Biography of Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke In His Study
Rainer Maria Rilke in his study, circa 1905. Private Collection. Artist Anonymous.

Heritage Images / Getty Images 

Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) was an Austrian poet and writer. Known for his lyrically potent work, he combined subjective mysticism with precise observation of the objective world. Although admired only by certain circles in his own life, Rilke achieved huge popularity around the world in later decades.

Fast Facts: Rainer Maria Rilke

  • Full Name: René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke
  • Known For: Acclaimed poet whose work, with its intense lyricality and mysticism, bridges the traditional and modernist eras.
  • Born: December 4, 1875 in Prague, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic)
  • Parents: Josef Rilke and Sophie Entz
  • Died: December 29, 1926 in Montreux, Vaud, Switzerland
  • Education: Military academy, trade school, and finally a university degree in literature, philosophy, and art history from Charles University in Prague
  • Published Works: The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch, 1905); The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910); Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien, 1922); Sonnets to Orpheus (Sonnette an Orpheus, 1922); Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter, 1929)
  • Spouse: Clara Westhoff
  • Children: Ruth
  • Notable Quote: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.”

Early Life and Education

Early Work

  • Life and Songs (Leben und Lieder, 1894)
  • Lares's Sacrifice (Larenopfer, 1895)
  • Dream-Crowned (Traumgekrönt, 1897)
  • Advent (Advent, 1898)
  • Stories of God (Geschichten vom Lieben Gott, 1900)

René Maria Rilke was born in Prague, the capital of what was then Austria-Hungary. His father, Josef Rilke, was a railway official who had given up an unsuccessful military career, and his mother, Sophie (“Phia”) Entz, was from a wealthy Prague family. Their marriage was unhappy and was to fail in 1884, as his mother was socially ambitious and felt she had married beneath her. Rilke’s early life was marked by his mother’s mourning for her daughter, who had died after just one week. She treated him as if he were the girl she had lost, he said later on, dressing him up and handling him almost like a big doll.

In an effort to ensure the social standing his father had failed to achieve, the young Rilke was sent to a rigorous military academy in 1886, at the age of 10. The poetic and sensitive boy spent five unhappy years there, and he left in 1891 due to illness. With the help of his uncle, who recognized the boy’s gifts, Rilke managed to secure a place at a German preparatory school, which he attended for only a year until he was expelled. He returned to Prague at 16 years old. From 1892 to 1895, he was tutored for the university entrance exam, which he passed, and spent a year studying literature, art history, and philosophy at Charles University in Prague. He was already certain he would start a literary career: by 1895 he had published, at his own expense, one volume of love poetry in the style of poet Heinrich Heine, called Life and Songs (Leben und Lieder), and would publish two more shortly thereafter. None of these early books has much in the way of the keen observation that was to mark his later works.

It was studying in Munich in 1897 that Rilke met and fell in love with the 36-year-old woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé, who proved to be extremely influential on Rilke’s life. Salomé was in a celibate and open marriage, and was a remarkable woman: widely-traveled, highly intelligent, and fiercely independent, she had refused proposals from men ranging from intellectual Paul Rée to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Her relationship with Rilke lasted until 1900, in which she brought about much of his éducation sentimentale and acted almost as a mother to him. It was Salomé who suggested that René change his name to Rainer, which she found more Germanic and forceful. They would remain in touch until Rilke’s death. The daughter of a Russian general and a German mother, Salomé also took him on two trips to Russia, where he met Leo Tolstoy and the family of Boris Pasternak. It was in Russia that he fell in love with a culture which, alongside Bohemia, was to become a huge and lasting influence on his work. There he encountered an almost religiously stirring affinity, where he felt his inner reality was reflected in the world around him. This experience solidified Rilke’s mystical, spiritual, and humanitarian leanings.

In 1900, Rilke stayed at the artists’ colony at Worpswede, where he began working on his poetry with renewed vigor, publishing a handful of lesser known works. It was there that he met a former pupil of Auguste Rodin, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following year. Their daughter Ruth was born in December of 1901. Their marriage was failed from the start; although they never divorced due to Rilke’s official status as a Catholic (though he was non-practicing), the two agreed to a separation.

Three figures on steps with children behind
Rilke and Salomé in Russia, 1900. Heritage Images / Getty Images 

Mysticism and Objectivity (1902-1910)

Poetry and Prose

  • Auguste Rodin (Auguste Rodin, 1903)
  • The Book of Hours (Das Studenbuch, 1905)
  • New Poems (Neue Gedichte, 1907)
  • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910)

In the summer of 1902 Rilke moved to Paris, where his wife and daughter later followed, to write a book about the sculptor Auguste Rodin and, soon thereafter, to become the sculptor’s secretary and friend. Of all the living artists, Rodin was the one that he admired the most arduously. While Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, echoes some of the difficulties he faced in his early days in Paris, it was during this time period he enjoyed some of his most poetically productive years. One of his great works, The Book of Hours, appeared in 1905 and was followed by 1907’s New Poems and, published in 1910, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

The Book of Hours was largely developed at the artist’s colony at Worpswede, but finished in Paris. It displays the turn towards mystical religiosity that was developing in the poet, in contrast to the naturalism popular at the time, after the religious inspiration he experienced in Russia. Soon thereafter, however, Rilke developed a highly practical approach to writing, encouraged by Rodin’s emphasis on objective observation. This rejuvenated inspiration resulted in a profound transformation of style, from the subjective and mystical incantations to his famous Ding-Gedichte, or thing-poems, that were published in the New Poems.

