Rilke in Life and Death

Rilke: A Life

by Wolfgang Leppmann, translated in collaboration with the author by Russell M. Stockman
Fromm International, 421 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Sacred Threshold: A Life of Rainer Maria Rilke

by J.F. Hendry
Carcanet (Manchester; distributed in the US by Harper and Row), 184 pp., $18.50

Letters to a Young Poet

by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Random House, 109 pp., $14.95

The trouble with Rilke is that he is not a poet for beginners (or, as Professor Leppmann bluntly puts it, “the Duino Elegies are not everyone’s cup of tea”). Still, beginners have to begin somehow, and these two biographies are intended to help them do it—or at any rate that is how they read. They use the same method, interleaving biographical information with discussions of the poetry. Rilke learned from other contemporary artists, especially from visual artists like Rodin and Cézanne; and also from Valéry, whose poetry he translated; but he was less influenced than most poets are by other poet’s poetry. You cannot assign Rilke to a movement and study its program and practice as a way of approaching his work. Not that he did not have a program; but it was his own, homemade without a pattern book. (One of the most surprising facts to emerge from these biographies—in view of Rilke’s polyglot literary culture—is how defective his formal education was.)

Professor Erich Heller is able to argue that Rilke “anticipated by nine years the anti-Romantic dogma of T.S. Eliot’s most influential essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent“; and, more importantly, that without ever having read Hegel, he adopted his notion of the world evolving in the direction of “absolute inwardness,” for which he coined the resonant portmanteau word Weltinnenraum.1 Rilke’s later and greatest poetry is metaphysical and difficult: you cannot shut your eyes and hope to be carried along on a stream of song, even though the rhythms are irresistible, the imagery startling and awe-inspiring, the diction original, tender, and august. The poetry, as Professor Leppmann says, is “hermetic as well as open-ended.” The reader has to work.

So biography might seem the most promising approach. But is it? Would a life of Eliot be a good introduction to his writing? Or even worth reading if one had not read any of it? Rilke’s life was as completely subordinated to the business of producing poetry as a cow’s is to producing milk. Even his poetry—his later poetry—is about poetry. “No one, not even Mallarmé, treated his art more seriously,” wrote Maurice Bowra:

few sacrificed more to it. He was a martyr to his ideal. His life was a long struggle to wring out of himself every drop of poetry. For this he endured long months of melancholy solitude and unremitting, often unrewarded, labour…. He belonged to no clique and had no place in contemporary movements. He did not listen to criticism or believe in its value. He made changes in his manner of writing, but each followed some change in himself; and when he found what seemed to him adequate, he exhausted himself in it and spent his last years in a wasting sense of emptiness.2

Rilke cut out every activity and relationship that might have stood in the way of his work, drifting off from his wife, the sculptress Clara Westhoff, and their child while remaining on excellent terms, and living most of his adult life out of suitcases all over Europe in search of the right conditions for inspiration to fall. Twice he found them, and each time the Muse came to stay for a spectacularly productive fortnight or so: once in 1912 at Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis’s Schloss Duino on the cliffs above the Adriatic, where he began the Duino Elegies; and again in 1922, when he finished them and wrote the complete cycle of Sonnets to Orpheus in the gloomy little medieval tower in the Valais called Château Muzot, which had been put at his disposal.

Without his poetry Rilke’s life would seem untidy, unfocused, immoral in the gently ruthless way he exploited other lives, and not very interesting in spite of the astronomically large number of ladies in it. In 1910, Professor Hendry tells us, Rilke’s address book contained twelve hundred names. Not all were women’s, of course, but most; and it is significant that in many cases we do not know whether the relationships were amitiés amoureuses or more. In his voluminous correspondence with, again, mainly female partners, Rilke never called a spade a spade; and the memoirs of the ladies themselves—several could hardly wait to publish—are not very reliable.

