Rainer Maria Rilke

(4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926 / Prague / Czech Republic)

Biography of Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke poet

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke (German pronunciation: [ˈʁaɪnɐ maˈʁiːa ˈʁɪlkə]), better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was a Bohemian-Austrian poet. He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. His haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety: themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets. He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. Among English-language readers, his best-known work is the Duino Elegies; his two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He also wrote more than 400 poems in French, dedicated to his homeland of choice, the canton of Valais in Switzerland.

Life

1875–1896

He was born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in Prague, capital of Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now the Czech Republic). His childhood and youth in Prague were not especially happy. His father, Josef Rilke (1838–1906), became a railway official after an unsuccessful military career. His mother, Sophie ("Phia") Entz (1851–1931), came from a well-to-do Prague family, the Entz-Kinzelbergers, who lived in a house on the Herrengasse (Panská) 8, where René also spent many of his early years. The relationship between Phia and her only son was colored by her mourning for a prior child, a daughter, who had died after only a week of life. During Rilke's early years Phia acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy by dressing him in girl's clothing. The parents' marriage fell apart in 1884. His parents pressured the poetically and artistically talented youth into entering a military academy, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left due to illness. From 1892 to 1895 he was tutored for the university entrance exam, which he passed in 1895. In 1895 and 1896, he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich.

1897–1902

In 1897 in Munich, Rainer Maria Rilke met and fell in love with the widely traveled, intellectual woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke changed his first name from "René" to "Rainer" at Lou's urging because she thought that name more masculine, forceful, and Germanic. His relationship with this married woman, with whom he undertook two extensive trips to Russia, lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Lou continued to be Rilke's most important confidante until the end of his life. Having trained from 1912 to 1913 as a psychoanalyst with Sigmund Freud, she shared her knowledge of psychoanalysis with Rilke.

In 1898, Rilke undertook a journey lasting several weeks to Italy. In 1899, he traveled with Lou and her husband, Friedrich Andreas, to Moscow where he met the novelist Leo Tolstoy. Between May and August 1900, a second journey to Russia, accompanied only by Lou, again took him to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where he met the family of Boris Pasternak and Spiridon Drozhzhin, a peasant poet. Later, "Rilke called two places his home: Bohemia and Russia".

In autumn 1900, Rilke stayed at the artists' colony at Worpswede. (Later, his portrait would be painted by the proto-expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker, whom he got to know at Worpswede.) It was here that he got to know the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following spring. Their daughter Ruth (1901–1972) was born in December 1901. In the summer of 1902, Rilke left home and traveled to Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Before long his wife left their daughter with her parents and joined Rilke there. The relationship between Rilke and Clara Westhoff continued for the rest of his life; a mutually agreed-upon effort at divorce was bureaucratically hindered by Rilke's "official" status as a Catholic, though he was the very opposite of observant.

1902–1910

At first, Rilke had a difficult time in Paris, an experience that he called on in the first part of his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. At the same time, his encounter with modernism was very stimulating: Rilke became deeply involved in the sculpture of Rodin, and then with the work of Paul Cézanne. For a time he acted as Rodin's secretary, also lecturing and writing a long essay on Rodin and his work. Rodin taught him the value of objective observation, and under this influence Rilke dramatically transformed his poetic style from the subjective and sometimes incantatory language of his earlier work into something quite new in European literature. The result was the New Poems, famous for the "thing-poems" expressing Rilke's rejuvenated artistic vision. The poems of the New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part are highly wrought, using language and poetic form as a shaped and shaping material; to this extent the poems are often said to be "things" in themselves. During these years, Paris increasingly became the writer's main residence.

The most important works of the Paris period were Neue Gedichte (New Poems) (1907), Der Neuen Gedichte Anderer Teil (Another Part of the New Poems) (1908), the two "Requiem" poems (1909), and the novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, started in 1904 and completed in January 1910. The Swedish author Mirjam Tapper has edited a book on Rilke's stay in Paris, where she reflected on the many addresses Rilke lived at and tried to find the correlation between his stay there and his poems. The title of the book: Resa med Rilke (Travel with Rilke), Mita bokförlag 2010. A chapter in the book also deals with Rilke's sickness and death.

