Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rainer Maria Rilke throat-clearing - tomorrow, how about I look at a Rilke poem, huh?

Rainer Maria Rilke may be as un-Austrian an Austrian writer as I take a run at this year.  He was born in Prague and moved around his entire life.  He is more of a Paris writer than an Austrian writer, and he is associated more closely with Munich, Switzerland, Italy and even Russia than with Vienna.  Like his early influence Heinrich Heine, he was a citizen of – not the world – of continental Europe.  But he did attend the same military boarding school that Robert Musil dissected in The Confusions of Young Törless, and circa 1910 he experienced what now seems to me like the watermark event of the Austrian writer, a Crisis of Artistic Purpose.

Led to Rilke by Thomas Pynchon, I read Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1982) a long, long time ago.  I now have a clearer idea of what I got out of Rilke then – nothing.  Or at least not much more than that Rilke’s late poems were full of angels, that he was some kind of spiritual seeker (which I am not), and that he had a decade plus crisis during which he prepared himself for the angels or muses or a specific arrangement of neurons to reveal to him his greatest work, the Duino Elegies (1923).

While waiting, Rilke published two volumes of poems, numerous individual poems, worked on a daunting variety of translations (such as Michelangelo Buonarotti and Paul Valéry), and wrote hundreds of unpublished poems.  This is all aside from a constant stream of extraordinary letters.  But these poems were not the right poems, not the Duino Elegies.  “[S]heer mythologizing” is how Edward Snow, Rilke’s indefatigable translator, describes the “crisis” (The Poetry of Rilke, 2009, p. 657).

Two points, though.  The first is that the story climaxes in February 1922 when a solitary Rilke is overcome with another of his many recurring bursts of creativity and produces not just the Duino Elegies but The Sonnets to Orpheus, “letting the stream of sonnets wash over me like a deluge” (Rilke quoted by Snow, 647).  So here we have a vatic mode of poetic creativity likely not available to many poets, although how they have tried.

My second point is that along with living in the right surroundings, knowing the right people, and attaining the ideal degree of solitude, Rilke prepared himself for the arrival of the poetic gods by working, by an absolutely exhausting amount of writing that dates back to his teens.  I am the one who is exhausted, not Rilke.  This is not the image of Rilke I had been carrying around: Rilke as one of Europe’s most prolific major poets.

The other “crisis” in Rilke’s career, the other noisy silence, is at the beginning and is the creation of Rilke’s translators and critics.  “The Book of Hours (1905) is one of the strongest inaugural works in all of modern poetry,” writes Snow (p. 623), but he is having a little joke since it is Rilke’s eighth book of poems, the first dating back to 1894 when  Rilke was nineteen.  Snow begins his 600 pages of translations there in 1905; Stephen Mitchell did the same thing.  Competent but derivative is the common judgment, young Rilke working through his German and later French Symbolist influences before encountering Russia and Rodin and Cézanne and Lou Andreas-Salomé.

I suppose this is accurate.  What I am sure of is that by the 1907 New Poems, Rilke was publishing poetry that would have provided most poets ideas and problems for a lifetime of work.  For a few days I will pretend that it is 1908 and I have never heard of the Duino Elegies or The Sonnets to OrpheusNew Poems and New Poems: The Other Part (1908) should give me enough to do. 


  1. It's good that he didn't wait for the Muse to strike him, but kept on working. Keeping the mind busy and stimulated is probably more likely to attract the Muse's good graces than to sit idly waiting.

    I'm quite ignorant of Rilke's poetry. I've read his short-stories, Stories of Good Jesus, which were too allegorical and religious for me, and his Letters to a Young Poet, which were full of spiritual claptrap I don't really care about.

    I suppose, though, that his poetry is far more interesting.

  2. Where would Rilke be without the spiritual claptrap. I last read Rilke during what turned out to be the period when Rilke was adopted by the New Age movement. No wonder I did not want to pursue him.

    We will see as the week progresses, but yes, I think you will find the poetry far more interesting.

    Those stories you read are from the early, politely ignored period. In The Cambridge Companion to Rilke they are mentioned once, in a discussion of Rilke's interest in Italian literature.

    1. Luckily I just bought a cheap bilingual edition of the Duino Elegies, so I can read along.

  3. My primary exposure to Rilke is the sensitive young New Age poet who I encountered back in my college days. I'll be interested to see what of his you write about this week. I don't know the Duino Elegies at all.

  4. Also, apropos nothing but I thought you'd be interested:


  5. What are these Duino Elegies everyone is mentioning? I have never heard of them. What could they be? Is everyone looking forward to the London Olympics this summer? The summer of 1908?

    The New Age Rilke was a big problem, a huge obstacle for me. Perhaps that has all receded a bit. Rilke has been abused by his fans.

    I would go see that Ubu, in French or English.