The Sacred Threshold: A Life of Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet
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 “Hoffnung” Hoff-nung, and “abgelesen” ab-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
Erich Heller, In the Age of Prose: Literary and Philosophical Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1984).↩
Maurice Bowra, The Heritage of Symbolism (St. Martin's Press, 1943).↩
E.M. Butler, Rainer Maria Rilke (Cambridge University Press, 1941).↩