The most important woman in the poet’s life was the tempestuous and alluring intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé, who had once refused Nietzsche. She was thirty-six and married to a distinguished though prickly scholar when she took up the twenty-two-year-old Rilke. But apart from her, the two professors do not even place Rilke’s female acquaintances in the same order of importance: for instance, Professor Hendry devotes a whole chapter to the musician Magda von Hattingberg, whom Rilke called Benvenuta, while Professor Leppmann only mentions her passim. He, on the other hand, says that it was with Baladine Klossowska (“Merline”) that Rilke experienced, in the year before he died, “the happiest months of his life.” Professor Hendry does not pay Merline much attention, not even mentioning that she was the mother of the painter Balthus. Rilke was very fond of the boy and when, at the age of eleven, he produced a book of drawings of his cat Mitsou, Rilke wrote the introduction (in French) and helped to get it published.

Since Balthus is probably the most admired of living painters this fact would seem to be a lot more interesting than Rilke’s day-by-day itineraries, which Professor Hendry records. Perhaps Balthus’s importance escaped him: he does not sound very much at home on the European cultural and social scene, imagining, for instance, that the actor-manager Pitoeff was a puppeteer.

Professor Leppmann is good at putting Rilke’s social situation in perspective. The poet was born in 1875 into the German bourgeoisie of Prague. His father had had to resign his commission in the Austrian army because of ill health, and worked reluctantly for the railway. At the age of ten, Rilke, a coddled only child, was sent for five appalling years to two successive military academies, from the second of which he eventually dropped out. He always kept up (but did not invent) the myth that the Rilkes were of aristocratic descent. The circles he chose to move in were also aristocratic, as were the patrons—mostly female—who provided him with money to live on and houses to write in (though he was also supported by an uncle’s legacy, a regular remittance from his publisher Anton Kippenberg, and a large anonymous gift from Ludwig Wittgenstein).

In her life of Rilke published in 1941 and labeled obsolete by Professor Leppmann, E.M. Butler defends this aspect of Rilke:3

One of the most irrefutable proofs of his high degree of civilisation is the almost automatic fashion in which the aristocracy gravitated towards him. It was a natural affinity. Like will to like; and Rilke had many of those qualities which are fostered by birth and breeding. He was wrong in attributing these to a noble lineage, which he actually did not possess; but perfectly logical in deducing it, for he was civilised to an extent which almost amounted to a taint; and so nearly decadent that only his genius saved him. Supersensitive as he was, over-fastidious, with exquisite manners and delicate tastes, graceful, fine and fragile, it was small wonder that great ladies cherished him, and that he slightly repelled most men.

Professor Leppmann seems to agree with this defense and tries to see Rilke’s “presumption of aristocratic descent” as “a protest against his parents’ philistinism”; but at this point it is Professor Hendry who has the most interesting insight, linking Rilke’s ancestral fantasy with his preoccupation with death and the dead: “It was part of a search for kinship which went beyond the immediate past, until it embraced the dead of other families and other places, the dead as a community.” Rilke was much possessed by death—in a most un-Websterian way. But death will have to wait for the moment.

In case the poet’s reliance on patronage should seem shockingly parasitical today, Professor Leppmann explains: “There was less awkwardness about such projects before the First World War, when writers, and poets in particular, were held in high regard, than there would be in today’s egalitarian society.” This seems a reasonable enough piece of guidance for the novice to Rilke’s time and milieu. But the professor’s social psychology goes over the top when he compares Rilke with Hitler as two types of “Homo austriacus…two dog-lovers, vegetarians, tea-drinkers, and non-smokers…. (Both fathers, incidentally, exhibited a strong sensuality even in advanced age.)”

Well! Altogether, Leppmann is rather inclined to overdo the nudging by analogy and contrast: “We simply cannot picture the Paris of the waning Belle Epoque as either so very large, compared to Tokyo or Mexico City, or so very sad, compared with devastated Hiroshima or divided Berlin,” he suggests; and “when writing the Sonnets to Orpheus or, for that matter, the Duino Elegies, Rilke was no more concerned with social questions than Leonardo had been in painting the Mona Lisa or Mozart when he composed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” The very choice of those two overexposed works of art is a mild insult to the reader; or perhaps this reader has been oversensitized by recent immersion in the work of so sensitive a writer as Rilke. Either way, Professor Leppmann seems altogether too bluff and bouncy a guide, although he has some interesting things to say, and includes a useful chronology at the end of his book.

