His affairs with women were intense, literary and dominated by the word ‘soul’

Michael Wood

  • Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke by Ralph Freedman
    Farrar, Straus, 640 pp, $35.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 374 18690 1
  • Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow
    North Point Press/Farrar, Straus, 266 pp, $22.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 86547 482 6
  • Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’: Cambridge Readings edited by Roger Paulin and Peter Hutchinson
    Duckworth/Ariadne, 237 pp, £30.00, March 1996, ISBN 1 57241 032 9

We have all kinds of images of the modern poet, little mythologies made out of snatches of the life and work and reputation. The figure is hieratic and austere, like Mallarmé and Valéry, inward and intricate like Eliot and Pessoa, serenely eccentric like Marianne Moore, public and overflowing like Neruda and Pound.

One of the strangest and most tantalising of these images is that of Yeats, both worldly and spiritualist, silly like us, as Auden said (sillier, some would say), and yet wonderfully hard-headed. But there can’t be a weirder or more unmanageable image than that of Rilke, the social and emotional butterfly, dreamy, hysterical, devoted to angels and children and the lure of death, perpetually stranded, it seems, in some angular Art Nouveau twilight, and yet capable of the sternest, strongest lines, mingling drastic common sense (‘You must change your life’) with stuff which can strike the terror of God into the most settled atheist heart.

Because the beautiful is nothing

other than the beginning of the terrible, which we can scarcely bear,

and we marvel at it, because it calmly refuses

to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.

First Duino Elegy, my translation

There is also the effect of simplicity in extreme difficulty, the tone of one who has found advice in a place where the very idea of advice seems dead:

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice ...

Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 13,

Stephen Mitchell’s translation

Rilke was born into an ambitious but failing family in German-speaking Prague in 1875. His first given name was René, which he changed to Rainer when he met the extravagant Lou Andreas-Salomé. Before that he had unhappily attended a couple of military schools and gestured towards university studies in Prague and Munich, but he seems to have inaugurated very early on what was to be his erratic and earnest literary life. He wrote and talked furiously, courted great men, travelled: to Russia, Egypt, Spain. One of the many pleasures of Ralph Freedman’s patient biography is the sight of Rainer and Lou, enormous Russophiles, visiting the disappointing country of their dream. The trip included what Freedman calls a ‘famous non-visit’ to Tolstoy. Tolstoy had met them before, but barely remembered either of them, and scarcely spoke to them now. Later in life Rilke wasn’t sure he ought to meet Gorky because the fellow was a socialist, and offered the opinion that ‘a Russian is as suitable for revolution as a cambric handkerchief for mopping up ink.’ This in 1907. In 1919, in tune with the times, Rilke was a supporter of the Russian Revolution and the short-lived Bavarian Republic, and a few years later he was admiring Mussolini (‘What soaring language, and not only in literature but in public life!’). Freedman says ‘Rilke’s perception of political life was essentially literary, but that’s putting it mildly.

Rilke lived in Berlin, then in an artists’ colony near Bremen, where he met and married the sculptor Clara Westhoff. They had a daughter, Ruth, often abandoned to her grandparents, and pretty much entirely abandoned by her father. The marriage itself seems to have been only a kind of long-distance friendship, although the couple never divorced. Throughout his life Rilke had short-lived affairs with other women, intense, literary and dominated by the word ‘soul’. Rilke moved to Paris, became Rodin’s secretary for a while, acquired more and more aristocratic patrons, who were delighted to have him for long spells as an honoured guest in various villas and châteaux, on Capri, in Sweden, Germany, Austria, France. The patron of the Duino Elegies, said on the title-page to be their owner, was the Princess Marie von Thurn and Taxis-Hohenlohe, mistress of the castle at Duino on the Adriatic. Rilke spent the years of the First World War back in Munich, then settled, as far as he ever settled, in Muzot in the Swiss Valais. He died in Switzerland in 1926, and was buried in the cemetery at Raron.

Rilke appears in Freedman’s account as unspeakably phoney in everything except his writing, snobbish, evasive, preachy and calculating as only the unworldly are. Freedman is too generous to put it this way, although he does at one point speak of ‘oily didacticism’, but he keeps the problem firmly in sight, and the general) mildness of his language often amounts to an indictment. Clara survived Rilke by almost thirty years, Freedman tells us, and ‘Ruth, often neglected and sometimes unloved, dedicated her life to his memory ... She died, by suicide, in 1972.’ ‘Sometimes unloved’ is devastating; as is that dedicated life, and that death.

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