Saturday, January 5, 2013

RILKE -- Essay / Memoir




Text and Nature Images
© Copyright 2017 by Neall Calvert

The Young Rilke

"I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough
to make every minute holy."

LIKE FRIEDRICH HÖLDERLIN  [essay at], Rainer Maria Rilke has a permanent place in the top ranks of German literature (though he didn’t want to be limited by the designation “German poet”). Rilke arrived at my door from the bargain table of a Vancouver used bookstore. An enigmatic-looking figure in a black-and-white photograph peered out from a wine-coloured cover. The book’s subtitle, “A Translation from the German and Commentary by Robert Bly,” had caught my eye. Bly’s Iron John is a work that can nudge open the doors of male self-worth when they are rusted shut.
The volume I had picked up, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, carried erratic markings inside in day-glo pink highlighter, so the price was just four dollars. Months later when I picked it up again, I noticed that on the title page someone had scrawled in ballpoint pen, directly under the title, “Greatest Spiritual Poet of this [Twentieth] Century.”
Born with the given names René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria, Rilke (1875–1926) is much more widely known than Hölderlin, especially in North America. (However, that is changing. When I began this essay in the 1990s it was ten to one for Rilke on Internet hits; now it is about two to one.)  . . . It turns out Rilke held his predecessor in high esteem, and his own poetry was partly an attempt to recreate what he considered as the pure, transparent language of Hölderlin. In a 1914 poem titled “To Hölderlin” [“An Hölderlin”] Rilke writes:

To you, O majestic poet, to you the compelling image,
O caster of spells, was a life, entire;   .   .   .
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  
O wandering spirit, most wandering of all! How snugly
the others live in their heated poems and stay,
content, in their narrow similes.   .   .   .
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  
.   .   .   No one
gave it away more sublimely, gave it back
more fully to the universe, without any need to hold on.
Thus for years that you no longer counted you played
with infinite joy, as though it were not inside you,
but lay, belonging to no one, all around
on the gentle lawns of the earth, 
where the godlike children had left it.
Ah, what the greatest have longed for: 
     you built it, free of desire,
stone upon stone, until it stood. And when it collapsed,
even then you weren’t bewildered.

Why, after such an eternal life, do we still
mistrust the earthly? Instead of patiently 
     learning from transience
the emotion for what future
slopes of the heart, in pure space?[i]

         Rilke wrote that the infinite, eternal, intelligent force we so casually call God (he sometimes calls it “the Nameless”) existed everywhere and in everything, that there was a spiritual power in all the things of this earth. He also believed that this force was brought alive, literally constructed on Earth like a cathedral, within poets and artists as they strove to create and to become whole. He considered life to be a unity—everything was in life itself, including death.  
        A supremely dedicated poet and a brilliant lyrical writer [lyrical: like a song; a representation of personal feeling. Originally in ancient Greece it meant to be accompanied by the lyre] whose first books of poems were published when he was still in his teens, Rilke translated his sometimes-difficult life journey into inspired poetry and prose. The Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (“Orpheus, the supreme god of poetry, of whom all poets are but fleeting metamorphoses”[ii]) are considered his masterworks. Orpheus, a musician, poet and prophet of ancient Greece, was said to have played the lyre so sublimely that it charmed all living creatureseven stones; rivers were said to change their courses. During a fallow period in his writing, Rilke came across an image in a bookshop window of Orpheus playing, surrounded by animals. It revitalized him for years thereafter.
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet comprises perhaps the most famous collection of epistles of the past one hundred years. The ten letters, written to a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet at a military academy, were begun when he was just twenty-seven and continued over a five-year period. Though in places sanctimonious, they have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of readers, and are celebrated for what translator Stephen Mitchell calls the “vibrant and deeply felt experience of life” that fills them.
Rilke was the only child of an unhappy marriage. His mother, mourning the loss of a girl child, dressed him in girl’s clothing in his early years and would only speak to him if he answered to a girl’s name. Like Hölderlin, he later felt ill at ease in the world. As a young adult he would write to a friend:

. . . with the intimidation from which I suffered in my growing years (everywhere encountering laughter and superiority, in my awkwardness repulsed by everyone) [his soldier father had in his youth placed him in a military academy] I never had a chance to learn much of the preparatory training, and most of the technicalities of living, which later are easy to everyone; my awareness is full to the brim with recollections of moments when all the people about me could do something and knew things and acted mechanically without thinking how to go about it, while I, embarrassed, didn’t know where to begin, wasn’t even able to imitate them by watching.[iii]

. . . It was a self-description I, also a male raised as a girl, could almost have written. . . .

