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 a poor piece that nevertheless sounds the authentic Rilkean note in its closing lines, which speak of

the deep lesson in every fate.

Which is: to see in each small rose

The great Spring’s unfolding.

Rilke, through whose life and work ran a rich seam of the erotic,3 found in Lou not only a lover but a representative of the Mother—the eternal maternal. When he met her he had just returned from his first, ecstatic visit to Venice, that “stone fairy-tale,”4 and was on the run from his loved and hated mother. This was a pivotal moment in the nascent poet’s life, when he determined to abandon his university studies and break free from his family and become a real writer. It was a difficult and painful rebirth, and it left lasting scars.

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 into a German-speaking bourgeois family with pretensions to nobility—the grand flourish of the child’s given names was a typical gesture of the social-climbing Phia Rilke née Entz, who, so one of the poet’s biographers tells us, was not above sticking a grand cru label on a bottle of vin ordinaire when guests were expected. She had wanted a girl, hence, one supposes, the René and the Maria. The Rilkes claimed their origins among the Carinthian knights of Rülko, a romantic notion the poet clung to all his life; the reality it seems was less grand, and certainly his first recorded forebears, in the early seventeenth century, were prosperous farmers living on the borders of Bohemia and Saxony. His mother’s people were solidly in trade and administration, and the Entzes were “a family whose worldly success contrasted with the relatively modest achievement of the Rilkes, and whose outstanding trait was the strong will which Rilke inherited from both mother and grandmother.”


Rilke’s was, by his own testimony, a “very dark childhood.” His parents’ marriage was already in trouble when he was born, and throughout his boyhood it continued in steady decline. His father was a military man whom ill-health had forced out of the army into a dull career as a railway official. After his death his son said of him that “right to the end he had a kind of inexpressible fear of the heart toward me, a feeling against which I was very nearly defenceless, but which must have cost him more than the most intense love.” Rilke’s mother, who dressed always in black, was neurasthenic, ambitious, and pious to the point of bigotry. “She wanted to appear young, suffering, unhappy,” Rilke wrote. “And she was unhappy, too, I daresay.” She felt she had married beneath her intellectually. She wrote poems and aphorisms, a selection of which were published under the title Ephemeriden, in which she indulged her caustic views on, among other things, her unhappy marriage: “Many a betrothal is only a prayer before the battle.”

No doubt one of the spurs for Rilke’s restless wanderings as an adult was his desire to escape his mother’s clutches. He was almost thirty when he wrote that every time he saw her he relived his childhood struggle to get away from her—“And to think that I am yet her child…” Small wonder, then, that he should cleave to the maternal yet erotically expectant Lou. Even her name must have attracted him, exotic, vaguely aristocratic, androgynous like his own, and with the hint of a falling seventh veil in that accented final é.

Louise von Salomé was born in St. Petersburg in 1861, the youngest of six children and only daughter of Gustav von Salomé, a German general in the tsar’s army. The family lived in grand quarters opposite the Winter Palace. Lou was brought up as a Protestant, but abandoned that faith as too restrictive when she was seventeen, and put herself secretly into the care of Hendrik Gillot, pastor of the Dutch legation in Petersburg and tutor to the tsar’s children. Gillot introduced her to philosophy and gave her books on comparative religion. This spiritual idyll ended abruptly when Gillot, a married man in his forties and the father of two children, proposed marriage to her. She left for Zürich to continue her studies in theology and art history, but began to display symptoms of pulmonary disease, and in 1882 her mother took her south to Rome. There she fell in with a circle of expatriate intellectuals, including the historian Paul Rée, who in turn introduced her to Nietzsche. Both men proposed marriage—for Lou no doubt a double dose of déjà vuand although she refused, she did consent to live with Rée, and spent three years with him in Berlin. They must have been bitter years for Rée, whose passion for Lou she steadfastly declined to requite. Nietzsche was her teacher for more than half a year, though subsequently he denounced her, as he did so many of his friends and would-be followers.