Book cover
Book cover of Rilke's Book of Hours, 1920 edition. Imagno / Getty Images

Poetic Silence (1911-1919)

Rilke soon entered a period of inner restlessness and anguish and traveled widely within North Africa and Europe. Although none of these travels was to reignite his inspiration, when Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis offered him hospitality at Castle Duino, near Trieste on the Dalmatian Coast, he gladly accepted. It was staying there that he began the Duino Elegies, although the book would remain unfinished for years.

When World War I broke out, Rilke was staying in Germany and was barred from returning to his home in Paris, where his property was confiscated. Instead, he had to spend much of the war in Munich, where his initial patriotism and solidarity with his countrymen turned into deep opposition to the German war effort. Rilke admitted his views were far to the left and supported the 1917 Russian Revolution and the 1919 Bavarian Soviet Republic. Eventually, presumably in fear for his safety, he became quieter on the topic during fascism’s rise in Europe, although at the end of his life he once praised Mussolini in a letter and called fascism a healing agent. In any case, Rilke was certainly not cut out for war, and despaired when he was called to undergo military training. He spent six months in Vienna, but influential friends intervened for him and he was discharged and returned to Munich. The time spent in the military, however, reduced him as a poet almost entirely to silence.

Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus (1919-1926)

Final Works

  • Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien, 1922)
  • Sonnets to Orpheus (Sonette an Orpheus, 1922)

When Rilke was asked to give a lecture in Switzerland, he ended up moving to the country to escape the post-war chaos. He roamed around in search of a place to stay to finally finish the book of poems that he had started a decade before. He found a permanent residence at the Château de Muzot, a medieval tower that was falling apart and barely inhabitable. His patron, Werner Reinhart, paid to fix it up, and Rilke entered a period of intense creative productivity. Although he was normally extremely critical of his own work, he produced within weeks at the Château de Muzot what even he recognized as a masterpiece. He dedicated it to his hostess Princess Marie and called it the Duino Elegies. Published in 1923, it marked the high point of his literary career. Immediately thereafter he also finished the joyful Sonnets to Orpheus, another one of his most lauded works.

Painting of Rilke
Rilke painted by Helmut Westhoff in 1901. Apic / Getty Images

Death

From 1923 on, Rilke began to experience health problems, causing him to spend many long stays at a sanatorium in the mountains near Lake Geneva. Developing sores in his mouth and pain in his stomach, he struggled with depression. He did not stop working, however; during this time, he began translating French poetry, including André Gide and Paul Valéry, which resulted in an abundance of his own poetry in French. He died of leukemia on December 29, 1926 in a sanatorium in Montreux at the age of 51, and was buried in a cemetery near the Swiss town of Visp.

Literary Style and Themes

Rilke’s work was from the very beginning highly emotive in character. Some critics have even called his early work “unbearably sentimental,” but luckily Rilke was to grow immensely in sophistication over the years, keeping poetic pace with his own spiritual development. One of his earlier masterworks, The Book of Hours, is a three-part cycle of poems that maps the three phases of his religious development. Later on, the collection New Poems demonstrates his newfound interest in the spiritual power of the objective world. His Ding-Gedichte, or thing poems, focus intensely on an object in a distanced, sometimes unrecognizable, way, in an attempt to allow the object to express its inner being using its own language. Frequently this object would be a sculpture, such as Rilke’s famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (“Archaischer Torso Apollos”).

His later work, especially the Duino Elegies, center around the great themes of man’s loneliness, life and death, love, and the task of artists. The Sonnets to Orpheus, written almost at the same time, marks the other great themes of Rilke’s work, including his sense of joy, praise, and delight. Rilke draws on characters from Greek mythology that he refigures in his own interpretations. He is also known for his use of angel imagery; it has been suggested that Rilke’s admiration for painter El Greco influenced this interest in angels, particularly once he saw some of Greco’s work while traveling in Italy.

Although Rilke was mainly a poet, he did produce one well-received novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Another beloved prose work of Rilke’s is his Letters to a Young Poet. In 1902 the 19-year-old poet Franz Xaver Kappus was a student at Theresian Military Academy and read Rilke’s work. When he learned that the older poet had studied in his own adolescence at the academy’s lower school, he reached out to him, seeking his opinion on his own work and and in deciding whether or not he should pursue a life in the Austro-Hungarian military or as a poet. In the collection of letters, which Kappus published in 1929, three years after Rilke’s death, Rilke offers his wisdom and advice in his typically lyrical, moving style. While telling the young poet to ignore criticism and not to seek fame, he writes, “Nobody can advise you and nobody can help you. Nobody. There is only one way—go into yourself.” Letters to a Young Poet remains one of his most popular works of today.

Legacy

At the time of his death, Rilke’s work was incredibly admired by certain circles of European artists, but mostly unknown to the general public. Since then, his popularity has grown steadily.

In the United States he has become one of the best-selling poets today, certainly one of the most popular German-language poets ever, and is often quoted in popular culture. His work is admired for its almost healing vision of the world, and has been used by the New Age community for its mystical insight. Literarily, he has exerted an extensive influence, from poet W.H. Auden to postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Sources

  • “Rainer Maria Rilke.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rainer-maria-rilke. Accessed 12 September 2019. 
  • “Rainer Maria Rilke.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/poet/rainer-maria-rilke. Accessed 12 September 2019.
  • Freedman, Ralph, Life of a poet: a biography of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995.
  • Tavis, Anna A., Rilke's Russia: a cultural encounter, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1994.