          Rilke often led a restless, wandering existence. From the German-speaking area of Prague where he was born he travelled to and /or lived in Germany, Russia, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain and finally Switzerland, seeking the places and circumstances right for his work. Paris would become his creative centre. His low vitality led at times to actual ill health.
Sometimes Rilke lived alone in a small room, seeking out a vegetarian restaurant, other times in splendid surroundings provided by wealthy friends or patrons. For a time he lived at Worpswede, in northern Germany, in an artists’ colony, where he met Klara Westhoff, a sculptress who was a pupil of the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who became his wife. The marriage produced a child, Ruth, but lasted only one year.
After being hired to write a monograph on Rodin and moving to Paris, Rilke became for six months Rodin’s secretary, and later lectured on the man he considered one of the greatest artists in the world. From the master sculptor, who was at first a father figure and for a time a friend, the young writer was grateful to learn the secret of life for the artist: work consistently, not just when ideas strike (“travailler, c’est vivre sans mourir”). It became Rilke’s motto: “To work [creatively] is to live without dying”[iv]. Ulrich Baer, translator of an impressive book of selections from Rilke’s letters, says: “Even if Rodin ultimately disappointed Rilke . . . he triggered in Rilke an urgent desire to find out what it means to commit oneself to a meaningful pursuit.”[v]
Though Rilke never attained a university degree, he studied art and literature at universities in Berlin, Prague and Munich, and considered himself a scholar.
Writing was Rilke’s life. Besides poetry, prose works and plays, he continually penned letters to friends and acquaintances, sometimes dozens in a day, in which he described the minute details of his life, his progress or the lack of it, and his feeling states. The same events would never be described in the same words in another letter. Writes Baer: “For each correspondent, Rilke varied his diction to come closer to the honesty, the precision, and the emotional accuracy he valued above all else in his work.” This process helped him to remain balanced, and it emptied his mind for creative effort. He constantly gave of himself in words personally addressed to the recipient, and it is one set of such letters, to a man he had never met, that became the celebrated Letters to a Young Poet. (“. . . acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? And if this should be affirmative . . . then build your life according to this necessity; . . . Then draw near to Nature.”[vi])
In one particular week Rilke wrote (by hand) 180 pages to others, then copied the sections containing poetic imagery into his own workbook for later use. Many of these letters are gathered into books; they are considered an essential part of his work, and they give intimate insight into the creative process and the creative life. One fine example is Letters Summer 1926: Pasternak, Tsvetevaya, Rilke.[vii] (In a letter to Rilke late in his life, fellow poet Marina Tsvetevaya wrote: “You are not the poet I love most . . . You are poetry itself.”)[viii]
To achieve the solitude for reflection and writing, Rilke left behind his wife and child, and sent away lover after lover after brief affairs. He had to discover over and over again that only in aloneness could he bring forth the great ideas he knew lay somewhere in his depths. To him it was unforgivable to succumb to the pressures of “normal life” rather than develop as an individual. He wrote to a friend that he found himself forever “standing at the telescope, ascribing to every approaching woman a bliss which was certainly never to be found with any one of them: my own bliss, the bliss I once found in my most solitary hours.”[ix] 

          . . . This was good news for me. Rilke’s words saved me from the grief of continuing to never get enough of what I didn’t really want in love affairs with women. I began to travel into the wilderness of Central British Columbia, and there, surrounded by mountains, lakes, trees and a great sky, I found my walks becoming a meditation on the pleasures of relatedness with a few significant people I knew. Eventually I realized what I truly longed for: a relationship with the kind of God that the poet Rumi talks about in his writing: “The Beloved; The Eternal. I wanted The Love Affair That Never Ends. . . . 

