Rainer Maria Rilke, Germany's greatest modern lyric poet, is known to English speakers through countless translations and studies. Born of German parents in Prague in 1875, he was sent to a military academy by his father and thence into business, to both of which he was unsuited. A rich uncle arranged for a university education, but Rilke took to writing, starting with a sentimental poetry that was much disliked by critics and himself subsequently. He married the artist Clara Westhoff in 1901, but left a year later, unable to cope with the emotional or financial commitments.

Rilke's first important collections came with The Book of Hours (1905) that resulted from a visit to Russia with Nietzsche's friend, Lou Andreas Salomé, and New Poems (1907-8) that show the influence of Rodin, whose private secretary he briefly became. He stayed on in Paris, composing his one novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)and writing poetry in French. Translations from English, French and Italian poets were the product of travel in Spain and north Africa. Restless and solitary, Rilke found refuge in 1912 at Schloss Duino on the Dalmatian coast, where a flood of inspiration began a style of poetry unknown in German before. These Duino Elegies were completed in 1923, Sonnets to Orpheus followed, and in 1926 Rilke died of leukemia.

Rilke made the passage from the exquisite musicality and introverted world-weariness of fin-de-siècle verse to a muscular clarity in New Poems and then opened up new realms of experience in the Duino Elegies. Many of the poems in The Book of Hours are extraordinarily beautiful, and can be appreciated with little German. But the work in New Poems was denser and more direct: Rilke had learned from Rodin to record objectively what he saw, and not create at secondhand from the history or musical associations of words. Animate and inanimate objects were studied until they were understood and could be recreated in their intrinsic natures. Though the Duino Elegies have become central to contemporary debate on language and meaning, older readers admired Rilke for making the German language a more flexible, precise and sensitive medium.

If many of Rilke's early poems are virtuoso pieces, richly coloured and sometimes verging on the precious and sentimental. the later work is much more difficult. The Duino Elegies may only be understandable to those familiar with Rilke's own states of mind, which resulted from an intensely private and solitary existence. Language was pushed to its uttermost, and the technical mastery allowed Rilke to say beautifully what it had not said before. "The essential function of art is to think and feel existence to that conclusion which convinces us of its perfection — to affirm, bless and deify existence." The words are Nietzsche's, but express the existentialist aims of much of Rilke's poetry. The heroic self-dedication of the Symbolist poet reached greatness in the Rilke, but it was a road that left enormous problems of interpretation, and one that few travelled thereafter.

Innumerable studies exist — H E Holthusen's R.M. Rilke: A Study of His Later Poetry (1952), H W Belmore's Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of this Poetic Style (1954) and R. Gass's Reading Gass Reading Rilke, to name but three. Well-regarded translations include: J B Leishman's Duino Elegies (1939), E Snow's The Book of Images (1991), S. Mitchell's Duino Elegies (1992) and Kinnell and Liebmann's The Essential Rilke (2000).

Suggestion: Ahead of All Parting Modern Library. Translated by Stephen Mitcheller. 1995. $15.72

A solid hardback selection of Rilke's work in 640 pages. Full title is Ahead of All Parting : The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the book provides a wider coverage than is usual in the (many) Rilke translations available today.



C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.