Rainer Maria Rilke: Quotes, Biography & Poems

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson provides an introduction to the life and work of Rainer Maria Rilke, a popular poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his diverse written output, Rilke engaged deeply with questions of art and our relationship to it, and with the complexities of modern life.


Rainer Maria Rilke may seem like a mouthful, but it's actually a shortened version of the popular poet's given name. He was born in 1875, in Prague, as René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke. Whew! In adolescence, Rilke struggled to find himself, taking several courses of study without finding a satisfactory career path. A turning point came when he moved to Munich. There, he met the author and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé. He enjoyed an important and intimate friendship with her, and she introduced him to the German city's philosophic circles.

In his mid-twenties, Rilke spent time in an artists' colony. He was briefly married while there; but he and his wife separated by mutual consent a few years later. His inspiration from visual artists proved to be much more lasting. Wishing to find similar inspiration, Rilke traveled to Paris in 1902, offering himself as secretary to the sculptor Auguste Rodin. This was one of Rilke's most productive periods; he was based in Paris until 1914.

The outbreak of WWI forced Rilke to abandon his apartment in Paris. He was conscripted into the Austrian army, and later released. Rilke was deeply distressed by the senseless violence of the war. Moving into a medieval tower in a remote Swiss valley may seem like an extreme reaction, but that is what he did, in 1919. In his new home, he found himself able to write again, and produced some of his most beautiful work. He suffered from increasingly poor health, however, and died of leukemia in 1926.

Relating Life and Art

Rilke often expressed anxieties both about history and about the future. In many ways, these were typical for the period of rapid change in which he wrote. New technologies abounded, as did new ways of living, and new ways of creating art. Rilke wrote with the intimacy of experience both about the grand old houses of the European aristocracy, as in 'The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,' and about the bustle of modern metropolises, particularly in the 'New Poems,' crafted during his time living in Paris.

Rilke also had a passionate and complex relationship to religion. This is found in his letters, his silences, and his poetry. Some of his early poems, particularly, are deeply and explicitly religious. One of his early poetry collections, 'Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben,' is an impressionistic, romantic collection describing the contemplative life of a monk. This collection celebrates the beauties of nature and communal life, and the complexities of a relationship with a God who can seem uncomfortably close, like a neighbor on the other side of a thin wall ('Du Nachbar Gott…'). Some of his poems also express a sort of secular mysticism.


Early Works

Rilke's early works can be compared to the artistic movement of impressionism in their experimental quality, often focused on a particular mood or scene. These poems also share with romanticism an emphasis on nature, and the importance of emotions. One of the poems from this period describes 'Springtime on many pathways / but nowhere -- yet -- a goal.' Rilke would discover a new style, and a new artistic purpose, in Paris.

Paris and a Sculptural Style

Rilke was inspired by Rodin to write poetry dedicated to describing what he saw around him in vivid detail. His striking portraits of suffering and beauty in the city are distinctively modernist in their concern with details of psychology and of urban life. Both are often blended, as in 'The Blind Man,' which begins: 'See, he goes and interrupts the city / that isn't shown on his dark map.' Appropriately enough, the poems Rilke wrote during this period were collected under the title of Neue Gedichte, or 'new poems.'

Late Works

In Rilke's Swiss period, he wrote two major collections: Duino Elegies, and the Sonnets to Orpheus. He also wrote a substantial number of poems in French, but the two former collections are more widely-known and quoted.

Prose Works

Rilke was and remains best known for his poetry, but his prose is great too. He wrote two classics of modernism: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Letters to a Young Poet. In the semi-autobiographical 'Notebooks,' the narrator works to make sense of his life as he moves from a remote estate to a bustling modern city. The book provides a sensitive treatment of anxiety and mental illness. Letters to a Young Poet has proved enduringly popular because of the ways in which it engages with questions of vocation and self-discovery.

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