René Maria Rilke was born in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on 4 December 1875. His father worked as a railway official having retired from the military, and his mother was considered socially ambitious. René’s childhood was not especially happy, and he was sent to military academy for five years until 1891. He left on account of ill health, only to find his parents had separated. He was tutored for university entrance, and then began studying philosophy at Charles-Ferdinand University. But, by this time, he had already published a first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, and was intent on a literary career. Disenchanted with his academic studies, he left, travelling to Munich to study art. There he mixed with artistic types, managed to get some of his plays produced, and published more poetry.
In 1897, Rilke fell in love with the much-travelled Lou Andreas-Salomé, a married woman many years his senior. She appears to have had a major influence over the still-young Rilke, persuading him to change his first name to Rainer, and introducing him to the ideas of psychoanalysis (she had studied with Freud). He travelled to Florence for a few weeks, then twice with Salomé to Russia, meeting Leo Tolstoy in 1898, and Boris Pasternak and Spiridon Drozhzhin, a peasant poet, in 1899. The following year, Rilke stayed at the artists’ colony at Worpswede, where he met Clara Westhoff. They married early in 1900, and had one daughter, Ruth, in late 1901.
In 1902, Rilke travelled to Paris, where he would stay for much of the rest of the decade. Clara left Ruth with her parents and joined him there. He became fascinated by Rodin, writing and lecturing on the sculptor, and even acting as his secretary for a period, and later by Cezanne. Apart from two or three more collections of poetry, he also completed his only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He began to visit Ronda in Spain, and also Trieste in Italy, but the outbreak of WWI found him in Germany and unable to return to Paris. He managed to avoid active service, with the help of influential friends, by being assigned to the War Records Office.
After the war, Rilke moved to Switzerland, where he wrote his last two works, Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. He died of leukemia late in 1926, highly respected in literary and artistic spheres but barely known by the general public. The Poetry Foundation provides this modern assessment: ‘Widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, Rainer Maria Rilke was unique in his efforts to expand the realm of poetry through new uses of syntax and imagery and in the philosophy that his poems explored.’ While Encyclopaedia Britannica (1979 edition) calls him ‘a major Austro-German poet regarded as one of the founders and giants of modern literature.’ Further information can be found at Wikipedia, the Academy of American Poets, The Atlantic, or Picture Poems. For samples of Rilke’s poems see All Poetry.
Between April 1898 and December 1900, Rilke kept three diaries. The first of these, while in Florence, was probably written for or inspired by Salomé, since it is known that her own mental regimen included keeping a diary, and she is said to have asked Rilke to bring her back a diary. Biographers suggest the second diary, kept after his return to Schmargendorf, might also have been written with her in mind. The third diary was written during his sojourn at Worpswede. (However, it is worth noting that despite the diary names, Rilke visited Worpswede during the time of the Schmargendorf diary, and stayed at Schmargendorf during the time of the Worpswede diary.) They were first edited and published in German in 1942 by Ruth and her husband Carl Sieber.
A first English edition, translated and annotated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler, was published by W. W. Norton & Co in 1997 - Rainer Maria Rilke - Diaries of a Young Poet. In their introduction, Snow and Winkler explain: ‘Rilke’s diaries do maintain a certain chronological flow, albeit one with breaks and longer interruptions, but they are not directly the immediate account of a specific time; it is not their intent to record the minutiae of day-to-day life. For this reason they have not become identified by their chronology. Rather, they are usually titled after three places where Rilke lived and, at least for a time, felt at home: Florence (and the Tuscan countryside), the village of Schmargendorf just outside Berlin, and Worpswede, an artists’ colony in the moors near Bremen.’
