|Rainer Maria Rilke|
Rilke in 1900, aged 24
|Born||René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke
4 December 1875
Prague, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary
|Died||29 December 1926
René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke (German: [ˈʁaɪnɐ maˈʁiːa ˈʁɪlkə]; 4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926)—better known as Rainer Maria Rilke—was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist. Rilke is "widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets", writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke's work as inherently "mystical". His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.
Rilke was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, travelled extensively throughout Europe and North Africa, including Russia, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and in his later years settled in Switzerland—settings that were key to the genesis and inspiration for many of his poems. While Rilke is most known for his contributions to German literature, over 400 poems were originally written in French and dedicated to the canton of Valais in Switzerland. Among English-language readers, his best-known works include the poetry collections Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) and Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus), the semi-autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge), and a collection of ten letters that was published after his death under the title Letters to a Young Poet. In the later 20th century, his work has found new audiences through its use by New Age theologians and self-help authors, and through frequently quoting in television programs, books and motion pictures. In the United States, Rilke is one of the more popular, best-selling poets—along with 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi and 20th-century Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran.
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. Until 1896 he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich.
In 1897 in Munich, Rainer Maria Rilke met and fell in love with the widely travelled, 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 travelled 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 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 year. Their daughter Ruth (1901–1972) was born in December 1901.
In the summer of 1902, Rilke left home and travelled 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 not observant.
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 centre 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.
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.
On 11 June 1919, Rilke traveled from Munich to Switzerland. The outward motive was an invitation to lecture in Zurich, 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 in 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.
Shortly before his death Rilke's illness was 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,
Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
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 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 wrote his only novel, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (translated as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), while living in Paris and completed the work in 1910. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and he adopts the style and technique that became associated with the Expressionism that entered European fiction and art in the early 20th century. Rilke was inspired by Sigbjørn Obstfelder's work A Priest's Diary and Jens Peter Jacobsen's second novel Niels Lyhne (1880) which traces the fate of an atheist in a merciless world. Rilke addresses existential themes, profoundly probing the quest for individuality, the significance of death, and reflection on the experience of time as death approaches. Rilke draws considerable influence from the writings of Nietzsche, whose work he became acquainted through his lover, Nietzsche's former lover Lou-Andreas Salome. His work also incorporates impressionistic techniques that were influenced by the painter Cézanne, and sculptor Rodin (whom Rilke knew). He combines these techniques and motifs to conjure images of mankind's anxiety and alienation in the face of an increasingly, scientific, industrial, reified world.
Rilke began writing the elegies in 1912 while a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis (1855–1934) at Duino Castle, near Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. During this ten-year period, the elegies languished incomplete for long stretches of time as Rilke suffered frequently from severe depression—some of which was caused by the events of World War I and his conscripted military service. Aside from brief episodes of writing in 1913 and 1915, Rilke did not return to the work until a few years after the war ended. With a sudden, renewed inspiration—writing in a frantic pace he described as "a savage creative storm"—he completed the collection in February 1922 while staying at Château de Muzot in Veyras, in Switzerland's Rhone Valley. After their publication and his death shortly thereafter, the Duino Elegies were quickly recognized by critics and scholars as Rilke's most important work.
The Duino Elegies are intensely religious, mystical poems that weigh beauty and existential suffering. The poems employ a rich symbolism of angels and salvation but not in keeping with typical Christian intrepretations. Rilke begins the first elegy in an invocation of philosophical despair, asking: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?" (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?) and later declares that "every angel is terrifying" (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich). While labelling of these poems as "elegies" would typically imply melancholy and lamentation, many passages are marked by their positive energy and "unrestrained enthusiasm." Together, the Duino Elegies are described as a metamorphosis of Rilke's "ontological torment" and an "impassioned monologue about coming to terms with human existence" discussing themes of "the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness ... man's loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet."
With news of the death of his daughter's friend, Wera Knoop (1900-1919), Rilke was inspired to create and set to work on Sonnets to Orpheus. Within a few days, between 2 February and 5 February 1922, he had completed the first section of 26 sonnets. For the next few days, he focused on the Duino Elegies, completing them on the evening of 11 February. Immediately after, he returned to work on the Sonnets and completed the following section of 29 sonnets in less than two weeks. Throughout the Sonnets, Wera appears in frequent references to her both direct where he addresses her by name and indirect as allusions to a "dancer" or the mythical Eurydice. Although Rilke claimed that the entire cycle was inspired by Wera, she appears as a character in only one of the poems. He insisted, however, that "Wera's own figure [...] nevertheless governs and moves the course of the whole".
The content of the sonnets is, as is typical of Rilke, highly metaphorical. The character of Orpheus (whom Rilke refers to as the "god with the lyre") appears several times in the cycle, as do other mythical characters such as Daphne. There are also biblical allusions, including a reference to Esau. Other themes involve animals, peoples of different cultures, and time and death.
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.
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."
In the United States, Rilke is one of the more popular, best-selling poets—along with 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi (1207-1273), and 20th-century Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931). In popular culture, Rilke is frequently quoted or referenced in television programs, motion pictures, music and other works when these works discuss the subject of love or angels. Because of his work being described as "mystical," Rilke's works have also been appropriated for use by the New Age community and in self-help books. Rilke has been reinterpreted "as a master who can lead us to a more fulfilled and less anxious life."
Rilke's work, and specifically, the Duino Elegies have been claimed as a deep influence by several poets and writers, including Galway Kinnell, Sidney Keyes, Stephen Spender, Robert Bly, W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, novelist Thomas Pynchon and philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hans-Georg Gadamer. British poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973) has been described as "Rilke's most influential English disciple" and he frequently "paid homage to him" or used the imagery of angels in his work.
Other volumes of letters
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