During the later part of this decade Rilke spent extended periods in Ronda, the famous bull-fighting center in southern Spain. There he kept a permanent room at the Hotel Reina Victoria (built in 1906) where his room remains to this day as he left it, a mini-museum of Rilkeana. According to the hotel's publicity, Rilke wrote (though probably not in Spanish) "He buscado por todas partes la ciudad soñada, y al fin la he encontrado en Ronda" and "No hay nada más inesperado en España que esta ciudad salvaje y montañera" ("I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda" and "There is nothing that is more startling in Spain than this wild and mountainous city.")

1910–1919

Between October 1911 and May 1912, Rilke stayed at the Castle Duino, near Trieste, home of Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis. There, in 1912, he began the poem cycle called the Duino Elegies, which would remain unfinished for a decade because of a long-lasting creativity crisis. The outbreak of World War I surprised Rilke during a stay in Germany. He was unable to return to Paris, where his property was confiscated and auctioned. He spent the greater part of the war in Munich. From 1914 to 1916 he had a turbulent affair with the painter Lou Albert-Lasard. Rilke was called up at the beginning of 1916, and he had to undertake basic training in Vienna. Influential friends interceded on his behalf, and he was transferred to the War Records Office and discharged from the military on 9 June 1916. He spent the subsequent time once again in Munich, interrupted by a stay on Hertha Koenig's Gut Bockel in Westphalia. The traumatic experience of military service, a reminder of the horrors of the military academy, almost completely silenced him as a poet.

1919–1926

On 11 June 1919, Rilke traveled from Munich to Switzerland. The outward motive was an invitation to lecture in Zürich, but the real reason was the wish to escape the post-war chaos and take up his work on the Duino Elegies once again. The search for a suitable and affordable place to live proved to be very difficult.Among other places, Rilke lived in Soglio, Locarno, and Berg am Irchel. Only in mid-1921 was he able to find a permanent residence in the Château de Muzot in the commune of Veyras, close to Sierre in Valais. In an intense creative period, Rilke completed the Duino Elegies within several weeks in February 1922. Before and after, Rilke rapidly wrote both parts of the poem cycle Sonnets to Orpheus containing 55 entire sonnets. Both works together have often been taken as constituting the high points of Rilke's work. In May 1922, Rilke's patron Werner Reinhart bought and renovated Muzot so that Rilke could live there rent-free.

During this time, Reinhart introduced Rilke to his protégée, the Australian violinist Alma Moodie. Rilke was so impressed with her playing that he wrote in a letter: "What a sound, what richness, what determination. That and the Sonnets to Orpheus, those were two strings of the same voice. And she plays mostly Bach! Muzot has received its musical christening..."

From 1923 on, Rilke increasingly had to struggle with health problems that necessitated many long stays at a sanatorium in Territet, near Montreux, on Lake Geneva. His long stay in Paris between January and August 1925 was an attempt to escape his illness through a change in location and living conditions. Despite this, numerous important individual poems appeared in the years 1923–1926 (including Gong and Mausoleum), as well as the abundant lyrical work in French.

In January and February 1926 Rilke wrote three letters to the Mussolini-adversary Aurelia Gallarati Scotti, in which he praised Benito Mussolini and described fascism as a healing agent.

Only shortly before his death was Rilke's illness diagnosed as leukemia. He suffered ulcerous sores in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines and he struggled with increasingly low spirits. Open-eyed, he died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926 in the Valmont Sanatorium in Switzerland. He was buried on 2 January 1927 in the Raron cemetery to the west of Visp.

Rilke had chosen as his own epitaph this poem:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel
Lidern.

Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
of being no one's sleep under so
many lids.

A myth developed surrounding his death and roses, which we see as a constant motif in his work. It was said: "To honour a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke [had] gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well", and so he died.

Rilke's literary style

Figures from Greek mythology (e.g. Apollo, Hermes, Orpheus) recur as motifs in his poems and are depicted in original interpretations (e.g. in the poem Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes, Rilke's Eurydice, numbed and dazed by death, does not recognize her lover Orpheus, who descended to hell to recover her). Other recurring figures in Rilke's poems are angels, roses and a character of a poet and his creative work.

