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|Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)|
Writer and poet, considered one of the greatest lyric poets of modern Germany. Rilke created the "object poem" as an attempt to describe with utmost clarity physical objects, the "silence of their concentrated reality." He became famous with such works as Duineser Elegien and Die Sonette an Orpheus. They both appeared in 1923. After these books, Rilke had published his major works, believing that he had done his best as a writer.
"Works of art are indeed always products of having been in danger, of having gone to the very end in an experience, to where man can go no further." (from Letters)
Rainer Maria Rilke was born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Joseph Maria Rilke in Prague, the son of Josef Rilke, a railway official and the former Sophie Entz, the daughter of a bank official with the title of Imperial Counsellor. A crucial fact in Rilke's life was that his mother called him Sophia and forced him to wear girl's clothes until he was aged five - thus compensating for the earlier loss of a baby daughter. However, his father gave him toy soldiers and dumbbells for exercise. Later Rilke blamed his mother for his dark childhood, but she also encouraged him to read and write poetry. Rilke also learned early many of Schiller's ballads by heart.
Rilke's parents separated when he was nine. At the age of ten Rilke was sent by his militarily inclined father to a military academy. Rilke spent miserable years at St. Pölten and Mahrisch-Weisskirchenn until 1891, and then entered a business school in Linz after studies at a preparatory school. He also worked in his uncle's law firm. Rilke continued his studies at the universities of Prague, Munich, and Berlin.
As a poet Rilke made his debut at the age of nineteen with Leben und Lieder(1894), written in the conventional style of Heinrich Heine. In Munich he met Lou Salomé, the talented and spiritied daughter of a Russian army officer, who was 14 years his senior. Salomé influenced him deeply; they become lovers in 1897. In Florence, where he spent some months in 1898, Rilke wrote: "... I felt at first so confused that I could scarcely separate my impressions, and thought I was drowning in the breaking waves of some foreign splendor." Salomé had been a friend of Nietzsche, who broke off his relationship with Salomé in December 1882. Later she married professor Friedrich Carl Andreas. Other important women in Rilke's life were the young sculptress Klara Westhoff, the Swedish writer Ellen Key, Marthe Hennebert, who was a young girl who become a textile designer, the great Italian actress Eleonora Duse, Marie von Thurn und Taxis, and Hertha Koenig, both very wealthy, and Nanny Wunderly-Volkart.
In 1899 Rilke traveled with Lou Andreas-Salomé and her husband in Russia, visiting among others Leo Tolstoy. Rilke was deeply impressed by what he learned of Russian mysticism. During this period he started to write The Book of Hours: The Book of Monastic Life, which appeared in 1905. He spent some time in Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, and joined an artists' colony at Worpswede in 1903. In his letters to a young would-be poet, which he wrote from 1903 to 1908, Rilke explained, that "nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write." (in Letters to a Young Poet, 1929)
In 1901 Rilke married Klara Westhoff, one of Auguste Rodin's pupils. They had a daughter, Ruth. She was born seven months after the marriage, which lasted only one year. However, legally they did not divorce. "It is a question in marriage," Rilke once stated, "to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his powers to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility..." Rilke's affairs with women followed a certain pattern: after falling in love, he first wrote passionate letters but when he started to think that the counterpart had come too near to him, he withdrew from the relationship. "Never forget that solitude is my lot," Rilke once explained in a letter. "I implore those who love me to love my solitude."
Rilke composed in rhymed, metered verse, the second part of The Book of Hours. The work expressed his spiritual yearning. After Rilke had separated from Klara, he settled in Paris to write a book about Rodin and to work for his secretary (1905-06). Under the influence of the famous sculptor and his artisan confidence, Rilke developed his idea of the "thing-poem", modeled after Rodin's art: "The thing is definite, the art-thing must be still more definite; removed from all accident, reft away from all obscurity, withdrawn from time and given over to space, it has become enduring capable of eternity. The model seems, the art-thing is." (from a letter to Andreas-Salomé, 8 August 1903) The "thing-poems" (Dinggedichte) were not about dead objects, but in Rilke's writing they came alive - in 'Archaic Torso of Apollo' (from New Poems, 1908) the ancient statue discovered at Miletus is "stuffed with brilliance from inside" and "gleams in all its power".
During his Paris years Rilke developed a new style of lyrical poetry.'Der Panther', in which the psychological distinction between the observer and observation melts together, marked the beginning of the period: "Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille / sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein, / geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille - / und hört im Herzen auf zu sein."
In the Spring of 1906 the overworked poet left Rodin abruptly. Rilke revised Das Buch der Bilder and published it in an enlarged edition. He also wrote The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, which became a great popular success. After Neue Gedichte (1907-08, New Poems) Rilke wrote a notebook named Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), his most important prose work. It took the form of a series of semiautobiographical spiritual confessions but written by a Danish expatriate in Paris. Finishing the book emptied Rilke's creative powers and he decided to undertake several translations, including the sonnets of Louise Labé. Later reviewing the work George Steiner reproved Rilke because he excelled her: "Where he does so, the original is subtly injured."
