Rainer Maria Rilke (born 4 December 1875 in Prague; died 29 December 1926 in Val-Mont (Switzerland)) was an important poet in the German language.
He was born as René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in Prague on 4 December 1875. His childhood and youth in Prague were not very 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 manufacturing family (originally Jewish but later converted to Christianity to escape antisemitism). The parents' marriage fell apart in 1884. The relationship between the mother and her only son was encumbered because the mother had not got over the early death of her elder daughter and forced René (French: "The Reborn"!) into her role and tied him to her out of emotional helplessness.
The parents pressurised the poetically and artistically gifted youth into attending a military academy from 1886, but he left it due to illness in 1891. From 1892 to 1895 he had private lessons to prepare him for the university entry exam, which he passed in 1895. In 1895 and 1896 he studied literature, history of art and philosophy in Prague and Munich. Once he had left Prague Rilke changed his first name from "René" to Rainer and thereby gave an external signal for a critical analysis of the unhappy bond with his family.
In 1897 in Munich Rainer Maria Rilke met and fell in love with the widely travelled intellectual and lady of letters Lou Andreas-Salome (1861-1937). The ensuing intensive relationship with the married woman lasted until 1899. But even after their separation Lou Andreas-Salomé continued to be Rilke's most important confidant until the end of his life. Because she had trained from 1912 to 1913 as a psychoanalyst with Sigmund Freud she was able to impart knowledge of psychoanalysis to Rilke.
In 1898 Rilke undertook a journey lasting several weeks to Italy. In both following years he visited Russia. In 1899 he travelled to Moscow, where he met Leo Tolstoy. Between May and August of 1900 a second journey to Russia accompanied only by Lou Andreas-Salomé again took him to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In autumn 1900 Rilke stayed in Worpswede where he got to know the sculptress Clara Westhoff (1878-1954), whom he married in the following spring. Their daughter Ruth (1901-1972) was born in December 1901. However, as soon as summer 1902 Rilke left home and travelled to Paris in order to write a monograph of the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The relationship between Rilke and Clara Westhoff continued for the rest of his life but he was not one for a middle-class family life. Besides which he had financial worries which could only be alleviated by drudging commissioned work.
At first the time in Paris was difficult because the foreign metropolis had many hidden terrors. Rilke later called on these experiences 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 got deeply involved in the sculptures of Auguste Rodin and then with the work of the painter Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). During these years Paris increasingly became the writer's main residence.
The most important works of the Paris period were Neuen 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.
After the appearance of the Notebooks Rilke fell into a creativity crisis that only ended in February 1922 with the completion of the Duinese Elegies that he had started in 1912. This poem cycle owes its name to Rilke's stay at Countess Marie of Thurn and Taxis's Castle Duino near Trieste between October 1911 and May 1912.
The outbreak of the First World War 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 travelled from Munich to Switzerland. The exterior motive was an invitation to lecture in Zurich, but the real reason was the wish to escape the post-war chaos and take up once again his work on the Duinese Elegies. 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 the summer of 1921 was he able to find a permanent residence in the Chateau de Muzot, close to Sierre in Valais. In May 1922 Rilke's patron Werner Reinhart (1884-1951) purchased the building so that Rilke could live there rent free.
In an intensive creative period Rilke completed the Duinese Elegies within several weeks in February 1922. Before and after he wrote both parts of the poem cycle The Sonnets to Orpheus. Both are among the highpoints of Rilke's work.
From 1923 Rilke had to struggle increasingly with impaired health that necessitated many long stays in a sanatorium. Even the long stay in Paris between January and August 1925 was an attempt to escape the illness by means of a change in location and an alteration in his living conditions. Despite this, numerous important individual poems appeared in the years 1923-26 (including Gong and Mausoleum) beside a comprehensive and an as yet insufficiently praised lyrical work in French.
Only shortly before his death was Rilke's illness diagnosed as leukaemia. The poet died on 29 December 1926 in the Val-Mont Sanatorium and he was laid to rest on 2 January 1927 in the Raron cemetery to the west of Visp. He chose his own epitaph:
Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel
Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one's sleep, under so
Within the framework of the Rilke Project well-known contemporary pop-artists and actors (including Xavier Naidoo, BAP, Jürgen Prochnow, Katja Riemann) are interpreting Rilke's texts. In this way they are trying to make Rilke accessible to new generations. The 3rd CD of the project appears in 2004.
Rilke has also been feted in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and William Gaddis' voluminous novel The Recognitions. A Rilke translation inspired "Lost in Translation", a celebrated 1974 poem by James Merrill.
Selection of Works
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke in 12 Bänden (Complete Works in 12 Volumes), published by Rilke Archive in association with Ruth Sieber-Rilke, supplied by Ernst Zinn. Frankfurt am Main. 1976.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Werke (Works). Edition in four volumes with commentary and supplementary 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 (1894)
- Larenopfer (1895)
- Traumgekrönt (1897)
- Advent (1898)
- Mir zur Feier (1909)
- Das Stunden-Buch
- Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben (1899)
- Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft (1901)
- Das Buch von der Armut und vom Tode (1903)
- Das Buch der Bilder (4 Teile, 1902-1906)
- Neue Gedichte (1907)
- Der neuen Gedichte anderer Teil (1908)
- Requiem (1908)
- Das Marien-Leben (1912)
- Duineser Elegien (1912/1922)
- Die Sonette an Orpheus (1922)
- Vergers (1926)
- Les Quatrains Valaisans (1926)
- Les Roses (1927)
- Les Fenêtres (1927)
- Substantial correspondence. The most important collections are:
- 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), published by Horst Nalewski. Frankfurt and Leipzig 1991.
- Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly, New York 1981.
- The Essential Rilke, ed. and trans. Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, Hopewell, NJ 1999.
- Individual Works:
Books on Rilke
- Ralph Freedman, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, New York 1996.
- A Companion to the Works of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. Erika A and Michael M. Metzger, Rochester 2001.
- Rilke Handbuch. Leben - Werk - Wirkung, ed. Manfred Engel and Dorothea Lauterbach, Stuttgart and Weimar 2004.