An Encounter with… Rainer Maria Rilke | Pushkin Press

An Encounter with… Rainer Maria Rilke

Posted 4th December 2020

by Will Stone

Poems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke is available now from Pushkin Press, introduced and translated by Will Stone.

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague on December 4th, 1875, the only child of a joyless marriage. The lonely, sensitive boy suffered time at a military academy before being moved to preparatory school. Entering Charles University in Prague in 1895, Rilke was already committed to a literary career having published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, (Life and Songs) the previous year. At the close of 1895, Rilke’s second collection, Larenopfer (Sacrifice to the Lares) appeared, then Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned) followed in 1896. That same year, Rilke left university and settled in Munich. His famously peripatetic travelling life commenced with a visit to Italy, where he became absorbed in the study of Florentine art and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872).  

The lonely world of Rainer Maria Rilke, his quest for mentors, and a closer  look at Her Going Blind | by Tiff Reagan | Medium

In spring 1899, Rilke undertook his first protracted journey to Russia with Lou Salomé, returning in the summer of  1900. There he met leading writers and artists including Tolstoy and Leonid Pasternak. Das Buch vom lieben Gott und anderes (Stories of God), followed in 1900. The Russian experience proved a milestone in Rilke’s cultural and poetic development. That same year Rilke spent time at the artist’s colony of Worpswede situated in the rural polder land of North Germany. Dedicating himself to a monograph on the Worpswede artists, he there met and married the sculptress Clara Westhoff, an ex-pupil of Rodin. In 1902 Rilke encountered Paris, relocating there in order to write a monograph on Rodin. The ensuing period in the French capital gave rise to some of Rilke’s most accomplished works in poetry and prose: Das Stunden Buch (The Book of Hours) in 1905, followed in 1907 by Neue Gedichte (New Poems) and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) in 1910. Rilke divided his anchorage west of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris between travels to Flanders, Italy, Spain and Egypt, but he always returned to the city which had enabled him to forge a new kind of lyrical poetry, shorn of the romantic trappings of his earlier works and profoundly influenced by the visual arts.

In 1912 Rilke stayed as a guest at castle Duino on the Adriatic coast and there began to write the poems which would become Duineser Elegien (The Duino Elegies). Following an inspirational trip to Spain in 1912–13, he also composed a number of poems around the theme of Night which he would eventually inscribe by hand into a notebook presented to his friend Rudolf Kassner as Gedichte an die Nacht (Poems to Night) in 1916. At the outbreak of World War I, Rilke was forced to leave his Paris flat in Montparnasse and return to Germany. He settled in Munich and worked for a time in the archives of the Austrian war ministry alongside Stefan Zweig. Dislodged from his previous existence in Paris, Rilke sought solitude and sanctuary. In 1919, he seized his chance when a modest medieval castle of Muzot became available above Sierre in the Valais region of Switzerland. Apart from an extended stay in Paris, the poet spent his remaining years there, completing the Duino Elegies in 1922 as well as receiving the unforeseen gift of Sonnete an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus), both published in 1923. Rilke died of leukaemia at the clinic of Valmont on December 29, 1926 and was buried in the churchyard at Raron with his chosen epitaph ‘Oh rose, pure contradiction, to be no ones sleep under so many lids’

One thing you didn’t know about Rilke:

Rilke profoundly admired French culture above all. He translated works by Gide, Valéry, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Proust, Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, Louise Labé and the Comtesse de Noailles among others. Rilke himself left behind some four hundred poems in French. 

Poems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke is available now from Pushkin Press, introduced and translated by Will Stone.

Did I not breathe out of midnights

(from Poems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Will Stone, p. 36)

Did I not breathe out of midnights,
on such a flood, for the love of you,
that someday you’d come?
For I hoped to appease your countenance
with almost unblemished magnificence,
when in eternal supposition
it rested awhile against mine.
Soundless the space in my outline;
in order to sate your great upward gaze
my blood was mirrored, deepened.

When through the olive trees’ pale separation
the night made me stronger with stars,
I rose, stood and turned back,
mastered the realization
I never referred to you later.

Oh what utterance was sown in me
should your smile ever come,
that I survey world space upon you.
But you don’t come, or you come too late.
Fall, angels, over this blue
flax field. Angels, angels, reap.