Carolyn and I have both long enjoyed the writings of Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Marie Rilke, particularly his Letters to a Young Poet.
In 1875 Rainer Marie Rilke was born in Prague, which was then part of Austria-Hungary. His father was a railway official and his mother came from a well-to-do family. Rilke had an older sister who died before he was born, and this unfortunate tragedy was said to influence how his mother treated him as a child, “as if he were a girl” by the way that she dressed and treated him.
Despite his somewhat feminine nature, and being poetically sensitive and artistically talented in his youth, from 1886 to 1891 Rilke was pressured by his parents to attend a military academy. He left the academy due to illness and attended a German trade school for a short time, but he was expelled from this school in 1892 at the age of 16. From 1892 to 1895, Rilke was tutored for his university entrance exam, which he passed in 1895, and until 1896, he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague at Charles University and in Munich, Germany.
In 1895 Rilke published his first work, a volume of poetry called Leben und Lieder (“Life and Songs”). In 1897 Rilke met a married woman in Munich who changed his life, Lou Andreas-Salomé, with whom he fell in love and had a relationship with. Salomé had trained with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and she shared her knowledge of psychoanalysis with Rilke. Their relationship lasted until 1900, and Rilke took two extensive trips to Russia to spend time with her. Around this time, Rilke changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer,” at Salomé’s urging, because she thought that name to be “more masculine, forceful, and Germanic.”
In 1899 Rilke traveled with Salomé and her husband to Moscow, where he met the novelist Leo Tolstoy. In 1900, Rilke stayed at an artists’ colony in Worpswede, Germany, and it was here that he got to know the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following year, and their relationship continued for the rest of his life. Their daughter Ruth was born in 1901.
In 1902 Rilke traveled to Paris to write an essay on the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and this is where he really began his writing career, although he initially had some hardships in the new city that he wrote about later. In Paris, he encountered Modernism, a movement of the time that reflected a desire for the creation of new forms of art, philosophy, and social organization, and which reflected the emerging industrial world. Rilke became deeply involved with the sculpture of Rodin and then the artwork of Paul Cézanne. For a while, Rilke acted as Rodin’s secretary and he also lectured on Rodin’s work. Rilke also wrote a book about Rodin titled Auguste Rodin.
In 1902 Rilke published Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Images), a collection of poetry that was later expanded in a 1906 edition. In 1905 Rilke published Das Stunden-Buch (The Book of Hours), a collection of dreamy melodic poetry that he had written between 1899 and 1903. In 1907 and 1908 Rilke published additional poetry collections, Neue Gedichte (New Poems), and Der Neuen Gedichte Anderer Teil (Another Part of the New Poems). In 1910 he published his only novel, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Btigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), which is semi-autobiographical and describes the difficult time that he had when he first arrived in Paris.
For around eight years Rilke experienced depression and a lack of creativity and didn’t write much between 1911 and 1919. During this time he traveled across North Africa and Europe in search of inspiration. In 1919 he began working again on his book Duino Elegies, a collection of poems that he had started in 1912, while he was a guest at the castle of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, who was part of a German noble family, on the Adriatic Sea, near Trieste, Italy. Duino Elegies had languished for years, and the collection was finally published in 1923.
In 1922 Rilke wrote a cycle of 55 sonnets that were published the following year under the title Die Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus). These sonnets, inspired by the death of his daughter’s friend, were written during a period of 3 weeks that Rilke described as a “savage creative storm.” That same year Rilke also completed work on a ten-poem collection entitled Duino Elegies, which had taken ten years to complete, and has been described as “deeply philosophical and mystical.” The Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies are largely considered Rilke’s masterpieces and the “highest expressions of his talent.”
There is a mystical quality in much of Rilke’s work, and he extensively engaged with metaphors and contradictions in his poetry and prose to convey a sense of disbelief and a crisis in his faith. He also incorporated figures from Greek mythology and angels into his poems. Between 1902 and 1908, Rilke corresponded with a young writer named Franz Xaver Kappus, who was studying at the military academy that Rilke had also attended. Kappus had written to Rilke when he was feeling uncertain about his future as a military officer or a poet. Rilke advised Kappus on “how a poet should feel, love and seek truth in trying to understand and experience the world around him and engage the world of art.” These letters offered profound insight into the ideas and themes that appear in Rilke’s poetry, as well as his creative process, and were written during a key period of Rilke’s early artistic development. In 1929 these letters were first published in the now classic volume, Letters to a Young Poet.
Shortly before his death, Rilke was diagnosed with leukemia. Rilke died in 1926, in the arms of his doctor, in Switzerland. In 1927 he was buried in the Raron cemetery in Visp, Switzerland. Rilke chose these words for his own epitaph:
“Rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.”
In addition to his essays, famous letters, and one novel, during his lifetime Rilke produced over 400 poems, as well as short stories and plays. Rilke is currently one of the best-selling poets in the United States and his spirit lives on. Many self-help authors reference his work, and he is frequently quoted in television shows, films, and music, especially when the subjects of love or angels are discussed. I also see Rilke quoted regularly in social media memes.
Some of the quotes that Rainer Marie Rilke is known for include:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.
We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.
I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.
Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.
The only journey is the one within.
I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.
It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.