy in view of the violent hatred often displayed by the French toward the Germans, and vice versa. It is a testimony to the spiritual power of Rilke’s poetry that it somehow overcame the rancorous feelings caused by the Franco-Prussian War as well as the enormous bitterness generated by both world wars.

During the midst of World War I, the eminent French writer André Gide Gide, André tried to recover some of Rilke’s manuscripts, which had been left behind in Rilke’s Paris apartment after the outbreak of the war. Although the landlord had apparently auctioned off most of Rilke’s personal effects, Gide personally recovered a few precious remains and returned them to the German poet at the end of the war. In 1926, the French magazine Les Cahiers du mois devoted an entire issue to the work of Rilke; during some of the worst fighting of World War II, Gide again paid homage to Rilke in an essay published in 1942.

American writers may not have come as close to Rilke initially, simply because they were not members of the close-knit European literary community. However, word of Rilke’s accomplishments, especially Duino Elegies, spread quickly to the United States. During the 1940’s, a great deal of criticism of Rilke’s poetry as well as translations of his most important German texts appeared in American literary magazines. Famous literary figures such as M. D. Herter Norton, C. F. MacIntyre, and Babette Deutsch were actively involved with Rilke’s work. MacIntyre, in particular, went on to establish himself as one of the premier translators of Rilke’s poetry, as shown by his volumes titled Rilke: Selected Poems (1940) and Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus (1960). Other noteworthy translators have included Stephen Garney and Jay Wilson, who produced a very colloquial translation of Duino Elegies in 1972, and Elaine Boney, whose translation of the same poems was titled Duinesian Elegies (1975).

Translations aside, the most important influence of Duino Elegies was on the kinds of poems writers began to undertake. It is impossible to imagine a poet such as Robert Bly, for example, writing without Rilke’s influence. Bly placed high value on translating and assimilating non-English poets, an approach he explained in numerous essays.

Even more telling, however, is the Rilkean voice, the voice of meditation on the things of this world and the deeper realities of the “other” world, a voice that readers can clearly detect in such poets as W. S. Merwin Merwin, W. S. (another translator-poet) and John Ashbery. Ashbery, John In this connection, Merwin’s volume Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), with its series of poems on irreducible things (such as a tool, bread, a door, horses, rain, and flies), is a beautifully successful example of Rilkean technique expressed in contemporary American English. In like manner, Ashbery’s poetry, especially his early volumes Some Trees (1956) and Rivers and Mountains (1966), reveals a similar preoccupation with transforming everyday things into transcendent objects, a Rilkean use of the ordinary world as a springboard to the extraordinary.

It is only fair to note that Rilke himself would probably have been horrified that his poetry exerted such influence after his untimely death from leukemia in 1926. Before his death, in fact, he scolded the young German poets who were trying to copy his verse. His final words on the subject can be found in Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (1929; Letters to a Young Poet, 1934), in which he stresses the necessity of individuality as the starting point of all genuine poetry. Duino Elegies (Rilke)
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Further Reading

  • Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Places Rilke in the context of his times. Essays examine the work of Rilke as well as that of four other German writers of the same period: Paul Celan, Robert Musil, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin. Includes index.
  • Brodsky, Patricia Pollock. Rainer Maria Rilke. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Written in clear, journalistic style; presents the life and work of Rilke in a straightforward chronological manner. An excellent introduction to Rilke’s life and work. A chronology of his life and a brief selected bibliography will also prove invaluable to the beginner.
  • Mandel, Siegfried. Rainer Maria Rilke: The Poetic Instinct. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. The first chapter of this superbly insightful study, “Between Day and Dream,” is mandatory reading for any student of Rilke’s work because it delineates the numerous tragedies of his early life. Mandel is particularly effective in showing Rilke’s growth and evolution as a poet. The index to this book provides an invaluable checklist of names and titles.
  • Peters, H. F. Rainer Maria Rilke: Masks and the Man. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1960. Anyone interested in Rilke’s influence on other poets of the twentieth century should read at least the chapter titled “Tonight in China,” which covers the topic in great detail. Written more for the professional critic than for the general reader, but a careful reading will yield rich insights. The chronology of Rilke’s life included here is one of the best available.
  • Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duinesian Elegies. Translated by Elaine E. Boney. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. A literal, academic translation of the elegies that offers an excellent starting point for those who do not read German.
  • _______. Duino Elegies. Translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. New York: W. W. Norton, 1939. The definitive and most widely used translation, with excellent commentary.

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