Professor Hendry’s has no chronology, and his prose is turgid. Valéry’s Cimetière Marin “displayed an attitude to which he [Rilke] was already prone” is the kind of sentence he is prone to writing. Leaving aside, for the moment, the difficulty of understanding, let alone the fiendish difficulty of translating, Rilke’s verse, it must still be said that Professor Hendry, who provides his own translations to the poems he discusses, sometimes seems unsure about the meaning of fairly simple German words. The third Duino Elegy ends with the invocation: “Verhalt ihn.” This is rendered “Preserve him,” which would be all right for erhalt ihn; verhalt ihn means “hold him back” or “restrain him.” In the German version of the poem “Der Tod” he spells “HoffnungHoff-nung, and “abgelesenab-gelesen. The reason is that in the original and still current edition these two words, coming at the end of long lines, had to be hyphenated and carried on to the next.

Leppmann uses David Young’s translations of the Duino Elegies and has got Richard Exner to translate the rest of the poetry he quotes. Neither gives any idea at all of what the German sounds like, and it is hard to believe that any translation could. To take just one instance from the Sonnets to Orpheus, where Orpheus charms the animals:

Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist

Exner translates this:

Creatures of stillness thronged from out the bright
untrammeled woods, from nest and lair…

Klar” and “gelöst” are adjectives no one could possibly expect to see applied to woods; but they suggest serenity and stillness, whereas “bright untrammeled woods” sounds briskly matutinal. Besides, gelöst trails overtones of erlöst, meaning “redeemed” (in the theological sense), or “released from a spell.” Finally, Rilke would never have fallen into such fusty poetic diction as “from out”: his language is always freshly chosen, daring in its juxtapositions, with newly coined nouns and adjectives, and verbs governing prepositions they never governed before. This high imaginative style is pegged down with small colloquial intimacies like (both from the second Duino Elegy) “Wie sollten sie’s merken?“—“how can they [the angels] be expected to notice?”—and “Doch wer wagte darum schon zu sein?“—untranslatable, and thereby proving a point, but meaning, more or less, “who would dare to even think of existing” in the sense of a New York street sign: “Don’t even think of parking here.” These returns to the flat earth of ordinary conversation have a certain throwaway upper-class inflection that one could not even think of reproducing: one would end up with some gross exaggeration like Wodehousespeak. So one loses a sly charm in the poetry which becomes more solemn even than it is meant to be.

Rilke’s poetry is philosophical, but he was a poet, not a philosopher: the resonance is all. When you paraphrase what he says, it can sound contorted, outlandish, and silly; or else pretty much like any other mystical doctrine, since they all reach out in the same direction. Because of all these insuperable difficulties it is really sad that Professor Leppmann has decided to quote in German only three poems, “representing early, middle, and late Rilke.”

If anyone were wondering which of these two biographies to buy, the answer would have to be: both, Professor Hendry’s because he quotes in German, and Professor Leppmann’s for readability. He also gets a special award for the first cheery attempt at Rilke. But the best choice, in English, would still be poor, obsolete E.M. Butler, for all her deficiencies: she has the sophistication to deal with a character as civilized as Rilke and politely assumes a degree of sophistication in the reader; and as well as the high seriousness, even awe, that a poet of Rilke’s order deserves, she has a light touch. It is needed, because in spite of all the defenses that can be made, Rilke’s snobbishness and sycophancy and occasional mawkish affectation can be embarrassing. He managed to shock even the unshockable Maurice Bowra, who compared him to Keats in this respect; but then the embarrassment of Keats has since been defended by Professor Ricks—so one should not mind it in Rilke either. It is a small price to pay for the risks these poets take.

