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Books: The Bee & the Rose

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RILKE: MAN AND POET (373 pp.)—Nora Wydenbruck—Appleton -Century -Crofts ($4).

Sofia Rilke was annoyed. Had not the daughter of an Imperial Councillor, the wife of the Inspector of the Bohemian Northern Railway, a right to expect that her prayers for a daughter would be graciously granted? Yet here it was, a boy after all. In a foolish pet, Sofia decided to raise her son as a daughter, anyway. She put up his hair in braids, kept him in pretty frocks and dainty underwear, set him to playing with dolls and little girls, and called him “Sophie.”

So life, like a bee at a rose, began very early to torment Rainer Maria Rilke. It tormented him unceasingly for 51 years, extracting from him a rarefied poetry that has delighted the palates of European esthetes for the last quarter-century. Yet Rilke’s poetic flavors—and the morbid scent of wet rot that rises from his life—have prevented many a poetry reader from acquiring the Rilke taste.

Last week U.S. readers had their best chance yet to get acquainted with him. Nora Wydenbruck’s biography, the first to be published in the U.S., gives a good introduction to Rilke’s poetry and his life. The story it tells is unearthly strange, more like the biography of a phantom than a man.

Rapture in a Frock Coat. When Rilke was eleven, his father suddenly yanked him away from his dolls and shoved him into a military academy to make a man of him. Such a sudden change in weather might have cracked tougher spirits, and young Rilke barely kept from going to pieces. At 16, he finally persuaded his family to let him study the classics and go on to the university. Soon he was a well-known figure in the streets of Prague, a wraith-pale young man in a black frock coat and broad-brimmed hat, drifting vaguely along in a rapture with a long-stemmed iris he held before him like a votive candle.

After two years at the university, Rilke tagged about Europe for a while with an old girl friend of Nietzsche’s, Lou Andreas-Salomé. Then he settled down in an art colony in Worpswede, Germany, where he met and married Clara Westhoff, a handsome young sculptress. Suddenly the poet’s constitutional melancholy grew acute. He had discovered that he could not keep a wife and a muse at the same time. The wife graciously bowed out; Rilke went off to Paris, where in 1905 he became private secretary to Sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Summer in a Tangerine. In the years preceding the first World War he hopscotched furiously about Europe—Rome, Berlin, Venice, Madrid—in pursuit of inspiration. Soon his New Poems and The Notebooks of Malte Laurīds Brigge were making him the talk of European intellectuals. From his large, sensual mouth came a flood of such poetic fancies as his description of a tangerine, “in which a summer is folded up very small like an Italian silk handkerchief in a nutshell.”

Then came the first World War. It tore through Rilke like a tank through a cobweb. Not until 1922 did Rilke give tongue again. In less than three weeks of tremendous effort at the Château de Muzot, near Sierre, Switzerland, he wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus and completed the Duino Elegies, a series of ten long poems starred ten years before at Duino Castle on the Adriatic.

The Living & the Dead. The Elegies are poetry of a visionary kind that has not been mush practiced since Dante. In the heat of Rilke’s vision, life & death are welded together into a world without end. “Life,” he explains, must be kept “open towards death.” To illustrate his meaning. Rilke speaks to the living in the First Elegy as if he were already dead:

. . . Yes, but all of the living

make the mistake of drawing too sharp


Angels, (they say) are often unable to


whether they move among living or

dead. The eternal

torrent whirls all the ages through either


for ever, and sounds above their voices

in both.

Muzot was Rilke’s last major effort. His health steadily declined and the doctors finally diagnosed myeloia leukemia. After extreme suffering, he died on Dec. 29, 1926. But the last of his Sonnets to Orpheus expressed the peace that Poet Rilke found at the end of his tortured, troubled life:

And if what is of the earth has forgotten you,

say to the unmoving earth: I flow,

and to the rapid water: I exist.

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