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Creator / Rainer Maria Rilke

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Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing about you.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, The Second Elegy (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Rainer Maria Rilke (full name: Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke) (December 4, 1875 - December 29, 1926) was an Austrian poet and novelist, and one of the most famous writers of German poetry (though he also wrote a good deal in French.)

Rilke was born on December 4, 1875 in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Josef Rilke—who became a railway officer after an unsuccessful military career—and to Sophie "Phia" Entz, who came from a well-to-do Prague family. He was sensitive and introspective, and generally had an unhappy childhood; Phia had him dress like a girl in an attempt to cope with the loss of a daughter who died only one week old. He experienced the fracturing of his parents' marriage in 1884; he remained by his father's side.

Josef Rilke believed that his son would benefit from military training, so he sent him to a military academy in Sankt Pölten, Lower Austria, which he attended from 1886 until 1891. Rilke himself fell ill, leading him to withdraw from the military academy and attend a trade school. During that time, his interest in writing grew into a serious pursuit, leading him to publish Life and Songs, his first book of poetry, in 1894. He then attended universities in Prague, Munich, and Berlin from 1896-1899.

In 1897, Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salome, an author and psychoanalyst who studied with Sigmund Freud. She was the wife of a university professor and suggested that Rilke change his name from "Rene" to "Rainer". The two developed a very close friendship, which lasted until the death of her husband. Salome was the daughter of a Russian general, and she and Rilke made two visits to Russia in 1899 and 1900. There, Rilke met its famous creative minds, like Leo Tolstoy, and embraced Russian culture; the visit inspired The Book of Hours, which was published in 1905.

From 1900 to 1902, Rilke lived in Worpswede, an arists' colony in eastern Germany, where he met Clara Westhoff, a sculptor. They married in 1901, and had a daughter, Ruth, who was born later that year. The couple lived apart most of the time, although they maintained a cordial relationship. Rilke relocated to Paris in 1902 to write about the sculptor Auguste Rodin (and Clara, who studied with Rodin, joined him there). However, Rilke had conflicted feelings for Paris, and recounted some of these in the form of the novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which he published in 1910.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Rilke was in Munich, and he fulfilled military service in an archive in Vienna. By then, he had begun the Duino Elegies, which he did not complete until February 1922, in the Chateau de Muzot in the Valais. That same month saw the completion of The Sonnets to Orpheus.

Towards the end of his life, Rilke wrote most of his poetry in French, influenced by the poet Paul Valéry, whose work he translated into German. Rilke's final years were difficult, as he developed leukemia, which led to frequent hospitalizations. Rilke eventually died in 1926, at the age of 51, at his chateau in Switzerland.

At the meantime, Rilke was also a prolific letter writer, as many of his letters have been collected in several volumes.

Major Works

  • The Book of Hours (1899-1903):
  • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910):
  • Duino Elegies (1922)
  • Sonnets to Orpheus (1922)
  • Letters to a Young Poet (1929): A collection of letters that Rilke wrote to a Franz Xaver Kappus, an officer cadet. In these letters, Rilke gave Kappus advice as to the quality of his poetry and in deciding whether to pursue a literary career or a career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army.

His poetry contains examples of:

  • Classical Mythology: A lot of characters from Greek myth (Orpheus, Apollo, Hermes) wander through Rilke's poems.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Maria is an unremarkable middle name for men from Catholic countries.
  • Lost in Translation: It can occur with Rilke's poems. There are many translations of his poems, especially of Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, and the way the poems vary from translator to translator can make you wonder how much of Rilke's original intent is getting through.
  • Raised as the Opposite Gender: Rilke's mother, in mourning after losing a baby daughter after a week of life, dressed Rilke in dresses throughout his early childhood.
  • Reclusive Artist: He was a big fan of having his own space. Not to the extent of other artists (like Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger) as he did exchange a lot (a lot) of correspondence with readers and contemporary artists.
  • Sanctuary of Solitude: The Muzot Castle in Switzerland, where Rilke wrote most of both Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies in a very short amount of time.
  • Shout-Out: Sonnets to Orpheus is chock-full of allusions to the Greek myth.
  • Take That, Critics!: He says in Letters to a Young Poet:
    Read as little as possible of literary criticism - such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.