No translation of Rilke’s poetry could ever aspire, one would think, to be more than a crib with which the foreign reader can fumble his way through the original (and it might occasionally, by lucky chance, unlock some hidden meaning even to a German). In this respect Rilke is as unlike his contemporary Cavafy as it is possible to be. Translated into virtually any language, Cavafy always sounds like Cavafy: the voice is unmistakable. Rilke’s German voice is equally unmistakable, but when you compare translations of his poems there is sometimes so little resemblance between the tone (never mind the sense) of different versions that they might be of different poems altogether.

The prose is another matter, and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge4 seems an almost perfect equivalent for the original, as well as having notes at the back that are a pleasure to read. The novel has no plot: it is a series of episodes in the life of the first-person hero. Malte is a young Danish nobleman living penuriously in Paris, trying to endure the unexpected horrors of a big city and his own solitary Angst for the sake of turning himself into a writer. He is Rilke’s alter ego with the same vulnerability that Mitchell sums up in the introduction to his translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

[Rilke] was dealing with an existential problem opposite from the one that most of us need to resolve: whereas we find a thick, if translucent, barrier between self and other, he was often without even the thinnest differentiating membrane. And unlike more grounded people who have passed through the initial terror and experienced this openness as freedom, Rilke often found himself being swallowed up by a lover or a neighbor or a man with St. Vitus’ dance walking down a Paris boulevard.

Malte’s Paris is full of gruesome and piteous encounters with the poor, the mad, the deformed, the diseased; everywhere people are dying squalid deaths. Rilke held the belief that each person is born with his death inside him “like the core in a beautiful apple” and needs to die that death. Malte recalls several welldied deaths: his grandfather roaring in agony for days on end as the terrified servants carry him from one room to another in the old manor house; and the historical deaths of Charles the Bold and Charles VI of France. All three are horrible: but individual, unique. What appalled Rilke most about life in the big city was that it robbed the poor of their rightful deaths and made them die on a production line in hospitals and asylums.

But the death that disturbed him most was that of the young painter Paula Modersohn in 1907. She was his wife’s best friend. Rilke had met the two romantic-looking girls in white dresses in 1898 when he stayed at the artists’ colony of Worpswede on the Lüneburg Heath. Perhaps he preferred “the blonde painter” to “the dark sculptress” whom he married: he certainly realized she had the greater talent. But under pressure from her parents Paula Becker chose another member of the colony, a solid mediocre painter called Otto Modersohn. In 1907 she had a child and died a few weeks later. Rilke wrote a requiem for her (Requiem für eine Freundin) in which he imagines her ghost coming to haunt him—restless because she had not died the death she should have died or fulfilled her mission as an artist, choosing instead to become an ordinary wife and mother.

In Rilke’s strange Weltanschauung death and artistic creation are closely related; both are a breakthrough, not so much into another world, but into the hidden, unperceived side of this one. Explicated, even by Rilke himself, this notion sounds simultaneously farfetched and déjà entendu:

Death is the side of life which is turned away from us, and upon which we shed no light. We must try to widen our consciousness of existence so that it is at home in both spheres, with no dividing-line between them, so that we may draw endless sustenance from both. The true way of life leads through both kingdoms, the great circulation of the blood passes through both: there is neither a here nor a hereafter but a single great unity in which the beings who transcend us, the angels, have their habitation.

This passage comes from a letter written very shortly before Rilke died, aged fifty-one, of a form of leukemia whose last stages were very painful as well as disfiguring; but he refused alleviating drugs because he wanted to experience his own death to the full.

The poet’s task is to become as much like Rilke’s space angels as possible:

Angels, it is said, are often unable to tell
Whether they move among the living or dead.

Rilke had a miraculous gift for conveying space—any space, but particularly the mystic inner-world space of his invention where the angels have their being and which we too inhabit without realizing it:

Durch alle Wesen reicht der eine Raum:
Weltinnenraum. Die Vögel fliegen still
Durch uns hindurch.

