Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

  • Germany

Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the most significant poets in the German language, was born in Prague in 1875. Widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German poets, Rilke was unique in his efforts to expand the realm of poetry through new uses of syntax and imagery, and in the philosophy that his poems explored. He also wrote short stories and plays that were characterized by romanticism. Rilke was the only child of an unhappy marriage. His childhood was also unhappy; his parents placed him in military school with the desire that he become an officer – a position Rilke was not inclined to hold. With the help of his uncle, who realized the highly gifted child, Rilke left the military academy and entered a German preparatory school. By the time he enrolled at Charles University in Prague in 1895, he knew that he would pursue a literary career: he had already published his first volume of poetry, Life and Songs, the previous year. At the turn of 1895-1896, Rilke published his second collection, Lares’ Sacrifice. A third collection, Dream-Crowned, followed in 1896. That same year, Rilke decided to leave the University for Munich, Germany, and later made his first trip to Italy. In 1897, Rilke went to Russia, a trip that would prove to be a milestone, and which marked the true beginning of his early sustained works. While in Russia, the young poet met Tolstoy, whose influence is noticed in his short story collection, Stories of God, published in 1900, and Leonid Pasternak, father of then 9-year-old Boris. At Worpswede, where Rilke lived, he met and married Clara Westhoff, who had been a student of Rodin. In 1902, he became the friend, and for a time the secretary, of Rodin, and it was during his twelve-year Paris residence that Rilke experienced his greatest poetic activity. His first great work, The Book of Hours, appeared in 1905, followed in 1907 by New Poems and his only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke continued to travel throughout his lifetime; to Italy, Spain, and Egypt among many other places, while Paris served as the geographic center of his life, where he first began to develop a new style of lyrical poetry, influenced by the visual arts. When World War I broke out, Rilke was obliged to leave France and lived in Munich. In 1919, he went to Switzerland, where he spent the last years of his life. It was there that he wrote his last two works, The Duino Elegies (1923) and The Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). He died of leukemia in 1926. At the time of his death, his work was intensely admired by many leading European artists but was almost unknown to the general reading public. His reputation has grown steadily since his death, and he has come to be universally regarded as a master of verse.


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