Today is the birthday (1875) of René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian poet and novelist who is known for his lyrically intense poetry and prose. He invokes images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude and profound anxiety. 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 (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter). In the later 20th century, his work found new audiences through use by New Age theologians and self-help authors, which could explain why I find his work unappealing.
Rilke was born in Prague, then capital of Bohemia. 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 Rilke also spent many of his early years. The relationship between Phia and her only son was colored by her mourning for an earlier child, a daughter who had died only one week old. 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. His parents’ marriage failed in 1884. His parents pressured him into entering a military academy in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left owing to illness.
He moved to Linz, where he attended trade school. He was expelled from the school in May 1892, and returned to Prague. 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, Rilke met and fell in love with the widely traveled, intellectual – but married – woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé. 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. His relationship with her lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Salomé 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 traveled with Salomé and her husband, Friedrich Andreas, to Moscow where he met Leo Tolstoy. Between May and August 1900, a second journey to Russia, accompanied only by Salomé, again took him to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where he met the family of Boris Pasternak and Spiridon Drozhzhin, a peasant poet.
In 1900, Rilke stayed at the artists’ colony at Worpswede. Here he met the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following year. Their daughter Ruth (1901–1972) was born in December 1901. Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), an early expressionist painter, became acquainted with Rilke in Worpswede and Paris, and painted his portrait in 1906. In the summer of 1902, Rilke left home and traveled to Paris to write a monograph on Auguste Rodin. 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 a non-practicing one.
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 stimulating: Rilke became deeply involved with the sculpture of Rodin, then 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 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. During these years, Paris increasingly became his main residence.
Between October 1911 and May 1912, Rilke stayed at the Castle Duino, near Trieste, home of Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis. He began the poem cycle called the Duino Elegies there in 1912 which would remain unfinished for a decade because of a long-lasting creativity crisis. Rilke had developed an admiration for El Greco as early as 1908, so he visited Toledo during the winter of 1912/13 to see his paintings. Subsequently, Rilke spent extended periods in Ronda, the famous bullfighting center in southern Spain. He kept a permanent room at the Hotel Reina Victoria from December 1912 to February 1913.
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 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 9th June 1916. He returned to 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 11th 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 intensely 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. Together, these two 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 his abundant lyrical work in French.
In 1924, Erika Mitterer began writing poems to Rilke, who wrote back with approximately fifty poems of his own and called her verse a Herzlandschaft (landscape of the heart). This was the only time Rilke had a productive poetic collaboration throughout all his work. Mitterer also visited Rilke. In 1950, her Correspondence in Verse with Rilke was published.
Rilke supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 as well as the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. He became friends with Ernst Toller and mourned the deaths of Rosa Luxembourg, Kurt Eisner, and Karl Liebknecht. He confided that of the five or six newspapers he read daily, those on the far left came closest to his own opinions. He developed a reputation for supporting left-wing causes, and thus, out of fear for his own safety, became more reticent about politics after the Bavarian Republic was crushed by the right-wing Freikorps. Yet, in January and February 1926, Rilke wrote three letters to the Mussolini-adversary Aurelia Gallarati Scotti in which he praised Benito Mussolini and described fascism as a healing agent.
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 29th, 1926, in the Valmont Sanatorium in Switzerland. He was buried on January 2, 1927, in the Raron cemetery to the west of Visp.
Rilke had chosen as his own epitaph this poem:
Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern.
Rose, o pure contradiction, desire to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.
A legend developed surrounding his death and roses. It was said: “To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui Bey, 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.
Here is a Bohemian recipe for baked rabbit that I have selected for Rilke, partly because he reminds me of a rabbit (don’t ask), and partly because I miss rabbit since I left Italy.
Bohemian Baked Rabbit
1 rabbit, jointed
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
100ml white wine vinegar
2 tbsp plain flour
oil, for frying
100 gm pitted prunes, halved
2 tbsp sour cream
salt and white pepper
Soak a clean tea towel with vinegar. Place the rabbit pieces on the towel and press the caraway seeds into the meat. Scatter the chopped onion over the rabbit, and then wrap it up in the tea towel. Place the wrapped meat on a dish and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 150°C. Unwrap the pieces of meat and dust them with the flour. Heat a little oil in large skillet over a medium heat and sauté the rabbit pieces until browned on all sides. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a lidded casserole and add the prunes and beer. Cook in the oven for 1 hour, turning the pieces over from time to time. About 15 minutes before the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper.
Remove the meat from the casserole and leave to stand, covered, for 7–8 minutes. Add the sour cream to the sauce and stir. Place the rabbit pieces on a heated serving dish, pour the casserole sauce over the rabbit, and serve.