(One space stretches through all that is: inner-world space. The silent birds fly through us.)

But while struggling to attain the angelic state, Malte and Rilke suffer desperate attacks of Angst in their Paris boardinghouse rooms. That is because they have not yet learned to be lonely in the way Rilke advises the Young Poet of the Letters that he must: “To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours, that is what you must be able to attain.” (The Young Poet had sent his work to Rilke for advice; he was nineteen; his name was Franz Xavier Kappus; and he was a military cadet as Rilke himself—only twenty-seven when this correspondence began—had been quite recently. Nothing came of Kappus’s poetry; or perhaps he took Rilke’s advice not to write unless he “must.”

In order to keep loneliness at bay, Malte conjures up childhood memories of his family’s peaceful and dignified Danish homes, complete with wistful ghost and an equally wistful older cousin who initiates him into love. He invokes great lovers of the past, all of them women whose love was unrequited. Among them is Mariana Alcoforado, the “Portuguese Nun.” Rilke translated her Lettres Portugaises from the French, unaware that they were faked by a male French writer (but at least he was the Portuguese nun’s seventeenth-century contemporary).

Rilke held a mystical view of love: the beloved is not, or ought not to be, the final target for love, but, as it were, a membrane through which loves passes on its way to “other things.” The much-quoted poem “Liebeslied” begins:

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, dass
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?

(How shall I hold my soul so that
It will not touch yours? How shall I
Lift it beyond you on to other things?)

Women, Rilke thought, are better at this kind of loving than men; male sexuality “is not human enough,” he explained to the Young Poet, “…only male, is heat, thunder, and restlessness, and burdened with the old prejudice and arrogance with which the male has always disfigured and burdened love.” How prim and spinsterish (or else prophetic of feminist views) this observation sounds in prose, and how thrilling the invocation to “the guilty river-god in the blood” in the third Duino Elegy: “O des Blutes Neptun, o sein furchtbarer Dreizack.”

But Malte in Paris was not much occupied with love. He had something else to do: “I am learning to see. Yes, I am beginning. It’s still going badly. But I intend to make the most of my time.” Rilke also learned to see in Paris, from Rodin who had been Clara’s teacher and kindly took on her husband as a rather amateurish secretary; and from looking at Cézanne’s paintings. They taught him to aim for an ascetic kind of objectivity in his poems, which until then had reflected his own emotions. The aged Cézanne’ Rilke wrote to Clara in 1907, could not find a model to sit for him in Aix:

So he paints from his old drawings. And lays out his apples on bedcovers which Madame Brémond is bound to miss sooner or later, and stands his bottles among them, and whatever he happens to find. And (like Van Gogh) he makes such things into his “saints”; and forces them, forces them to be beautiful, and to mean the whole world, and all happiness and all glory, and doesn’t know whether he has managed to make them do it. And he sits in the garden like an old dog, the dog of this labour that keeps calling him back and beats him and starves him.

The Neue Gedichte were published in 1907 and 1908 and written at the same time as Malte Laurids Brigge, which was published in 1910. They are new not only in the sense of being a fresh batch, but new in intention: to write as Cézanne painted, to enter completely into the thing seen, and to force some kind of metaphysical transformation on it. This is where Rilke’s great period begins, and his novel gives a better idea of what he felt like at the time than any biography could, while the Letters to a Young Poet, written between 1903 and 1908, explain his ideas and intentions. Together these two translations make as good an introduction as can be imagined to the later Rilke. After that one would have to learn German and perhaps engage Professor Erich Heller as a guide. He has been leading tours of discovery through Rilkeland for the last thirty years.


Correction December 6, 1984

  1. 1

    Erich Heller, In the Age of Prose: Literary and Philosophical Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  2. 2

    Maurice Bowra, The Heritage of Symbolism (St. Martin’s Press, 1943).

  3. 3

    E.M. Butler, Rainer Maria Rilke (Cambridge University Press, 1941).

  4. 4

    Random House, 1983