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Rilke, Rainer Maria

Category: Poet


Rainer Maria Rilke (also Rainer Maria von Rilke) (4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926) was a poet and novelist, who died of leukemia aged 51.

His later poetry is hauntingly beautiful and deeply spiritual in content, although many would probably find the symbolism difficult to decipher.

He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. His two most famous poems are the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies; both are stunningly beautiful.  He also wrote more than 400 poems, dedicated to his final homeland of choice, Switzerland.

Rilke was born in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, but which was then part of the Austrian Hungarian republic. 

He had a very unhappy childhood.  His mother entered prolonged mourning for a daughter who died at only one week old and started to treat Rilke as a substitute daughter, dressing him in girl's clothing and making him act like a girl. His parents' marriage fell apart in 1884. Despite the fact that he was artistic and sensitive, his parents entered him into a military academy, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left due to illness.  In 1895 and 1896, he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich.

louis janmot poem of the soul

His love life was as turbulent as his childhood.  In 1897, he fell in love with a married woman, Lou Andreas-Salomé, with whom he undertook two extensive trips to Russia, until the love affair ended in 1900.  

Whilst stayed at the artists' colony at Worpswede later in 1900, he met the sculptress Clara Westhoff, whom he married the following spring. Their daughter Ruth (1901-1972) was born in December 1901. However, in 1902, Rilke left home and traveled to Paris. 

From 1914 to 1916 he had a turbulent affair with the female painter Lou Albert-Lasard.

Between October 1911 and May 1912, Rilke stayed at the Castle Duino, near Trieste, home of Countess Marie of Thurn and Taxis. There, in 1912, he began the Duino Elegies, but although started, he did not finish the poems there, suffering a long-lasting creativity crisis.

From this we should be able to see that there was already something of the poet and artistic temperament in Rilke, his mother had unwittingly brought out the feminine in him – introduced him to his feminine side - but his lasting and most beautiful poetry had to await the progress of his illness.

Rilke was called up at the beginning of 1916, and had to undertake basic training in Vienna. Influential friends interceded on his behalf, and he was transferred to the War Records Office and discharged from the military on 9 June 1916. The traumatic experience of military service, a reminder of the horrors of the military academy, almost completely silenced him as a poet.


In June 1919, 7 years before he finally died, Rilke traveled from Munich to Switzerland. The search for a suitable and affordable place to live proved to be very difficult. Only in mid-1921 – now only 5 years away from his death - was he able to find a permanent residence in the Chateau de Muzot in the Valais.

In an intense creative period, Rilke completed the Duino Elegies within several weeks in February 1922. In May 1922, after considerable renovation, Rilke's patron Werner Reinhart bought Muzot, so that Rilke could live there rent-free.  Before and after, he wrote both parts of the poem cycle Sonnets to Orpheus containing 55 entire sonnets. Both works together constitute the high points of Rilke's work.

From 1923 on, Rilke increasingly had to struggle with health problems that necessitated many long stays at a sanatorium near Montreux, on Lake Geneva. Despite this, numerous important individual poems appeared in the years 1923-1926 (including Gong and Mausoleum), as well as a comprehensive lyrical work in French.  Only shortly before his death was Rilke's illness diagnosed as leukemia. The poet died on 29 December 1926 in the Valmont Sanatorium in Switzerland. 


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