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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.