Rainer Maria Rilke’s Poetry


As part of an ongoing research project on spiritual poets and seers, I have taken a long hard look at the poetic works of Rainer Maria Rilke. I would be interested in hearing what others interested in poetry have to say about his work.

Rilke the Poet and His Influence

Rilke, as many of you may know, is one of the German language’s greatest 20th century poets. His, at times, haunting images focus on our implicit difficulty in communing with the ineffable—a theme that has positioned Rilke as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.

Rilke created the “object poem” as an attempt to describe with great clarity physical objects, the “silence of their concentrated reality.” His philosophical leanings (see below) expose themselves in many of his poems. I would definitely consider Rilke to be a mystical poet, but he seemingly transitioned to being more of a “witness” in his poetry, almost as a painter might do.

For Rilke, real life was ultimately within. As he said in his Seventh Elegy: “Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller.” Rilke was influenced greatly by Russian mysticism. His work also reflects the ideas embedded in the 19th/20th century German Phenomenological School (Husserl, Heidegger, others).

Rilke on Religion and Death

What of Rilke’s views on religion? William Gass wrote in 1996 that Rilke was venomous about organized religion, yet there are more Virgin Marys, Saints and Angels in his work than in many cathedrals.

Source: “Purely a Poet,” The Nation, 4/1/96.

I’ve noted this as well in Rilke’s work, which leads me to wonder if he used these symbols because of his own need to resolve his feelings toward organized religion, especially Christianity. I think Rilke’s poetry expresses his own personal spiritual yearnings; those uprisings in the soul that inhabit and overtake us at the least expected moments in our lives.

Rilke wrote often about death; a topic some would rather not dwell upon. Here are three insightful quotes drawn from his work:
“There is an element of death in life, and I am astonished that one pretends to ignore it: death, whose unpitying presence we experience in each turn of fortune we survive because we must learn how to die slowly. We must learn to die: all of life is in that.”

“…so deeply does death lie within the nature of love that death contradicts love at no point;…where else, finally, but into the heart itself may death thrust the unutterable things we bear in our hearts.”

“I reproach all modern religions for having presented to their faithful the consolations and extenuations of death, instead of giving their souls the means of getting along with death and coming to an understanding of death, with its complete and unmasked cruelty.”

Source: Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke

A Few Rilke Spiritual Poems

Here are a few of Rilke’s spiritual poems that I like very much.

Here is a beauty from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus works:

The Sonnets to Orpheus: XXIII

Call to me to the one among your moments
that stands against you, ineluctably:
intimate as a dog’s imploring glance
but, again, forever, turned away
when you think you’ve captured it at last.
What seems so far from you is most your own.
We are already free, and were dismissed
where we thought we soon would be at home.
Anxious, we keep longing for a foothold-
we, at times too young for what is old
and too old for what has never been;
doing justice only where we praise,
because we are the branch, the iron blade,
and sweet danger, ripening from within.

Note: Translated by Stephen Mitchell

And then, there is this simply gorgeous piece:

The Unicorn

The saintly hermit, midway through his prayers
stopped suddenly, and raised his eyes to witness
the unbelievable: for there before him stood
the legendary creature, startling white, that
had approached, soundlessly, pleading with his eyes.
The legs, so delicately shaped, balanced a
body wrought of finest ivory. And as
he moved, his coat shone like reflected moonlight.
High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign
of his uniqueness: a tower held upright
by his alert, yet gentle, timid gait.
The mouth of softest tints of rose and grey, when
opened slightly, revealed his gleaming teeth,
whiter than snow. The nostrils quivered faintly:
he sought to quench his thirst, to rest and find repose.
His eyes looked far beyond the saint’s enclosure,
reflecting vistas and events long vanished,
and closed the circle of this ancient mystic legend.

Note: Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

Your Thoughts?

And so, what uprisings in your soul does all this ignite?