I first heard of Rainer Maria Rilke (pronounced Rain-YEH Ril-KUH) about ten years ago. I was reading a TIME magazine special on the late Catholic pontiff John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), and in a section dedicated to his prose it stated that Wojtyla was a life-long devotee of the poet Rilke. This piqued my interest because, having a deep fondness for Wojtyla, I desired to love whatever he had loved during his lifetime. I did not realize then, as I began my casual exploration into “The Book of Hours” – Rilke’s collection of love poems to God – just how deeply this solitary man’s words would affect me.
Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 in Prague. His mother was in mourning at the time of his birth due to the loss of an earlier child – a girl – and to console herself, she gave her son the effeminate name Rene. Her grief translated itself into an unfair projection onto the little boy, and much of Rilke’s childhood consisted of playing a part to appease his mother: she would dress him like a doll when guests came over, and otherwise did not focus much on him. His father was a minor railway official, and according to accounts was a kindly man. The young Rainer, although not cooperative with his father’s wish that he join the military, nonetheless eagerly absorbed values consonant with healthy masculinity: valor, honesty, discipline, self-restraint. His parents did not have a happy marriage, and by the time Rilke was an adolescent, it had ended.
One can’t say for sure how much Rilke’s childhood impacted him in his adult-life: I share the above limited information on his earliest days because much of his writing circles back, again and again, to his concepts of Woman and Man, and how they interact and deflect. And, despite his negative early experience with his mother, he was evidently bent on redeeming his image of woman, and on finding out the truth of the matter regarding love, freedom, and commitment.
Like Wojtyla, Rilke seemed to have an uncanny insight into the feminine heart – perhaps because he was secure enough in his masculinity to let himself identify with it, and perhaps because he was witness to his mother’s sorrow. Apart from being an ardent lover of women, as an artist he was most interested in the concept of the woman who has been thwarted in love, and the woman who feels hemmed in and unable to freely magnify the beauty and artistry inherent within her. Underpinning all of this was a profound sense of the soul as feminine, a belief shared by mystics and saints alike. The concepts of solitude, eros, union, and the embodiment of the divine are also key elements in Rilke’s work, and if one compares notes even casually he or she will discover many parallels between the Bohemian-Austrian’s missives and poems and the weekly audiences composed nearly 100 years later by a young cardinal named Karol Wojtyla.
Rainer Rilke’s life, so intensely reflected in his letters, seemed to ebb and flow around the questions that, at turns, plague and inspire us all: what is it to truly live? To die, to love? What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman? And, though these questions have immense existential weight, they become less oblique, less intimidating (at first blush) when considered through the lens of these poems. Rilke’s economy of language is taut and potent, like a stem that carries an impossibly green, fluid heart. His personality – intensely loving yet cripplingly avoidant – is immediately felt. His commune with God is a relief in its candor.
This is the mark of true artistry: to have a sense of the divine in all things. To see transcendence unfolding even in the mundane. To reverence the temporal mingling of light and shadow, and delight in the contours cast thereby. This is what it is to live one’s life “in widening circles.”
I’m excited to announce that we’re publishing a brand new book of Rilke’s finest poems. You have until Friday to subscribe as a patron and stake your claim on it (and everything else) in the summer shipment. I cannot wait to hear what you think.