Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is considered the greatest lyric poet of modern Germany. His work is marked by a mystical sense of God and death.
Born in Prague on Dec. 4, 1875, Rainer Maria Rilke grew up in a middle-class milieu he called "petit bourgeois," of which he later felt ashamed. In spite of his sensitive, almost feminine nature, he was expected to become an army officer and was forced to spend 5 years (1886-1891) in the military academies of St. Pölten and Mährisch-Weisskirchen. After graduation from high school, he enrolled for a year as a student of literature at the German University of Prague (1895-1896) before moving away from his family. He continued his studies at the University of Munich for the next few years.
At 19 Rilke began his literary career by publishing at his own expense a collection of indifferent love poems, Leben und Lieder (1894; Life and Songs), written in the conventional style of the Heine tradition. This was followed in 1895 by a collection of poems, Larenopfer, revealing a sentimental attachment to his native Prague. Both of these slim volumes as well as the next ones, Traumgekrönt (1896; Dream-Crowned), Advent (1897), and Mir zur Feier (1899; Celebrating Myself), fail to show the sharpness of observation that characterizes his later verse. His prose tales of this period, Am Leben hin (1898; On the Rim of Life), also contain little to foreshadow his later genius.
In his second, religious or mystic, period (1899-1903), Rilke, opposed to the naturalism of his time, became an esthetic symbolist and, above all, a religious prophet and humanitarian. In August 1900 he settled in the north German artist colony Worpswede near Bremen, met a young sculptress, Clara Westhoff, and married her. There he wrote a monograph, Worpswede (1902), about the painters whose work he observed, and contributed book reviews to the Bremer Tageblatt. His marriage, doomed almost from the start, remained a brief episode, although it was never formally dissolved. A few months after the birth (Dec. 12, 1901) of his daughter, Ruth, he departed for Paris, leaving behind his wife and child.
Two books of poetry, written for the most part during his time in the painters' colony, eventually brought Rilke fame. One was Das Buch der Bilder (1901, 1906; The Book of Images ), a volume of individual poems without a common theme, marked by intense musicality and the ability to conjure up moods almost independent of the meaning of the words that are used. The other volume contains a cycle of religious poems, Das Stundenbuch (1905; The Book of Hours), consisting of three parts, each marking a stage in his development: Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben (1899), Von der Pilgerschaft (1901), and Von der Armut und vom Tode (1903). Its genesis was Rilke's two trips to Russia, undertaken in 1899 and 1900. His delightful, childlike stories, Vom Lieben Gott (1900; Stories of God), reveal a "circling around God," as he himself calls it, in which God and the believer are mutually interdependent. These early works are sincerely mystical, revealing his sense of humility and brotherhood, his simple faith and genuine compassion for the poor and exploited.
Life in Paris
Rilke's life in Paris (1902-1910) initiated a new phase, marked by the most significant turn in his poetic career: his new attitude toward objective reality and his attempt to apprehend the very essence of things, animate as well as inanimate. The commission to write a monograph on the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin had brought Rilke to Paris. He served Rodin for a while as secretary, and he admired him more than any other living artist. Rodin taught Rilke not to wait passively for inspiration but rather to go out and look for subjects, to observe and study tangible objects. Rilke now developed a new concept of the artist as the hardworking craftsman. This new attitude manifests itself in those poems that appeared under the title Neue Gedichte (1907, 1908; New Poems). Here one finds his famous Ding-Gedichte (thing-poems), poetic re-creations of things he had seen and observed and which to him become impersonal symbols: animals and flowers, landscapes, and, above all, works of art.
During a trip to Sweden in 1904, Rilke composed the first version of Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornet Christoph Rilke, a romantic, even melodramatic, sentimental account of the last hours of a young aspiring cavalry officer. Later he tried to disassociate himself from this poem that became his most popular work. After the publication of his Neue Gedichte, Rilke set about completing an autobiographical novel begun in Rome 4 years before. In this, his only major narrative work, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910 Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge), he tells the story of his own inner suffering during his lonely Paris years.