In 1887 Lou married Friedrich Carl Andreas, a scholar fifteen years older than she. Andreas’s background was colorful, to say the least. He was born in Jakarta, son of a German-Malay woman and an Armenian prince from Isfahan in Persia. He went to school in Hamburg and Geneva, and studied classical and Oriental philology in various German universities. In 1875 he joined a scientific expedition to Persia, where he remained for six years as a teacher and, briefly, as supervisor of the Persian postal system. He returned to Germany, where in 1885 he met Lou and determined to marry her. As Edward Snow and Michael Winkler, the editors of The Correspondence, laconically remark, “his courtship must have been tumultuous.” During an argument with her on the day before they were to announce their engagement he stabbed himself in the chest, just missing an artery. One cannot but sympathize with the poor frustrated fellow: Lou had agreed to marry him only on condition that there would be no sex. At their wedding the officiating clergyman was Hendrik Gillot, who must surely have experienced a certain chagrin at the ironical turn of events.

By the time she was introduced to Rilke a decade later, Lou was more than ready for real love. Within weeks of their first meeting she and Rilke went to the village of Wolfratshausen, in the foothills of the Alps south of Munich, where they were to spend three months together. One of the first things Lou did was to persuade Rilke to exchange the, to her, feminine-sounding René for the “plain, fine, German” name Rainer; he also changed his handwriting. Despite Lou’s mature years and married state, the tryst in Wolfratshausen was for her as much as for Rilke a first experience of true passion—years later she wrote that he was the “first true reality” in her life, “body and soul indivisibly one…. I could have confessed to you word for word what you said in your confession of love for me: ‘You alone are real.'” As for Rilke, he could hardly believe his luck, and his early letters to Lou would be too embarrassing to read were it not for the note of boyish wonderment that sounds throughout them:


I want to see no flower, no sky, no sun—except in you. How much more beautiful and like a fairy tale is everything gazed at through your eyes: the flower at your edge, which…shivers alone and lifeless in the gray moss, then brightens in the mirror of your kindness, stirs lightly and with its little head almost touches the sky that reflects back out of your depths. And the sunbeam that arrives dusty and unfaceted at your borders grows clear and multiplies itself a thousandfold to become radiant splendor in the waves of your luminous soul. My clear fountain.

It was one of the great literary love affairs, and both were acutely conscious of the fact. As with all such unions there was something faintly ridiculous in the seriousness, the solemnness, with which the lovers took themselves. As Philip Larkin said of the Ted Hughes–Sylvia Plath saga, a single burst of genuine laughter would have brought the whole thing crashing down. The more sensible Lou probably was a little abashed at the intensity of it all, for in 1901, when the sexual affair had ended, she proposed that they should burn their correspondence; Rilke complied, but she had second thoughts and kept most of his letters, though she suppressed some and even tried to obliterate sections of those remaining.

Still, even at the time of writing she displays restraint, gently urging Rilke to buck up and stop feeling so sorry for himself in what it pleased him to call, adapting Pope, “the long convalescence that is my life.”5 Certainly his unrelenting hypochondria must have been as hard for her to bear as it is for us, his later readers:

The feeling in my back and in my esophagus that I spoke to you about…is as if an alum solution had gotten into the fascia: they contract almost to the point of painfulness, bitterly as it were, and with this disagreeable sensation I could trace the entire course of all my muscle fibers—that’s how clearly this inner torsion defines them. I write you this in case you should see your doctor (from Föhr). He would surely know how something like that is related to other things and how it can be made bearable and less frequent.

Lou was remarkably patient with this kind of thing—and there was much of it—advising him to “try to be tolerant of all those quirks of the body that are not to be avoided, the body being what it is: i.e., ignorant and easily frightened and at the mercy of everything imaginable.” Though most of his ailments were psychosomatic, and many of them imagined, it is uncanny how often from earliest days he refers to matters of the blood, as if he knew subconsciously what awaited him—he was to die, in 1926, of leukemia.

