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Books: Revelations

3 minute read
Melvin Maddocks

RILKE: A LIFE

by Wolfgang Leppmann

Translated by Russell M. Stockman

Fromm; 432 pages; $22.50

Poets are known more for their legends, alas, than for their poetry: Coleridge was an opium visionary; Byron slept with his half sister; DylanThomas drank 18 straight whiskies and expired. Rainer Maria Rilke is remembered as the poet who pricked himself while plucking a rose, dying of the consequences.

Like many other poetic legends, it is only half true. Rilke was infected by a thorn in 1926, the last year of his life, but he died of leukemia. Even more misleading is the enduring impression of a precious, hypersensitive fop.

Wolfgang Leppmann has written the kind of biography such cases require: a solid rather than brilliant account of the off-duty Rilke, who was an odd but resilient product of the late 19th century. Born in Prague in 1875, Rilke spent the first seven years wearing dresses and long golden curls to satisfy his mother, still mourning the death in infancy of her first child. Impersonating his dead sister was the last role anybody ever imposed upon Rilke. At the age of ten he entered a military academy near Vienna. “Seize your sword,” he wrote in a schoolboy poem. “Perish for your fatherland.”

Leppmann, a literary historian and critic, is particularly adept at placing Rilke in his constricting time (circa 1900) and suffocating place (Habsburg Vienna). Given these obstacles, plus the additional one of a neurotic mama, no other modern poet grew more—or had further to grow. His early poems were distinguished principally for their alliteration and easy sentimentality, and his early manhood remarkable mainly for its seductions.

The young poet changed dramatically after serving as secretary to Sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose student, Clara Westhoff, Rilke had married in 1901. The once undisciplined lyricist began to come at words like a sculptor chiseling stone.

Soon Rilke put life, including his wife and a daughter, a distant second to art. He preferred to live alone, in second-rate hotel rooms, mostly in Paris. “I am learning to see” became his description of the writing process. He composed poems of close, naturalistic observation, as if the poet’s function were, in Leppmann’s words, to act as a “recording instrument.”

By the time he arrived at his masterpiece, the Duino Elegies, Rilke was trying to record the inner vision, an “event for which there’s no image.” He may have been the last poet to believe he could save the world if he could describe it exactly and eloquently enough.

The first elegy came to him in 1912. It was a decade later, spent in wandering from France to Germany to Switzerland, from Spain to Italy to Africa, before he completed the cycle. The labor exhausted him beyond recuperation. But in these final statements, Rilke came as close as a modern poet can to healing what he called the “fractures” of his life.

The Duino Elegies are obsessed with death. They speak of “Nights of Affliction” and “Primal Pain.” They are thoroughly 20th century poems. Yet in the final lines of the tenth and last elegy, like bird song rising in a dark woods, Rilke reached a state too lyrical to be termed resignation: “And we, who have always thought/ of happiness climbing, would feel/ the emotion that almost startles/ when happiness falls.” With these haunted and aspiring words, the singer finally became his song.

—By Melvin Maddocks

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