Rilke often worked with metaphors, metonymy and contradictions (e.g. in his epitaph, the rose is a symbol of sleep – rose petals are reminiscent of closed eyelids).

Rilke's little-known 1898 poem, "Visions of Christ" depicted Mary Magdalene as the mother to Jesus' child.

Quoting Susan Haskins: "It was Rilke's explicit belief that Christ was not divine, was entirely human, and deified only on Calvary, expressed in an unpublished poem of 1893, and referred to in other poems of the same period, which allowed him to portray Christ's love for Mary Magdalen, though remarkable, as entirely human."

Rainer Maria Rilke's Works:

Complete works

Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke in 12 Bänden (Complete Works in 12 Volumes), published by Rilke Archive in association with Ruth Sieber-Rilke, edited by Ernst Zinn. Frankfurt am Main (1976)
Rainer Maria Rilke, Werke (Works). Annotated edition in four volumes with supplementary fifth volume, published by Manfred Engel, Ulrich Fülleborn, Dorothea Lauterbach, Horst Nalewski and August Stahl. Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig (1996 and 2003)

Volumes of poetry

Leben und Lieder (Life and Songs) (1894)
Larenopfer (Lares' Sacrifice) (1895)
Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned) (1897)
Advent (Advent) (1898)
Das Stunden-Buch (The Book of Hours)
Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben (The Book of Monastic Life) (1899)
Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft (The Book of Pilgrimage) (1901)
Geldbaum (1901)
Das Buch von der Armut und vom Tode (The Book of Poverty and Death) (1903)
Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Images) (4 Parts, 1902–1906)
Neue Gedichte (New Poems) (1907)
Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies) (1922)
Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus) (1922)

Prose collections

Geschichten vom Lieben Gott (Stories of God) (Collection of tales, 1900)
Auguste Rodin (1903)
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke) (Lyric story, 1906)
Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) (Novel, 1910)

Letters

Collected letters

Gesammelte Briefe in sechs Bänden (Collected Letters in Six Volumes), published by Ruth Sieber-Rilke and Carl Sieber. Leipzig (1936–1939)
Briefe (Letters), published by the Rilke Archive in Weimar. Two volumes, Wiesbaden (1950, reprinted 1987 in single volume).
Briefe in Zwei Bänden (Letters in Two Volumes) (Horst Nalewski, Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1991)

Other volumes of letters

Briefe an Auguste Rodin (Insel Verlag, 1928)
Briefwechsel mit Marie von Thurn und Taxis, two volumes, edited by Ernst Zinn with a forward by Rudolf Kassner (Editions Max Niehans, 1954)
Briefwechsel mit Thankmar von Münchhausen 1913 bis 1925 (Suhrkamp Insel Verlag, 2004)
Briefwechsel mit Rolf von Ungern-Sternberg und weitere Dokumente zur Übertragung der Stances von Jean Moréas (Suhrkamp Insel Verlag, 2002)

Translations

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets To Orpheus translated by A. Poulin, Jr. (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1975) ISBN 0-395-25058-7
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell, Introduction by Robert Hass (Vintage; Reissue edition 13 March 1989)
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly New York, 1981
The Unknown Rilke, trans. Franz Wright (Oberlin College Press, expanded ed. 1990) ISBN 0-932440-56-8
New Poems/Neue Gedichte, trans. Stephen Cohn (Carcanet Press, 1992) ISBN 1-85754-770-5
The Book of Fresh Beginnings: Selected Poems, trans. David Young (Oberlin College Press, 1994) ISBN 0-932440-68-1
The Essential Rilke, ed. and trans. Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann (Hopewell, NJ, 1999)
Uncollected Poems, trans. Edward Snow (North Point Press, New York, 1996)
The Poetry of Rilke, trans. Edward Snow (North Point Press, New York, 2009)
Two Prague Stories, trans. Isabel Cole (Vitalis, Český Těšín, 2002)
Pictures of God: Rilke's Religious Poetry, ed. and trans. Annemarie S. Kidder (Livonia, MI 2005)
Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, Letters to a Young Poet: Box set, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell
"Rilke's Late Poetry: Duino Elegies, The Sonnets to Orpheus, and Selected Last Poems", ed. and trans. Graham Good (Ronsdale Press, Vancouver B.C., 2005)
Mood, John Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties. (New York: W. W. Norton 1975, reissue 2004) ISBN 0-393-31098-1
Mood, John. (2006) Rilke on Death and Other Oddities. Philadelphia: Xlibris ISBN 1-4257-2818-9

