Rainer Maria Rilke

June 16, 2006


Considered the German language’s greatest 20th century poet
Famous for “thing poems”
Focus on the problems of Christianity in an age of disbelief and solitude, coexistence of the material and spiritual realms, tension between life and death
Suffered from leukemia, and died of an infection he contracted when he pricked himself on a rose thorn
Known as the “poet of loneliness”

“It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his powers to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility…”


Otherwise this stone would seem defaced / beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders / and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star: for here there is no place / that does not see you.  You must change your life.

-Archaic Torso of Apollo

This laboring through what is still undone, / as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way, / is like the awkward walking of the swan.
And dying- to let go, no longer feel / the solid ground we stand on every day- / is like his anxious letting himself fall
into the water, which receives him gently / and which, as though with reverence and joy, / draws back past him in streams on either side; / while, infinitely silent and aware, / in his full majesty and ever more / indifferent, he condescends to glide.

-The Swan

The Duino Elegies (1912-1922)

Rilke had been visiting Princess Marie von Thurn in the Duino castle in the region when he came across some cliffs from which he drew his inspiration to start his set of ten poems
According to a story, Rilke heard in the wind the first lines of his elegies when he was walking on the rocks above the sea – “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?”
Completion of the elegies was delayed by Rilke’s battle with depression


Angel! If there were a place that we didn’t know of, and there, / on some unsayable carpet, lovers displayed / what they never could bring to mastery here- the bold / exploits of their high-flying hearts, / their towers of pleasure, their ladders / that have long since been standing where there was no ground, leaning / just on each other, trembling, -and could master all this, / before the surrounding spectators, the innumerable soundless dead: / Would these, then, throw down their final, forever saved-up, / forever hidden, unknown to us, eternally valid / coins of happiness before the at last / genuinely smiling pair on the gratified / carpet?

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely / in the form of a laurel… / why then / have to be human- and, escaping from fate, / keep longing for fate?…

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.

Speak and bear witness.  More than ever / the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for / what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act. / An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.

And these Things, / which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient, / they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all. / They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart, / within- oh endlessly- within us!  Whoever we may be at last.

Earth, my dearest, I will.  Oh believe me, you no longer / need your springtimes to win me over- one of them, / ah, even one, is already too much for my blood. / Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first. / You were always right, and your holiest inspiration / is our intimate companion, Death.
Look, I am living.  On what?  Neither childhood nor future / grows any smaller…. Superabundant being / wells up in my heart.

And we, who have always thought / Of happiness as rising, would feel / The emotion that almost overwhelms us / Whenever a happy thing falls.


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