Born in Prague, Rainer Maria Rilke became one of the finest European poets of the 20th century. He wrote in German and French.
Of Austrian heritage, Rilke travelled extensively in Europe while referring to Russia as his ‘spiritual home.’ His poetry addressed suffering, solitude, sensuality, the realms of consciousness, the angels and transcendence. He spent time in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia and Switzerland – a constant pilgrimage of a restless soul.
Based on his experiences of his travels, women, nature and his state of consciousness, Rilke would write at times in a single, passionate outburst. He endured unhappiness and depression, such as during World War 1, where he resisted being sent to the trenches.
After the war, his inner life renewed making accessible the rich depths within himself. His poetry collections include Duino Elegies, The Hours, Sonnets to Orpheus as well as his writings such as Letters to a Young Poet. Duino Elegies consist of some 850 lines on the religious, the mystical, beauty and suffering. He wrote most of the Elegies n a rapidly short time, which he referred to as the ‘hurricane of the spirit.’
He wrote of the voices he heard and felt in the wind.
From the age of 27 to 32, Rilke wrote exceptional letters to Kappus, a 19-year-old poet, bound for army service. He wrote to him of the importance of solitude to give utterance to the creative depths.
“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
“Embrace your solitude and love it. Endure the pain it causes, and try to sing out with it.”
Aged 22, Rilke fell in love with Lou Andreas Salome, 12 years his senior, who became a psychoanalyst under Freud. Aged 25, he married Clara Westhoff, a sculptor. They became parents in 1901. They later separated. Rilke became a secretary to Rodin, the sculptor in Paris.
Rilke and Lou became lifelong friends, as he did with his ex-wife. The same held true of some of his other lovers. He died from leukaemia in Switzerland.
One of my favourite short poems by Rilke.
Already my gaze is upon the hill, the sunny one,
at the end of the path which I’ve only just begun.
So we are grasped, by that which we could not grasp,
at such great distance, so fully manifest—
and it changes us, even when we do not reach it,
into something that, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a sign appears, echoing our own sign . . .
But what we sense is the wind against us.
In this poem, Rilke communicated a simple but profound metaphor.
He tells us of the goal of the sunny hill.
We have only just started on the walk.
We have grasped onto the end of the path
But we cannot grasp onto its impact upon us even though the hill is far away
The end of the path changes us even if we do not reach the goal.
We sense the walker and the goal are already together.
The goal and ourselves echo each other. The sign is blowing in the wind.
The wind coming off the hill blows upon us with this realization.
Schon ist mein Blick am Hügel, dem besonnten,
dem Wege, den ich kaum begann, voran.
So fasst uns das, was wir nicht fassen konnten,
voller Erscheinung, aus der Ferne an—
und wandelt uns, auch wenn wirs nicht erreichen,
in jenes, das wir, kaum es ahnend, sind;
ein Zeichen weht, erwidernd unserm Zeichen . . .
Wir aber spüren nur den Gegenwind.