Duino Elegies

Duineser Elegien: Elegies from the Castle of Duino, trans. Vita Sackville-West (Hogarth Press, London, 1931)
Duino Elegies, trans. J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (W. W. Norton, New York, 1939)
Duino Elegies, trans. Jessie Lemont (Fine Editions Press, New York, 1945)
Duineser Elegien: The Elegies of Duino, trans. Nora Wydenbruck (Amandus, Vienna, 1948
Duinesian Elegies, trans. Elaine E. Boney (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1975)
Duino Elegies, trans. David Young (W. W. Norton, New York, 1978) ISBN 0-393-30931-2
Duino Elegies, trans. Gary Miranda (Azul Editions, Falls Church, VA, 1996) ISBN 885214-07-3
Duino Elegies, trans. Robert Hunter w/ block prints by Mareen Hunter (Hulogosi Press, 1989))
Duino Elegies trans. Stephen Cohn (Carcanet Press, 1989) ISBN 978-0-85635-837-1
Duino-Elegieë trans. H.J. Pieterse from German to Afrikaans (Protea, Pretoria, 2007) ISBN 978-1-86919-151-1
Duino Elegies, trans. Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon Press, London, 2008)

Sonnets to Orpheus

Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. with notes and commentary J.B. Leishman (Hogarth Press, London, 1936)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. M.D. Herder Norton (W. W. Norton, New York, 1942)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. C. F. MacIntyre, (U.C. Berkeley Press, 1961)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Jessie Lemont (Fine Editions Press, New York, 1945)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. with notes Stephen Mitchell (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Stephen Cohn with Letters to a Young Poet (Carcanet Press, 2000) ISBN 978-1-85754-456-5
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. with notes and commentary Edward Snow (North Point Press, New York, 2004) ISBN 0-86547-721-3
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Willis Barnstone (Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2004)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Leslie Norris and Alan Keele (ed. Lucien Jenkins) (Camden House, Inc 1989)
Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Robert Hunter
Orpheus, trans. Don Paterson (Faber, 2006)

Other collections

Stories of God, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (W. W. Norton, New York, 1932) ISBN 0-393-30882-0
Stories of God, trans. Michael H. Kohn (Shambhala, Boston, 2003) ISBN 978-1-59030-038-1
Stories of God, trans. Various, edited by Jack Beacham (Aventure Works, Hudson, Ohio, 2009) ISBN 1-4392-2561-3
Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (W. W. Norton, New York, 1934) ISBN 0-393-31039-6
Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Mark Harman (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011) 112 pages ISBN 978-0-674-05245-1
Letters on God and Letters to a Young Woman, trans. Annemarie S. Kidder (Northwestern University Press, 2012)
Poems from The Book of Hours trans. Babette Deutsch (New Directions, New York, 1941)
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton (W.W. Norton, New York, 1949) ISBN 0-393-30881-2
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York, 1983)
The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christophe Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell (Graywolf Press, 1985) ISBN 0-915308-77-0
The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christophe Rilke, trans. Alfred Perlès (Turret Books, UK, 1987) ISBN 0-85469-086-7
The Book of Hours: Prayers to a Lowly God, trans. Annemarie S. Kidder (Northwestern University Press, 2001)
Larenopfer, trans. and commentary by Alfred de Zayas, with drawings by Martin Andrysek (Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, 2005, 2nd revised and enlarged edition with a preface by Ralph Freedman, 2008)
Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book of Hours: A New Translation with Commentary, trans. Susan Ranson, edited with an introduction and notes by Ben Hutchinson (Camden House, New York/Boydell & Brewer Ltd, Woodbridge, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-57113-380-9
Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy; New York: Riverhead Books(1996); ISBN 1-59448-156-3
The Book of Hours, translated by Christine McNeill and Patricia McCarthy (Agenda Editions, UK, 2007) ISBN 978-0-902400-84-9

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

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