Letters from the Heights

W.H. Auden once remarked, with wicked wit, that Rilke was the finest lesbian poet since Sappho. Unfair, of course, yet even the most loyal Rilkean will find it difficult to suppress an acknowledging smile. The poet is all ardent anima; his attitude toward the world is that of a tormented lover longing for the touch of soft lips yet secretly hoping to be pierced in some soft spot by a spurning heel. He is forever in an attitude of supplication, begging to be overborne—“Shatter me, music, with rhythmical fury!”1—yearning to take the world into himself, to be penetrated by the impenetrable:

Earth, is it not just this that you want: to arise

invisibly in us? Is not your dream

to be one day invisible? Earth! invisible!

What is your urgent command, if not transformation?

Earth, you darling, I will!2

Lou Andreas-Salomé, on the other hand, was as manly as a heterosexual woman could be, which did not deter a string of more or less brilliant men from adoring her. There is a famous photograph of her taken in Lucerne in 1882 with Friedrich Nietzsche and her would-be lover Paul Rée in which Lou, brandishing a whip, kneels in a cart being drawn by the philosopher and his friend Rée; it could be said that for the many men in her life she was a sweet goad. Certainly she took Rilke sternly in hand and was, if his letters to her are to be believed, his mentor and guide—as well as, for more than three years, his lover—from the time she met him, when he was a very young twenty-one-year-old budding poet and she an established writer and intellectual of thirty-six. She was also a married woman, but that was incidental.

These two extraordinary people were fated to meet; if they had not met, they would have had to invent each other. As it was, they had already invented themselves, although in Rilke’s case the self he had fashioned had still not quite taken. Their first encounter was in Munich in May 1897, at the apartment of the novelist Jakob Wassermann. Rilke had already had his eye on the famous bluestocking, and on her arrival in the city the previous month he had sent her copies of his poems anonymously. Although she pretended not to be, she was flattered, and when the young man himself appeared before her she saw at once past the panting immaturity to the poetic genius within. A few weeks later they became lovers. Lou was never a laggard when she encountered something she wanted.

Rilke first wrote to Lou on the day after they met. His letter is a fulsome brew of flattery, false humility, and sly calculation, typical of a young artist on the make. A couple of weeks later, on May 31, he is as good as declaring his love. Writing to her that day, he opens with a poem—a paean—from a sequence he calls Songs of Longing; it is…

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