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Poet of the Month: Rainer Maria Rilke

posted: 11.30.09 by archived

“Now the hour bends down and touches me
with its clear, metallic ring;
my senses tremble. The feeling forms: I can
and I grasp the malleable day.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours, as translated by Edward Snow

This is approximately how I felt as I settled in to write my post this morning. Rainer Maria Rilke is Teaching Poetry’s Poet of the Month for December. Friday is the 134th anniversary of his birth in 1875, and December 29 is the 83rd anniversary of his death in 1926.

Born in Prague, René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke had an unhappy childhood. Until he was old enough to attend school, his mother dressed him in girls’ clothes and treated him as a daughter, possibly because her first child, a daughter, died at only one week old. Rilke’s parents sent him to military school at the age of nine, hoping he would become an officer and improve the family’s place in society. Although Rilke was drawn to the glorious aspects of the military and war stories, he was more interested in becoming a poet than an officer. Even as a child, Rilke showed an interest in reading and writing poetry, which followed him to military school and beyond to university studies in Prague and Munich. He published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder (Life and Songs), at his own expense in 1894.

René became Rainer at the suggestion of Lou Andreas-Salomé, an intelligent and influential woman whom Rilke met and fell in love with in Munich. Her marriage to Carl Friedrich Andreas did not stop Rilke from traveling with her (twice) on long trips to Russia and continuing their affair until 1900. In 1902 Rilke came to Paris with his wife, the sculptress Clara Westhoff, to write a book about Rodin. Rilke was always interested in the visual arts, having studied art in Prague and Munich and developed a practice of art criticism. After meeting and studying Rodin, Rilke eventually became his secretary and helped promote Rodin’s sculpture in Europe. Rodin encouraged him to write every day about anything that caught his attention instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. Rilke also loved Cézanne’s paintings, particularly the still lifes. They expressed an intensity that Rilke had tried to capture when describing a single object in poetry—seeing the object fully, knowing it completely, and capturing its essence in one short, well-crafted poem.

Throughout his career, Rilke consorted with intellectuals and aristocrats, though not always well; he was prone to anxiety and melancholy, became ill often, and was rarely happy in one place for long. He was not always liked, but required patronage to continue his writing. One of his patrons was Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis; she welcomed him to Duino castle where he began the Duenieser Elegien (Duino Elegies) in 1912. They were not completed until 1923, due to the First World War and Rilke’s poor health and emotional state. Rilke also published Die Sonnete an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus) in 1923, just three years before his death from leukemia. These two works are his most famous, and widely considered to be the height of his poetic achievements.

Today, The Rainer Maria Rilke Foundation (est. 1986) hosts a museum, lectures, and celebrations of Rilke at the Maison de Courten in Sierre, Switzerland, the town where Rilke spent the last five years of his life (before you start planning your trip, be aware that their Web site is only in French and German). Much of Rilke’s poetry is available online in German and in English. The quality of the English translations varies, particularly online where anyone can offer a translation. It’s worth it to look up and compare a few translations, both for the sake of judging the poem fairly and for the sheer linguistic fun of it. The Poetry Foundation has several Rilke poems in English and some interesting articles considering Rilke and his poetry.

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