Poetry Inc.

Christopher Reid

To read Donald Prater’s biography of Rilke in the hope of getting to know the poet in depth would be a tantalising exercise. Lack of information is not the problem. There is no shortage of documentary evidence available to the investigator and Prater has made full use of it. Rilke himself supplied his large share in letters of a princely egocentricity, upon which he appears to have lavished a formidable outlay of time and creative energy. Many of those who were personally acquainted with him, too, were scrupulous in setting down their impressions of a figure whose near-divine poetic status was taken for granted from an early date, while scholars and researchers have shown comparable zeal in the subsequent mopping-up campaign, until now it would seem we have all the facts we could reasonably ask for. Prater’s eight-page bibliography alone testifies to the abundance of secondary literary material generated by what was, after all, an oeuvre of modest size (if one leaves aside those letters) and a life whose most notable characteristics were a cultivated detachment from the surrounding world and a dismaying evasiveness in personal matters.

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