          Although Rilke developed many personal connections, he mostly lived alone, and in him one can discover what solitude means:

I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough
to make every minute holy.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.  .  .  .

          In another letter to a friend, Rilke said, “As soon as life touches me with one of its realities . . . makes demands on me, I am disturbed. Where others feel themselves welcomed and in good hands, I feel as though prematurely dragged out from some hiding place. . . .”[xi]  Rilke said he needed “unlimited solitude, where each day seems like a whole life . . . the space whose bounds one cannot see, in the midst of which one stands surrounded by the illimitable.”[xii]
His multifaceted thoughts on solitude, found in Baer’s remarkable The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke, are worth hearing:

Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo. To know when you have to join in, that is the secret of your solitude . . . [xiii]

It happens only rarely that an individual gains a deeper and more serious understanding of himself during a happy and fulfilling time in his life; at such moments, most people dismiss the outcomes of their preceding solitude as gloomy errors and throw themselves into the blinding glare of happiness where they forget and deny the contours of their inner reality.[xiv]

I consider the following to be the highest task in the relation between two people: for one to stand guard over the other’s solitude. If the essential nature of both indifference and the crowd consists in the nonrecognition of solitude, then love and friendship exist in order to continually furnish new opportunities for solitude . . .[xv]

Rilke wrote these words after having experienced first-hand the discord spoiling the atmosphere in the household of Leo Tolstoy, whom he had visited while travelling in Russia with his sometime muse and mistress and lifelong friend, the writer Lou Andreas-Salomé. (She introduced Rilke to one of her intimates, Sigmund Freud, but the poet declined psychoanalysis, thinking it would interfere with his creative output.[xvi] Their letters, published in 2006, provide, according to one reviewer, “a fascinating insight into the artistic temperament of an influential poet, during a period when poetry still represented the peak of the literary arts.”)[xvii]
Rilke had also found the Rodin home in France too strained with conflict, and decided one could have a domestic life or a secluded writing life, but not both. Without each person in the relationship honouring the other’s requirements for solitude, there was only unhappiness, he came to understand. In Letters to a Young Poet he had written on solitude in relationships: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” It is a phrase often misinterpreted as the paean of a misanthrope it is rather the accumulated wisdom of an accomplished student of soul retrieval.

          At times Rilke’s life was climbing inner mountains, which he declared he was prepared to do; at other times he described himself as having gone through mountains, face to the rock, for months. He had no qualms about constantly asking his publisher, his friends, patrons and acquaintances to support him in his self-imposed mission to create exalted writing—even at the risk of his health. This they did, both financially and in terms of residences that suited Rilke’s needs at the moment. Those homes could be almost anywhere in Europe. . . .
Rilke was not for everyone. Upon first meeting him, another European writer reported that Rilke had the “blank, immobile exterior of a blind man,” and uttered further: “I have never known anyone with a more affecting dissociation between the spiritual life and everyday existence.”[xviii]
He was not a saint. Though he remained connected to his wife and daughter, he declined to attend his daughter’s wedding, preferring to remain with his creative process. American John Berryman, a much more outward-oriented, competitive poet than the gentle, inner-questing Rilke, writes in one of his poems: “Rilke was a jerk.”[xix] Those wishing to explore the many character flaws of Rilke are directed to a 1996 Washington Post review of the Ralph Freedman biography Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke entitled “Devil or Angel.”[xx] []
The novelist and poet Hermann Hesse writes in a different tone. “As a human being [Rilke’s] fate made him humble and kindly.”[xxi]

In his nature he is so very typical of what is unprotected, homeless, uprooted, threatened . . . He prevails not because he was stronger but because he was weaker than the average; it is the sick and threatened quality of his nature that so powerfully summoned up and strengthened the healing, incantative, magical forces in him. . . . [H]e has become a beloved and comforting image and model for the spiritual man and artist who does not withdraw from suffering, who does not flee from and renounce his own time and its fears, nor his own weaknesses and dangers but through them, a sufferer, achieves his faith, his ability to live, his victory.[xxii]

