Rilke, Rainer Maria (1875-1926)

Austro-German poet and novelist, regarded as one of the most important and influential modern poets because of his precise, lyrical style, his symbolic imagery, and his spiritual reflections.

Early Life

Rilke was born in Prague (now in the Czech Republic) on December 4, 1875. Following a lonely and emotionally disturbed childhood, he was educated at universities in Prague, Munich, and Berlin. His first published works were love poems, entitled Leben und Lieder (Life and Songs, 1894). In 1897 Rilke met Lou Andreas-SalomÈ (1861-1937), the daughter of a Russian general, and two years later traveled with her to her native country. Inspired by the size and beauty of the landscape as well as by the spiritual profundity of the people he met, Rilke formed the belief that God is present in all things. These feelings found poetic expression in Stories of God (1900; trans. 1931). After 1900 Rilke eliminated from his poetry the vague lyricism that was partly influenced by the French symbolists, and formulated instead a precise, concrete style exemplified in the poems collected in Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Pictures, 1902; enlarged 1906) and by the verse series Poems from the Book of Hours (1905; trans. 1941).

Influence of Rodin

In Paris in 1902, Rilke met the sculptor Auguste Rodin and was his secretary from 1905 to 1906. Rodin taught the poet to regard artistic work as a religious activity and to make his verse as consistent and complete as sculptures. The poems of this period appear in Neue Gedichte (New Poems, 2 vol., 1907-8). Until the outbreak of World War I, Rilke used Paris as his base, exploring Europe and parts of North Africa. From 1910 to 1912 he lived in Duino Castle near Trieste (now in Italy), where he wrote the poems making up The Life of the Virgin Mary (1913; trans. 1951), later set to music by the German-American composer Paul Hindemith, and the first two of the ten Duino Elegies (1923; trans. 1930).

In his major prose work, a novel begun in Rome in 1904, Journal of My Other Self (1910; trans. 1930), Rilke employed corrosive imagery to convey the reactions to life in Paris of a young writer very like himself.

Later Work

Rilke resided in Munich for most of World War I and in 1919 moved to Sierre, Switzerland, where he stayed, except for occasional visits to Paris and Venice, for the remainder of his life. There he completed the Duino Elegies and wrote Sonnets to Orpheus (1923; trans. 1936). These two cycles are regarded as Rilke's greatest poetic achievements. The elegies characterize death as a transformation of life into an invisible inner reality that, together with life, forms a unified whole. Most of the sonnets praise life and death as a cosmic experience. Rilke died on December 29, 1926, at Valmont, Switzerland.

Source: Encarta 1994

Copyright Microsoft Corporation, 1994