Rainer Maria Rilke

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Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875, a city with a German-speaking element. He attended the University of Prague and Linz, and soon set out on his unsettled life of wandering among friends and countries. In 1899 and 1900 he went to Russia with Lou Andreas-Salome and her professor husband, where he met tolstory and the painter Pasternak (father of the poet Boris). He was fascinated by Russian Orthodox mysticism and the solitary life of the monks. Russia was the foundation of his ways of absorbing the world; he was to say at the end of his life.

He took trips to North Africa, Sweden, and Denmark, and in 1901 married to Clara Westhoff, a German, and had a daughter Ruth by her. After a year he left them, though he and Clara remained close friends. In 1902 Rilke went to Paris, where he lived off and on for the next twelve years, part of which time he was the sculptor Rodin’s private secretary. The first of his Duino Elegies were written in 1912 at Duino, Italy, in a castle which looked onto the Adriatic.

Then, following a period of creative frustration, in 1921 he settled in Chateau de Muzot, in Switzerland, a small, uncomfortable, thirteenth-century stone house, with a bedroom and one tall room, where he remained the rest of his life. There, in the month of February 1922, he completed the Duino Elegies, the fifty-five poems in Sonnets to Orpheus, and a miscellany of other poems. After 1924 he was sick and by November 1926 he was at the Valmont Sanatorium. That month he published Vergers, a collection of his French poems.

After pricking his finger on a rose thorn and suffering pain from severe blood poisoning, he died of leukemia at Valmont on December 29, 1926. By the time he wrote Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke was at once the most classically informed and innovatively modern writer of his generation (Rilke 1972). Unembarrassed by precursors, using them to his advantage, he stood apart from his immediate experimental contemporaries and created a modernism at once unique, cyclical, and enduring.

Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, prompted by the death of a young woman, Vera Oukama Koop, is an occasion of perfectly crafted poems, which Rilke shaped and misshaped in every possible way to suit the few days of their compelling creation. The blind angel entered him and spoke his message, and Rilke completed the first book in about three days. He returned to the Duino Elegies, and then turned back to the sonnets and completed the second book, also in a few days. So this most interior, metaphysical, secular-religious poet of the century yielded.

In the poems he moves away from what might be an ordinary life of friends, lovers, and artists to one of remembrances: a dog’s imploring face, a free-flying kite, a young childhood cousin who will die, a teenage Dutch dancer, Vera Ouckama Koop, who dies in her eighteenth year and to whom his volume is dedicated. He also contemplates the indifferent modern machine that threatens the soul, contrasted with a virgin and her white unicorn that he discovers on a medieval textile in the Musee de Cluny in Paris. Finally, he addresses the silent friend of many distances, who may be Koop or Rilke himself.

In this last sonnet, affirming the risk of life and art that may lead to jubilance, Rilke tells the friend, lost in darkness, to let he go and ring out. In the sonnets, Rilke exchanges his outer and inner worlds with agility. While he may find an angel or two or Orpheus’s resounding tunes inhabiting his realms, no salvific god shows up to comfort or make promises. The poet resides in loneliness, homelessness, silence, and change, his conditions for touching the sky and the fields and hearing all that is elsewhere and around him.

Rilke had many friends, but he was always a guest, an uprooted monk of art, and his most accomplished work was completed in a month of 1922 in that tiny dingy castle where he sentenced himself to solitary confinement. Orpheus is a calendar of search, remembrance, and acceptance of Orpheus, the art-god of descent and resurrection, who is everywhere. Rilke succeeds in turning grief into pathos and ultimately into an ecstasy of absence and presence.

Following a familiar pattern of his relations with women, Rilke moves from desire, to its frustration and negation, to the transformation into art. It is not different, emotionally and artistically from the pattern of the mystical poets as in St. John of the Cross, where the speaker moves from the burning senses, to the dark night of their negation, and to light and union which in the instance of both Rilke and the Spanish mystic is the evidence of the poem. Rilke’s Interpretation of the Greek Myth Orpheus

There are three moments of the myth of Orpheus as related and commented by Rilke, first, the creation of a world through language, second, the turn which Orpheus makes at the threshold of Hades, and third, the death of Orpheus. In Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, the poet-figure Orpheus, whom we know from Greek legend and Medieval Latin folklore, is the symbol for a poetical synthesis that joins all things in harmony and joins what appears and what by its very nature does not, Orpheus is thought to keep open what Rilke will call a dual realm between the actual and the potential that lies beyond it.

The poet-figure to whom Rilke’s sonnets are addressed, of course, is the Greek poet Orpheus, who according to legend, sang so divinely that all of nature hearkened to his call, Orpheus was thus able to charm the god Hades and bring back his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, holding open what Rilke calls the pure relation between the here and the beyond. And so the Sonnets to Orpheus series is about the access of poetic language to appearance and to what transcends it.