Remarkable . . . how this poet so consistently begins with what is simplest and as his language grows, as his mastery of form increases, penetrates deeper and deeper into his problems! And at each stage now and again the miracle occurs, his delicate, hesitant, anxiety-prone person withdraws, and through him resounds the music of the universe; . . . [xxiii]

                                                               *      *      *

. . . In my own confrontation with suffering and weakness, I wondered if I, like Rilke, could accept my condition: the inability to stand up straight in the world (my first of several chiropractors, after many years of treatment, once termed my condition “broken-back syndrome”). Then there was the panic attack when I got on an airplane, and frequent feelings of overwhelm. Could I, like the poet of poets, dedicate my life to writing and creativity, and to finding the right conditions for carrying them out? . . .

                                                              *      *      *

           Robert Bly's Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke includes poems from The Book of Pictures (Das Buch der Bilder), one of six major collections by Rilke. Bly says, 

The title [The Book of Pictures] translates as a book of images or paintings . . . He is not writing a literary book about images but rather a painterly book in which he adopts some of the disciplines of painting. . . . Rilke wanted to provide readers with a book that would be like a big room full of paintings. Here the man or woman who resists the collective can enter and walk around; no one will bother him or demand conversation. . . .[xxiv]
A Rilke biographer says that the neo-romantic poets, of which Rilke was one,

wrote for a small international community of people sensitive to beauty, people who were not satisfied with the materialistic trend of the world. . . . The poets were virtually the priests of a new religion which was simultaneously pantheistically earthly and indefinably unreal, a religion which held aloof from the world of action and thereby from every form of ethics, which knew no form of worship but only solitary ecstasy, which was deliciously unlimited but as fugitive as sea-foam. . . . The greatest of these poets is . . . Rainer Maria Rilke. He is the greatest, primarily on account of his richness. . . .[xxv]

It has been repeatedly, and rightly, pointed out that the mysterious beauty of Rilke’s verse and of his world can be approached best if it is realized that he constantly aimed at spiritualizing the sensory and at clothing the spiritual in the sensory. This is one of the characteristics of the whole neo-romantic movement with its hovering intermediary position between heaven and earth, neither of which it is entirely willing to enter.[xxvi]

Rilke, considered a master of verse, wrote powerfully concerning things (“Archaic Torso of Apollo”) and animals (“The Panther”), subjects he explored deeply in poetry. (See Web Links below to connect to these and other poems.) In Sonnets to Orpheus he mused, in intense images, on his preoccupations: childhood, love, death, and how inanimate things and plants and animals relate to human consciousness. “Rilke packs a lot into the fourteen-line space of the sonnet,” writes Jeremy Robinson. “He evokes night, space, breath, presence, transformation, loss, suffering, sensuality (sound: ringing like a bell; taste: wine; sight: night, and so on), mystery, magic, personification (earth, water, wine, night), philosophy.”[xxvii]
Rilke said he next wanted to explore human beings, but the angels intervened and so came Duino Elegies, a series of poems exploring man’s place in the whole (“. . . simply because to live is important, and we / are needed by all this here and now . . .”[xxviii]). The ten Elegies move from, at the beginning, terrifying contact with the angels, and his famous opening plea of spiritual longing . . .

Who, then, if I cried out, 
    would hear me from among the angel

(Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel

. . . increasingly to celebration of their presence. In number nine he writes:

To the Angel
praise the world but never the inexpressible, you
can never impress him with your splendid emotions;
he of the infinite knows you are new to them. Show
some simple thing that has weathered
until as a part of ourselves it lives in our hands and eyes.
Speak to him things. He’ll stand amazed . . .

Although Rilke kept a bible with him at all times (as well as a small bust of the Buddha), the angels he knew were from the Islamic world that he encountered in Spain.[xxx]

                                                        *      *      *

In 1914, at midlife, Rilke felt himself at a turning point. He wanted to stop working so hard. He realized he wanted an end to trying to figure everything out; he wanted to live another way.

Work of the eyes is done,
Now practise heart-work
upon those images captive within you . . .