Rilke kept silence as a poet for twelve years before writing Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, which are concerned with "the identity of terror and bliss" and "the oneness of life and death". Duino Elegies was born in two bursts of inspiration separated by ten years. According to a story, Rilke heard in the wind the first lines of his elegies when he was walking on the rocks above the sea - "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' / hierarchies?"
Rilke visited his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe in 1910 at Duino, her remote castle on the coast of the Adriatic, and returned again next year. There he started to compose the poems, but the work did proceed easily. After serving in the army, Rilke was afraid that he would never be able to finish it but finally in 1922 he completed Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies) in a chateau in Muzot, Switzerland. He also wrote an addition, the Sonnets to Orpheus, which was a memorial for the young daughter of a friend. In the philosophical poems Rilke meditated on time and eternity, life and death, art versus ordinary things. The tone was melancholic.
Rilke believed in the coexistence of the material and spiritual realms, but human being were for him only spectators of life, grasping its beauties momentarily only to lose them again. With the power of creativity an artist can try to build a bridge between two worlds, although the task is almost too great for a man. Rilke influenced deeply such poets as Sidney Keyes, Stephen Spender, Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, and W.H. Auden, who had Rilkean angels appear in the collection In Times of War (1939). Also a number of philosophers have showed interest in Rilke's work, including the great Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who admired Rilke's early poetry, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, a proponent of hermeneutics. ("I can think of few little books so densely packed with the matter of poetic observation, few books where every line counts so heavily. Moreover, the nature of the poetry in it is so unwaveringly accurate in its vision and so coolly, surgically presented to the reader that one hesitates to use the world at all..." Lawrence Durrell on Malte Laurids Brigge, in German Life and Letters, 1963)
In 1913 Rilke returned to Paris, but he was forced to return to Germany because of the First World War. Duino Castle was bombarded to ruins and Rilke's personal property was confiscated in France. He served in the Austrian army and found another patron, Werner Reinhart, who owned the Castle Muzot at Valais. When English soldiers read Rupert Brooke's poems, young German soldiers took Rilke's Five Cantos / August 1914 to the front.
After 1919 Rilke lived in Switzerland, occupied by his work and roses in his little garden. For time to time he went to Paris for a few months or to Italy. Rilke's companion during his last years was the artist Baladine (Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro), whose son, Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), become also an artist. Rilke wrote a foreword to a book illustrated by Balthus's drawings of cats. Rilke died on December 29, in 1926. He had suffered from leukemia and spent much time at the Val-Mont sanatorium, but he died of an infection he contracted when he pricked himself on a rose thorn - or this was what he encouraged in his last days his friends to think.
Rilke's sense of alienation was summed up in his words that it is our "fate to be opposite and nothing else, and always opposite". In his early works he imported mystical elements in his poetry, but later Rilke dealt more with the role of an artist, who must "speak and bear witness." "Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one; you can't impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe where he feels more powerful, you are a novice. Show him something simple which, formed over generations, / lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze." (from 'The Ninth Elegy') The angel of the Elegies had nothing to do with Biblical stories, but was according to Rilke the "Being who stands for the recognition in the Invisible of a higher degree of reality." That is why Rilke also called the angel "terrible" (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich), because we still cling to the Visible.
An important part of Rilke´s writings are his letters (to Marina Tsvetaeva, Auguste Rodin, André Gide, H.v.Hofmannstahl, B.Pasternak, Stefan Zweig etc.), which have been published posthumously in different collections. The Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak was a great admirer of Rilke's work; Pasternak's father Leonid had met Rilke in Russia and Italy. When Leonid congratulated Rilke on his 50th birthday, the poet confirmed his love of the old Russia: "... but even if we do not live to see it at its resurrection, the profound, the real, the other surviving Russia has only fallen back on her secret root system, as she did before, under the Tatar yoke; who could doubt that she is still there and is gathering her forces in that dark place, invisible to her own children, leisurely with her own sacred slowness, on to a possibly still-remote future?!"
For further reading: Rilke on Death and Other Oddities by John Mood (2007); Rilkes Frauen by Gunnar Decker (2004); The Beginning of Terror: A Psychological Study of R.M. Rilke's Life and Work by D. Kleinbard (1993); Rainer Maria Rilke by Patricia Brodsky (1988); A Ringing Glass by Donald Prater (1986); The Sacred Threshold by J.F. Hendry (1983); Rainer Maria Rilke by Heiz F. Peters (1977); Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties by John Mood (1975); Rilke: Man and Poet by N. Purtscher (1972); Rainer Maria Rilke by R.H. Wood (1970); Rainer Maria Rilke: The Poetic Instinct by Siegfried Mandel (1965); Rilke's Duino Elegies by Romano Guardini (1961); Rainer Maria Rilke by H.F. Peters (1960); Rainer Maria Rilke: The Ring of Forms by F. Wood (1958); Rainer Maria Rilke by by E. Buddenberg (1953); Rainer Maria Rilke by H. Kunisch (1944); Rilke's Apotheosis by E.C. Mason (1938) - Links: John Mood (Rilke on Death and Other Oddities and Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties). See also: Kobo Abe