It is hard to judge how honest or forthcoming Rilke was in these letters. He was a careful nurturer of the fable of himself and his calling as a poet, and in Lou he had his perfect auditor, although as Snow and Winkler remark, “Lou’s understanding of art remained conventional” and her own writings were fated not to last. Most of Rilke’s extensive letters to her, and many of them are very long indeed, are nothing more than sustained whines of complaint, and there are numerous longueurs during which the plodding reader wishes that the editors of the correspondence had been less assiduous in giving us every word, though scholars will, of course, be grateful.

One of the most significant of Lou’s surviving letters to Rilke is the famous “Letzter Zuruf,” as she headed it—known in English under the slightly misleading translation “Last Appeal”—written on February 26, 1901, after Rilke had told her of his intention to marry the painter Clara Westhoff, whom he had met at the artists’ colony of Worpswede near Bremen. Lou’s epistolary style was, as Snow and Winkler wearily remark, “at times almost impenetrable,” and it is hard to discern the exact nature of the warning she is imparting to the poet in this letter. She writes that she has had a long conversation about Rilke’s psychological condition with the Viennese neurologist Friedrich Pineles,6 and warns that “‘the other one’ in you—this now depressed, now overexcited, first much too fearful, then utterly carried-away You” might drive him to insanity “if you intend to commit yourself to another.”

She also seems to be saying that marriage will ruin him as a poet. Warming to her theme, she inevitably digresses to recall all the help and support she has given him over the years—indeed, and as so often, much of the letter is an impassioned hymn to herself—while at the same time “obeying without realizing it the great plan of life,” which he too should do, and instead of marrying “take the same path toward your dark god!” To all this Rilke’s reply was a six-month silence.

Rilke seems to have been drawn almost absent-mindedly to Clara Westhoff, and their marriage remains a shadowy affair. They had one child, Ruth, for whom Rilke often expresses tender feelings, although he speaks of her as a fleeting and slightly uncanny presence in his life.7 He was never less than honest in confessing his ruthlessness—a sad pun, in this context—and by the summer of 1903 he was writing to Lou that “in one poem of mine that succeeds there is much more reality than in every relationship and affection I feel,” and wondering, “What are those close to me other than a guest who doesn’t want to leave?” Years later, in 1912, when Clara was agitating for divorce, he admitted ruefully to Lou that “as a woman she would of course have had to be loved, for in being loved the feminine achieves its realization,” and that her expression often reminded him of that of the wife of Auguste Rodin, “about which a young girl, quite frightened, once said to me: ‘My God, was it really necessary for her to make herself look so unloved?'”

The long letter of August 1903 in which he spoke of his detachment from even those closest to him could stand as his artistic testament. After his move to Paris in 1902 he had become an intimate member of Rodin’s circle (and for a time his secretary), and wrote a monograph on the sculptor’s work. At sixty-two Rodin was almost twice Rilke’s age, and the younger man fell at once under the master’s spell. Rodin’s artistic credo was simple—“il faut travailler toujours, rien que travailler“—but for Rilke it was a revolutionary notion. As his biographer says, “Till that moment, the work he loved had been a rare festival only, awaiting the inspiration of the creative hour: now he realized that steady application could summon up inspiration, indeed was the only way to preserve it.” The result was the wonderful, hard, new voice he found in the Dinggedichte of the New Poems, “thing poems,” as Rilke called them, to emphasize the shift from his own feelings to the thing observed. They began with the famous portrait of the panther in the Jardin des Plantes, his breakthrough work:

Exhausted, he sees nothing now but the bars

that flicker past him in a blur;

it seems there are a thousand bars

and behind the thousand bars an empty world.

The drill of wheel and return: turning on his heel till

he seems to pass through his own body—like whisky

swilled to the neck of the bottle then back on itself.

He swings on the pivot of his numb and baffled will.

Sometimes, though, the sprung shutter of the eyes

will slide open and let an image enter—a face, perhaps—

shooting through the tensed muscles, lightening

the limbs, streaming into his heart to die.8

To Lou he wrote of Rodin, and he might have been writing of himself, that “since he had been granted the gift of seeing things in everything, he had also acquired the ability to construct things; and therein lies the greatness of his art.”