Rilke’s language itself, through its elusive but also vertiginously concrete references, realizes a world that encompasses the actual and the unseen, the special transcendence (1972:189-192) of potentiality. This is why Rilke’s poetry emphasizes the other side of even ordinary things and other side not exhausted by the actuality that foreshadows it. The inspiration for Rilke’s Sonnets is twofold. First of all, it is grateful to the Orpheus legend an illustration of which hung in the Chateau de Muzot, where Rilke was staying in February 1922 when the series was written.

Equally importantly, it was occasioned by the untimely death in youth of Vera Duckama Knoop( a daughter of a friend of Rilke’s), to whom the sonnests are dedicated. (1958: 185). One can infer then that Rilke takes the task upon himself, as Orpheus did for Eurydice, of establishing a relation to the mysteriousness of the other side, which Rilke claims, in a letter about the Sonnets, the dead girl symbolizes.

In a commentary Rilke writes that the Sonnets are placed under the name and protection of the dead girl whose incompletion and innocence holds open the door of the grave, so that she, gone from us, belongs to those powers who keep the half of life fresh and open towards the other wound-open half(1972: 136). Rilke is fascinated by the legendary poet, who is said to have sung so beautifully that all beings, even gods, were enchanted by his song, but it is primarily the invisible potential horizon of things that Rilke’s own poetry, by invoking Orpheus, aims to bring into poetical intimacy.

Through this horizontality, Rilke finds an access to what he often refers to as the essence of things. The girl is a symbol of that horizonality, a symbol of incompleteness itself: as a young girl, she was half yet to be. Her death transports her to the other side of life which illuminates life’s own incompleteness. In the Duino Elegies,(1994: 154 ),the second part of which was finished during the same profile month of February 1922, the figure of the angel which Rilke takes pains to distinguish from the Christian symbolism of the same serve unification of distinct realms.

The Orpheus myth for both Rilke and his predecessor Ovid concerns the relation between this known side of life and the mysterious beyond. Orpheus is the one who has lifted the lyre among shadows, who has entered the underworld, and so the one to whom is allowed the infinite praise of poeticizing. It is because the figure of Orpheus, like the dead girl, is characterized by transcendence that he serves Rilke well here.

Rilke devices in his invocation of Orpheus, a decidedly modern poetical access to the transcendent by presenting in condensed and abbreviated form, a lyrical total without translating that total into logical or even associative statements. From the first sonnet of the series, Orpheus and his song are associated by Rilke with pure transcendence. Orpheus who sang so sublimely that he was said to have become a god, transcended the ordinary relation that language gives us to things, a relation which Rilke conceives as relying upon opposites, the cleavage between being and non-being.

Rilke’s reference to Orpheus is marked by a repetition of German verbs that indicate a crossing of such boundaries. His word transcends( ubertrifft) the being-here ( das Hiersein), because it overstep ontological boundaries even as he obeys them and so Orpheus enters into relation with the mystery of things and their transience. Their transience renders them intimate with our own and so we must according to Rilke resist the will to run down and degrade everything earthly, just because of its temporariness which it shares with us.

Things too belong to the dual realm to which Rilke’s sonnet series repeatedly refers. This is suggested in these lines from Rilke’s Sonnet on the relationship of poetic song and the nature. Conclusion While Rainer Maria Rilke’s relation to empiricist psychology is marginal at best, his relatively unreflecting use of its imagery allows us to estimate with some accuracy the extent to which the movement had entered the general consciousness of an entire period from the 1890s on.

For many readers and writers, the dispersed and fragmented subject was doubtless little more than a fashion, just as many saw impressionist painting more as a technique than as the outgrowth of a philosophy. Rilke seems to have used empiricist vocabulary and turns of thought somewhat eclectically throughout his career, he was an excellent indicator of what was generally in the air and had an exceptionally creative way of integrating it into his own original and powerfully imagined poetic universe.

Influence studies of the conventional type cannot do justice to the kind of problem he poses. Throughout his life, as an almost daily custom, Rilke wrote letters of such exceptional grace and expressive force that they have come to represent a significant part of his artistic legacy. He also preserved conscientiously letters written to him by others. Family members, friends, and more incidental acquaintances collected his letters as precious gifts, in keeping with old European traditions.

After his return from Paris to Muzot, Rilke set down his last will and testament in which he authorized his heirs to publish his correspondence. He realized how much of his creative energies had flowed into the letters. He had spent days and weeks just answering the growing number of questions on his work and way of life and thinking about concerns with which others had approached him. In its totality, Rilke’s work reflects his personal life and disposition, as well as, and perhaps even more so, the curiously pessimistic historical climate that became obvious at the turn of the century.

He felt and recorded the insidious doubt in the strength or adequacy of a modern rationalistic society. He was extraordinarily sensitive to the deeply disturbing signs of this cultural unrest and without any sustained interest in theoretical discourse, learned to draw conclusions from the work of contemporary artists. Rainer Maria Rilke is a master at lining, and his use of contemporary meters, rhythm, and diction makes his translations more readable to a contemporary audience without losing the mysticism and lyrical quality of Rilke’s poems.

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  • Date: 13 January 2017

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