Rainer Maria Rilke
"Rilke: A Life" by Wolfgang Leppmann Translated by Russell M. Stockman, Fromm International Publishing, NY, 1984.
This book is a window into a world that no longer exists--a world which none of us will ever know: the intellectual, literary and cultural world of central and Eastern Europe from the 1880s to the end of World War I: the aristocratic world of Prague, Munich, Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Moscow with a dash of Paris and Berlin (but not the Paris or Berlin of the Americans or the English.) This was a world where talented and rich nobility would support the great artists and thinkers of the age.
Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague, then part of Austria, in 1875 to a midlevel railroad clerk who had failed at a military career and a socially ambitious mother who dressed young Rainer in girls clothes to morn the loss of his baby sister. When his parents divorced, Rainer was sent to an Austrian military Academy where he did OK. It was nice to be away from home but the teenage Rilke was more interested in the arts and letters then guns and strategy. He returned to Prague and Munich when he was 16 to study literature and history and got himself into the university. At the ripe age of 22, he met and fell in love with the dynamic intellectual Lou Andreas Salome. Despite her marriage, they spent the next three years travelling mostly to Russia where Rilke discovered his Russian Soul. This included visiting Tolstoy on his estate. Rilke and Lou Salome remained close friends and confidants for the rest of their lives. She introduced him to Nietzsche, Freud and the dynamic intellectual and literary life from Rome, Venice, Vienna, Prague and St. Petersburg. He even worked for a time as a secretary for Auguste Rodin in Paris.
Rilke's talent was immense. He is the foremost German language poet of the late 1800's and the early 1900's He was well received and well read from the very start. He was almost able to make a living as a poet with the help of his aristocratic mentors. But the writing life is not conducive to family life. He spent very little time with his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff and their daughter, Ruth. She seemed OK with this. She had her own successful career. This was not a typical early 20th Century marriage. Rilke was moving around settling for a time in one inspirational location after another--often the estates and castles of his wealthy friends, mentors, and patrons. This was a world we don't understand. The continental aristocracy before the first great war was not always the self-indulgent decadents of Hollywood movies but educated, disciplined and often talented musicians and poets in their own right. They would recognized great talent and support it. The German Princess Marie of Thurn and Taxis invited Rilke to Duino Castle near Trieste in 1911. It was there that Rilke began the Duino Elegies which many readers consider his greatest work. Princess Marie and Rilke, despite their huge class differences became very close friends. Her memoirs are the source of much insight into Rilke's life. (Princes Marie's family still has that castle but the current Prince has opened it as a museum and park for the public.)
I have always been fascinated by the shadow side of German letters starting with the wounded King in the Grail Castle, Luther throwing an ink well at a demon, young Werther's sorrows. Nietzsche's Death of God and Freud's sub conscious. This can also be seen in Rilke. He encounters an angel of great beauty in the opening lines of the Duieno Elegies and is terrified but it is not the wonder and awe of Western European poetry (Milton) but the dread that has emerged in the German tradition since the Thirty Years War. I have often felt that the German soul never recovered from the Thirty Years War, the scars were so deep. And Norse mythology is the only mythology where the gods are defeated. Interesting, generations later, in Rilke's life time, Nietzsche proclaims the Death of God. It is sad. I don't understand. I see Rilke walking around, shoulders hunched over, thinking dark thoughts....but in the “Duino Elegies” and the “Sonnets to Orpheus,” he pulled the shadow from the sky and threw it over his shoulder. This is what great poets do.
Here are the opening lines of The First Elegy
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?
Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.
Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take into our vision;
there remains for us yesterday's street and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992
Translated by Stephen Mitchell