He also learned to stop complaining about life, instead to speak of its glories. Four years before his passing he had written, in one of the personal and poetic dedications that always accompanied a gift of one of his books:

Oh, tell us, poet what do you do?
—I praise.
But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,
how do you bear them, suffer them?
—I praise.
And the Nameless, beyond guess or gaze,
How can you still call and conjure it?
—I praise . . .

Rilke’s outpourings have been summed up as an “extraordinary combination of formality, power, speed and lightness”[xxxiii]—one that transformed German into a more poetic language. When one considers that the stanzas so appreciated in English were often rhymed in German, his accomplishment seems all that much greater. (In Steven Mitchell’s The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, a good starting point, the English and the German conveniently appear side by side.)

                                                        *      *      *
Rilke’s poems have been set to music by many composers, including Hindemith, Shostakovitch, Viktor Ullmann, Peter Lieberson and Frank Martin. Hindemith’s Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), based on a cycle of poems by Rilke, was written in 1923 and rewritten in 1948. The LP record versions of both have been digitized and can be downloaded from the Internet.[xxxiv]
Austrian composer Ullmann, who also set to music a few of Hölderlin’s poems, created, while music director at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in 1944, twelve pieces for spoken voice and orchestra based on Rilke’s prose poem The Ballad of the Life and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke (Die Weise von Liebe und Todes des Cornets Christoph Rilke). Swiss composer Frank Martin’s 1942 composition for orchestra and voice based on the same work was made available on CD in 2007.[xxxv]
In 2001, American composer Peter Lieberson wrote for his wife, singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Rilke Songs, five songs based on Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002, and a live-recording CD was produced in 2006.[xxxvi] 

                                                        *      *      *
Rilke’s writing followed a similar pattern to Hölderlin’s: he produced his greatest work near the end of his creative life. The two authors, like trees that in brilliant autumn tones illuminate the landscape just before their cycle is finished, flared and were gone.
Rilke’s soul-emptying effort of completing both Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies in just a week (Orpheus was singing within him again; the latter had lain unfinished in his mind for ten years) exhausted him. (“My hand still trembles! . . . All in a few days, it was an incredible storm, a hurricane in the spirit . . . every fibre in me, every tissue, cracked. But now it exists. Is. Amen. . . .”).[xxxvii] Afterward he became severely ill. Following several years of suffering, with doctors unable to come up with a diagnosis, he was finally discovered to have a rare form of leukemia, of which he died in 1926. 
Hermann Hesse writes that he would like to join the brotherhood of poets such as Rilke, those who

do not seek to enlighten our time, or to improve it, or to instruct it, but by revealing to it our own suffering and our own dreams we try to open to it again and again the world of images, the world of the soul, the world of experience. These dreams are part evil dreams of anxiety, these images are in part cruel horror pictures—we do not embellish them, we dare not disown them. We dare not hide the fact that the soul of mankind is in danger and close to the abyss. But we dare not conceal either that we believe in immortality.[xxxviii]

*     *     *

It could be summarized about Hölderlin as well what has been said of Rilke: that he “steadfastly held to his aim: through the alchemy of the gift he felt within him, to transform to the gold of poetic expression a personal perception of the world of man and nature. . . .”[xxxix] Like the clouds above us, such writers provide the water of life.
A letter to the editor in the Vancouver Sun explores the gifts such thinkers give to society:

The term “intellectual” sticks in a lot of people’s craws. To many it connotes aloofness, snobbishness, a high-toned attitude and looking down with disdain on common folk.
Yet the term is legitimate: It truly means something. It refers to an admirable ability to grasp, with the most unencumbered mind possible, the human condition.
This might seem the foppish realm of dilettantes, except that it profoundly matters. A free society is blind—actually doomed—without thinkers to burrow through its presumptions. We’re blind without philosophers, critics and interpreters, without artists, especially poets. We need people who think just for the sake of thinking, the sake of illustrating, the sake of clarifying.
But “just thinking” is not an occupation that’s highly regarded in modern society. “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” is the standard comment.
We’re paying the price for this lack of regard. Never in the history of the human race has there been such a shallow culture, ignoring the information that proves the destructiveness of the course it is on. . . .[xl]

*     *     *
The pages of these two essays present, I hope, a small antidote to the consuming culture that dominates western society today. It is a culture that tires many people out at jobs that don’t relate to their inner, sacred needs, in order to pay for a lifestyle they—as well as the Earth—cannot afford. Contact with rich, life-giving Nature has gone, replaced by a religion of materiality and at the same time one of endless lack that keeps singing the hymn “There’s Still Not Enough to Go Around.”
The richness inherent in each person’s inner life—as well as in each moment as a gift from the Mind of Nature—has been lost. William Wordsworth described this condition best:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune . . .

Hölderlin conveyed similar thoughts in “The Poet’s Vocation” (“Dichterberuf”):

Too long now things divine have been cheaply used
And all the power of heaven, the kindly, spent
In trifling waste by cold and cunning
Men without thanks, who when he, the Highest,
In person tills their field for them, think they know
the daylight and the Thunderer, and indeed
Their telescope may find them all, may
Count and may name every star of heaven.
Yet will the Father cover with holy night,
That we may last on earth, with knowing eyes. Never will

Our free-ranging power coerce his heaven.[xlii]

*     *     *

IN LATE SUMMER OF 2011, nearing the end of a two-month camping journey in western British Columbia, a solitary midlife vision quest, I wanted to write a poem about the perceptions of Nature that were growing in me. From my campsite in an old-growth forest on Buttle Lake in the mountains of central Vancouver Island, 90 kilometres from the nearest town, night after night I had silently watched the sun set into a pristine, high peak across the lake, followed a few hours later by the moon a few peaks over. The grand sky, the stillness, the silent watchful trees, the regularly moving spheres of light, their absence and then the even more silent night, and then the cycle repeating again the next day—the air was rich with life. Something is present here, I wanted to say . . . something indefinable that I can almost touch . . .
Rilke had already been there. In the Ninth Duino Elegy, considered by some (including the grudging author of the Washington Post review mentioned above) the greatest one, he had written the set of words that bears repeating:

But because truly, being here is so much;
because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world,
which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth,
seems beyond undoing.

Not only is there something present on this earth, there is something that seems to require acknowledgement by human presence, that apparently needs us, in Rilke's beautiful words. Nature wants us to be here to revel in its magnificence . . . to be at one with the earth . . . to feel at home . . . to love this  place . . . and to create like a dedicated poet here.

*     *     *

See Neall Calvert's collection of images at:


Claims to contain all of Rilke’s poems. “The Panther” is here, as is “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Be sure to read different translations, in books or at other Internet sites. You may be surprised at the varying outcomes. Find one that resonates with you. See further #5 below.

“Assorted Rilke Links.” Provides access to a rich collection of websites on Rilke, including poetry, commentaries, music connections and foreign-language sites.

Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, by Ralph Freedman, Northwestern University Press, 1998, 640 pages. Complete book available for free download. A 1996 Washington Post review of this book, titled “Devil or Angel,” emphasizes the many not-so-pleasant aspects of Rilke’s character presented in Freedman’s tome. It can be found at

4. The Duino Elegies can be found by searching on the Internet.

Marjorie Perloff article: “Reading Gass Reading Rilke.” A review of William H. Gass’s book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. An intelligent look at how Rilke’s unique style of German (“must be a translator’s nightmare”) arrives at the eyes of English-speaking readers. Describes the setting that created the famous opening lines of the First Duino Elegy.

6. Rilke’s famous Letters To A Young Poet can be found by searching on the Internet. One site suggests reading them every year: “The five-year correspondence is a virtual owner’s manual on what it is (and what is required) to be an artist and a person.”

Rilke at midlife

   *     *     *

To read Neall's essay 
on the life and work of 
Friedrich Hölderlin,  
Germany's "Poet of the Gods" 
go to:


[i] Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Vintage International/Random House, 1989, 141. A footnote contains a paragraph from a letter by Rilke to Norbert von Hellingrath: “During the past few months I have been reading your edition of Hölderlin with extraordinary feeling and devotion. His influence upon me is great and generous, as only the influence of the richest and inwardly mightiest can be. . . . I cannot tell you how deeply these poems are affecting me and with what inexpressible clarity they stand before me.”