The editors claim that the diary period spans a crucial period in Rilke’s artistic growth: ‘At the beginning of this phase the young poet had perfected, if not yet exhausted the rhetorical techniques and mannerisms of his early, impressionistic style. His verse was still prone to the gossamer and was given more to a flirtation than a sustained artistic engagement with the exquisite and the delicate. [. . . He] had come to realise only too well that he needed to constrain his busy games of make-believe and learn how to control his ingenious lyricism. This made it necessary, most of all, to free himself from the rapturous self-indulgence that could spin mellifluous lines and intricate rhymes with prolific ease. He had to submit himself to the kind of self-discipline that comes with the ascetic solitude of regular, arduous work. Rilke’s three early diaries reflect this search for a language that might capture the specificity of things natural and crafted and at the same time convey their intrinsic spirituality. They chronicle, in other words, the emergence of the “sachliche Sagen,” the objective and visually precise language that will come to characterise his “poetry of things.” ’
Although diary entries - many dated but not all - do predominate in Diaries of a Young Poet
17 May 1898 [Florence diary]
‘No human being can raise so much beauty out of himself that it will cover him over completely. A part of himself will always gaze out from behind it. But in the peak times of art a few have erected before themselves, in addition to their own beauty, so much noble heritage, that the work no longer needs them. The curiosity and custom of the public will seek and of course find their personality; but that misses the point. In such times there is an art, but there are no artists.
There is an ever-recurring cycle of three generations. One finds the god, the second arches the narrow temple over him and in doing so fetters him, while the third slides into poverty and takes stone after stone from the sanctuary in order to build meagre and makeshift huts. And then comes one which must seek god again; and to such a generation these belonged: Dante and Botticelli and Fra Bartolommeo.
The element of reconciliation and loveliness that one treasures in the works of Raphael is a triumph that only seldom occurs; it signifies a high point of art, but not a high point of the artist.
Pre-Raphaelites: simply a caprice. Tired of smooth beauty, one seeks the effortful - not so? How facile a proposition! Tired of art, one seeks the artist, and in each work looks for the deed that elevated the man, the triumph over something within him, and the longing for himself.
In notes jotted down day after day vis-a-vis the paintings of the quatrocento, I could have offered nothing more than the tourists’ handbooks do. For they have formulated with unsurpassable cogency the measure of abstract beauty that inheres in the things. So much so that in fleeting consideration one employs quite unconsciously those infamous half-scientific terms that, once sharp and pregnant, have through so many mindless uses become dull and vacuous.
A handbook on Italy, if it wanted to teach pleasure, would have in it but one single word and one single piece of advice. Look! Whoever has a certain culture in him must make do with this guidance. He will not acquire pearls of knowledge and it will scarcely occur to him to ask whether this work is from the late period of an artist or whether in that work “the broad manner of the master” holds sway. But he will recognize an abundance of will and power that came from longing and from apprehension, and this revelation will make him better, greater, more thankful.’
11 September 1900 [Schmargendorf diary]
‘A fine evening at the Overbecks’. The blond painter was with me for the length of the twilight; I showed her some Russian books, the pictures of Nadson and Garshin, Droshin’s portraits, and other mementos. In the evening she sat next to me, and there was much conversation between us. The table was nicely set; small chamomiles slanted to one side framed the simple white runner, which was accented by blue-and-red-embroidered signatures of guests who had preceded us. Dr. Hauptmann and I added our names to this roll. Hauptmann was in rare form, made many cutting remarks regarding the temper of our time, always in the most charmingly ingenuous way. [. . .]
Clara Westhoff had come on her bicycle, But she walked almost the whole way back to Westerwede, since while we were talking I had passed by my gate and continued on at her side. It was about two hours past midnight. The skies were gray, quiet, and the landscape could be seen, completely without color, stretching far in the distance . . . The birch trees stood like candles beside long trails. The only thing white was a white cat, which would appear from behind the bushes in silent leaps, then vanish in the mistless meadows. It was a melancholy cat that staged a solitary dance. In the garden everything green was a shade darker. Almost black, the full bushes leaned against the white railing of the forecourt. Around the urns there was depth and air.’
14 December 1900 [Worpswede diary]
‘Sometimes I remember in exact detail things and epochs that never existed. I see every gesture of people who never lived a life and feel the swaying cadence of their never-spoken works. And a never-smiled smiling shines. Those who were never born die. And those who never died lie with their hands folded, repeated in beautiful stone, on long level sarcophagi in the halflight of churches no one built. Bells that never rang, that are still uncast metal and undiscovered ore in mountains, ring. Will ring: for what never existed is what is on its way, on its way over to us, something in the future, new. And perhaps I’m remembering distant futures when what never existed rises up in me and speaks.’