The thing is definite; the art-thing [Kunst-Ding] must be even more definite; removed from all accident, torn away from every uncertainty, lifted out of time and given to space, it has become enduring, capable of eternity. The model seems, the art-thing is. Thus the latter is that inexpressible advance over the former, the calm and mounting realization of the desire to be that emanates from everything in nature. By this is banished that error which would view art as the vainest and most capricious of vocations; art is the humblest service and founded absolutely on law.

Thenceforth Rilke’s desire, in work and in life, was: “To be a real person among real things.”9 He would have to wait a long and bitter time for this desire to be realized, in poetry, at least.

At the end of 1911 Rilke was staying, alone, at the castle of Duino on the Adriatic coast near Trieste, which had been lent to him by his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, one of the bevy of women, not all of them mistresses, who throughout his life took care of him, housing, feeding, and in some cases funding him. He was in a profound spiritual and artistic crisis after the completion the previous year of his autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Although the book, the fictional journal of a young Dane in temporary exile in Paris who undergoes a spiritual and aesthetic crisis, bears similarities to such works as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne,10 and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (The Lord Chandos Letter), it is a unique modernist document and one of the great extended prose-poems of the twentieth century. “Can you understand,” he wrote to Lou on December 28, 1911, “that in the wake of this book I have been left behind like a survivor, stranded high and dry in my inmost being, doing nothing, never to be occupied again?” His problem was “what to do to keep from stagnating while I stand still? What to do?”

So desperate was he at this time that he considered a course of psychotherapy, despite strong misgivings—“Something like a disinfected soul results from it, a non-thing, a freakish form of life corrected in red ink like a page in a schoolboy’s notebook”—and since Lou was already in training as a Freudian psychoanalyst he naturally turned to her for advice.11 Surprisingly, perhaps, Lou counseled against therapy, although we must infer this from Rilke’s replies to her, since all eight letters and one telegram that she sent to him in that extraordinary period at the beginning of 1912 have been lost. On January 24 he wrote:

I know now that analysis would make sense for me only if I were truly serious about that strange thought at the back of my mind—no longer to write—which during the finishing of Malte I often dangled before my nose as a kind of promised relief.

By that stage, however, Rilke was already four days into his own, specialized, form of therapy.

The story goes, and it has often been told, that on the morning of January 20, 1912, while a strong bora was blowing in off the sea, Rilke was pacing the battlements of the old castle, mulling over a letter from his lawyer dealing with Clara’s request for a divorce, when a voice out of nowhere spoke to him through the roar of the wind, bringing him the first line of the Duino Elegies:Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the orders of angels?” Within a short time, a matter of days or at most weeks, he had written, or transcribed, as he preferred to think, the first two elegies.

Thus Rilke described to Marie von Thurn und Taxis12 among others the beginnings of what would turn out to be one of the great works of literature of the twentieth century. We may, however, permit ourselves a certain skepticism; the making of art is rarely attended by such drama. If Rilke recognized at once the nature of the work he was embarked on, how is it that four days later he is writing to Lou of a continuing crisis and the possibility of abandoning altogether the poetic task?

In that letter of January 24, he wrote:

Then one might have one’s devils driven out, since in ordinary bourgeois life they are really only bothersome and awkward anyway, and if by some chance the angels left with them, well, one could view that too as a simplification and tell oneself that in one’s new, one’s next occupation (but which?) there would certainly be no useful place for them.

It is greatly to be regretted that the letter of “jubilation” that Rilke wrote to Lou at the end of that January, announcing the first Elegy’s completion, is lost, as is her reply.

For the remaining fourteen years of Rilke’s life the couple stayed in contact, mostly by letter, but although Lou continued to support and praise his poetic work—she even used the Elegies as part of her treatment of psychiatric patients sunk deep in neurosis—the old fire was gone, and she was not, as people nowadays say, “there for him.”