With the completion of Malte Laurids Brigge in the winter of 1909/1910, Rilke's Paris time came to an end; he spent only 18 months of the next 4 1/2 years in Paris. These were the years of an inner crisis, and in his utter restlessness and despair he moved from country to country. Anxious to explore new territories, he traveled in the winter 1910/1911 to North African countries, Algiers, Tunis, and Egypt, and from November 1912 to February 1913 he lived in Spain. Amid the profound hopelessness and frustration of these years, however, was one event which was to change Rilke's whole literary career: Princess Marie of Thurn and Taxis offered him the hospitality of her Castle Duino, near Trieste, on the Dalmatian coast. Here in 1912 he began to compose a series of elegies that were to become his ultimate poetic achievement. They were not, however, completed until 10 years later.
When the war broke out in August 1914, Rilke was caught in Leipzig and was forced to remain in Germany. Most of the next 5 years he spent in and around Munich, except for 7 months' service in the Austrian army. In the first days of the war, Rilke passed through a brief period of exaltation and wrote his patriotic Fünf Gesänge (Five Songs). But this initial enthusiasm and solidarity with his patriotic countrymen soon gave way to indifference and, finally, to outright opposition to the German war effort.
In June 1919 Rilke accepted an invitation for a lecture tour in Switzerland, where he remained, except for a few sojourns in Italy and France, including a 7-month stay in Paris in 1925, until the end of his life. During the first year or two, he searched desperately for a refuge where he could take up the cycle of poems that he had left unfinished for so long. He discovered in the summer of 1921 Muzot, a deserted medieval tower, hardly habitable, near Sierre in the canton of Valais. Here in February 1922 he completed within a few days the cycle of poems he had begun in Duino in 1912. Dedicated to his hostess and benefactress, Princess Marie, he called them in gratitude Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies). Their publication in 1923 marked the high point of his career, and even Rilke himself, critical of his own work, regarded them as his most important achievement. The great themes of the Elegien are man's loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet. They were followed by the Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus), a total of 55 poems which represent the other aspect of Rilke's vision: his sense of joy, affirmation, and praise.
In his last years (1923-1926) Rilke turned more and more to French literature, not only translating André Gide and Paul Valéry, but also writing poems in French (Poe‧mes français). He died of leukemia on Dec. 29, 1926, in a sanatorium in Valmont above Montreux.
Further Reading on Rainer Maria Rilke
A truly satisfactory biographical study of Rilke cannot be undertaken until all his papers become available. A first serious attempt was made by Eliza M. Butler in her monograph, Rainer Maria Rilke (1941), and later by Jean Rodolphe de Salis in a book which covers only the last 7 years of Rilke's life, Rainer Maria Rilke: The Years in Switzerland (1964). For analysis of Rilke's writings, the works of two American scholars are recommended: Frank H. Wood, Rainer Maria Rilke: The Ring of Forms (1958), and Heinz F. Peters, Rainer Maria Rilke: Masks and the Man (1960). Useful background material is in Cecil M. Bowra, Heritage of Symbolism (1943), and particularly in the short work on German literature by Ronald Gray, The German Tradition in Literature, 1871-1945 (1965), which includes an incisive interpretation of some of the key works of Rilke.
Additional Biography Sources
Freedman, Ralph, Life of a poet: a biography of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995.
Hendry, J. F., The sacred threshold: a life of Rainer Maria Rilke, Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1983.
Kleinbard, David, The beginning of terror: a psychological study of Rainer Maria Rilke's life and work, New York: New York University Press, 1993.
Leppmann, Wolfgang, Rilke: a life, New York: Fromm International Pub. Corp., 1984.
Nalewski, Horst, Rainer Maria Rilke, Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1976.
Prater, Donald A., A ringing glass: the life of Rainer Maria Rilke, Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, 1993.
Tavis, Anna A., Rilke's Russia: a cultural encounter, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1994.