Writes Jeremy Robinson: “The fervent Hellenism of Hölderlin and the magic idealism of Novalis seem particularly aligned with Rilke's poetic sensibilities, even if he were not directly influenced by them (he certainly was by Hölderlin).” [See Endnote 29]

[ii] Prater, Donald. A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 350.

[iii] Rainer Maria Rilke, M. D. Herter Norton, trans., Letters to a Young Poet, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993, 113.

[iv] Prater, ibid., 92.

[v] Baer, Ulrich, editor and translator. The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke. (New York: Modern Library/Random House, 2005), xliv.

[vi] Letters to a Young Poet (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993), 18–19.

[vii] Letters Summer 1926: Pasternak, Tsvetevaya, Rilke. Eds. Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak, and Konstantin M. Azadovsky; Transl. Margaret Wettlin and Walter Arndt. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985).

[viii] Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Introduction by Robert Hass, Introduction, p. xiv.

[ix] Prater, ibid., 409.

[x] Robert Bly, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: A Translation from the German and Commentary (New York: Harper & Row, 1981). From #7 in “A Book for the Hours of Prayer (Das Stundenbuch),” 25.

[xi] Prater, ibid., 116.

[xii] Prater, ibid., 131.

[xiii] Baer, ibid., 84.

[xiv] Baer, ibid., 87.

[xv] Baer, ibid., 85.

[xvi] This may not have been a bad idea. Writer Steven Heighton says: “One reason to be cautious about going to, say, psychotherapy is that you have to be cautious about tampering with your obsessions if they are feeding your work in a really fertile way.” “Author,” interview by Elliot Robins, Geist 64, Spring 2007 (Vancouver: The Geist Foundation), 21.

[xvii] Ibid., 73.

[xviii] Prater, ibid., 235.

[xix] Stephen Cohn, transl., Rainer Maria Rilke: Neue Gedichte/New Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1997). Introduction by John Bayley, 1992, 15.

[xxi] Hesse, “Rainer Maria Rilke: 1928” in Essays, 341.

[xxii] Hesse, ibid.

[xxiii] Hesse, ibid., 338.

[xxiv] To be found.

[xxv] F. W. Van Heerikhuizen, Rainer Maria Rilke: His Life and Work, translated from the Dutch by Fernand G. Renier and Anne Cliff. (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1952), 33.

[xxvi] Ibid., 150.

“Rainer Maria Rilke: Life and Work,” by Jeremy Robinson [Introduction to Dancing the Orange: Selected Poems, tr. Michael Hamburger, ed. Jeremy Robinson (Kent, UK: Crescent Moon, 2001)]. A brief but all-encompassing introduction to Rilke.

[xxviii] Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Ninth Elegy. The Duino Elegies, Harry Behn, translator (Mount Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1957), no page numbers.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1952). Appendix IV, 159.

[xxxi] Bly, ibid., 157.

[xxxii] Prater, ibid., 350.

[xxxiii] W. S. Merwin, back cover text, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans. (New York, Vintage International/Random House, 1989).

[xxxiv] Avant Garde Project: <>

[xxxv] MDG CD: Frank Martin: Die Weise von Liebe und Todes des Cornets Christoph Rilke (ASIN: B000Q6ZMXS), glowingly reviewed at

[xxxvi] Bridge Records CD 9178: Peter Lieberson: Rilke Songs, The Six Realms, Horn Concerto, available at

[xxxvii] Prater, ibid., 348.

[xxxviii] Hermann Hesse, “Rainer Marie Rilke: 1928” in Essays, 340.

[xxxix] Prater, ibid., 408.

[xl] Barry Peterson, Nanaimo, BC, Letter to the Editor, MIX Section, Vancouver Sun, March 30, 2002, H19.

[xli] William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1988).

[xlii] Hamburger, ibid., 81 (slightly adapted by N.C.).

[xliii] Stephen Mitchell, editor and translator, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Modern Library, 1995).

*      *      *

Nächstens mehr.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous essay. So glad I found this to read tonight. Thank you.