This is ground over which one must tread carefully, for fear of unfairness to this in many ways wonderful and wonderfully caring woman and, indeed, to the poet himself. In the first years of the 1920s Rilke’s health, never as robust as it usually is in hypochondriacs, had deteriorated alarmingly and mysteriously, resulting in fever and the growth of painful nodules on the insides of his lips, on his tongue, and in his esophagus. He had been living for some years in Switzerland, working at the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in the isolated and primitively appointed tower of Muzot—the t is pronounced—at Sierre in the Valais, where he was visited occasionally, though she wished it could be more frequently, by his mistress, Baladine Klossowska,13 and where he was increasingly tended to and nursed by his friend Nanny Wunderly-Volkart—what a perfect name for this motherless man’s last caregiver—housewife, gardener, and amateur bookbinder.

At the end of October 1925, after more than a year’s silence between them, Rilke wrote to Lou—“If only I had called out long ago”—telling her how “for two whole years I have been living increasingly in the very midst of an alarm,” the cause of which he ascribed to a “self-induced stimulation” which “I invariably, with devilish obsession, exacerbate just when I think I have overcome the temptation to indulge it.” Snow and Winkler admit that “recent Rilke studies” take the poet to be referring here to masturbation, but they have doubts, pointing to the ambiguousness of Rilke’s language in this passage14 and to the fact that Lou’s response is equally ambiguous—she even speaks of a “hypersensitivity…very much like what happens at the penis through erotic stimulation,” which she would hardly have done if it was precisely the genitalia that Rilke was referring to. What it was exactly that Rilke was talking about remains a mystery.

At the time, Rilke’s physician, Dr. Haemmerli-Schindler, at the Valmont Clinic, which the poet visited when he could afford the fees, was still uncertain about the exact nature of Rilke’s illness; can we blame Lou, then, for missing the seriousness of his plea, so different from the repeated cries of wolf he used to direct at her in former times, those false alarms which he acknowledged when he told her, “you have so many old dictionaries of the language of my lament in your possession”? Yet it does seem a little mulish of her to concentrate in her reply on preaching at him not to feel guilty for his “devilish obsession,” while she ignores the anguish that is so palpable in his request for help:

Write me, dear Lou, if you can, a word. As it is, for so long nothing has come your way in response to something I received. Now I send you this shabby bank note of distress: give me a gold coin of concern in exchange for it!

Rilke’s final, brief letter to Lou is heartbreaking. It was written more than a year later, and a couple of weeks before his death at the end of December 1926:

So this you see was the thing for which during these last three years all the alerts and forewarnings of my watchful nature have been preparing me….

He had never asked the name of his illness, and his doctor had not told him. Yet in the last poem he wrote, a couple of weeks before he died, he saw clearly and greeted the “dark god” now standing before him: “Komm du, du letzter, den ich anerkenne…,”15 echoing his words in his final letter to Lou (see the text below). All his life he had insisted that each man has a right to his own authentic death, and his resolve had not faltered. To the very end he consistently refused palliative drugs, and asked Dr. Haemmerli not to let him lose consciousness. “Help me to my death,” he said to Nanny Wunderly, “I do not want the doctors’ death, I want my freedom.” Life, he said, “can give me no more—I have been on all its heights…. Never forget, my dear, that life is a thing of splendor!”

Along with Rilke’s final letter of December 13, Nanny Wunderly and Dr. Haemmerli wrote separately to Lou. The doctor said that “the only thing he has requested is to tell you the full truth, which I am prepared to do….” Lou, realizing at last the gravity of the situation, wrote frantically on five successive days, but these letters, too, are lost, if they ever arrived. At Christmas Nanny Wunderly wrote to her with what was no doubt unintended bitterness: “When I asked him if I should write you again, he said: no, brushing it aside with his hand.” Lou had finally to accept the inevitable: “and now it remains only to step back before him, and one must no longer dare raise one’s own life-bound voice.” For these two relentless utterers, all that remained was silence.

This Issue

December 21, 2006