Rainer Maria Rilke

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Rilke, Rainer Maria

(rī`nər märē`ä rĭl`kə), 1875–1926, German poet, b. Prague, the greatest lyric poet of modern Germany.


Rilke's youth at military and business school was not happy. His relations with his father were difficult, and he was able to attend the Univ. of Prague only with the help of an uncle. Married only briefly at the turn of the century, Rilke preferred an unsettled, wandering life among literary people; he was greatly influenced by his travels, notably by trips to Russia (1899, 1900). The sculptor RodinRodin, Auguste
, 1840–1917, French sculptor, b. Paris. He began his art study at 14 in the Petite École and in the school of Antoine Barye, earning his living by working for an ornament maker. In 1863 he went to work for the architectural sculptor A. E.
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, a close friend of Rilke who briefly employed him as secretary (1905–6), shaped the poet's career by introducing him to the craftsman's approach to creativity. After extensive travel in Italy, North Africa, and elsewhere, Rilke returned to Paris (1913), but World War I drove him back to Germany, where war service and chronic ill health frustrated his work. After 1919 he lived at Castle Muzot, in Valais canton, Switzerland. His death from a blood disease was hastened by the prick of a rose thorn.

Poetic Style and Themes

Rilke was sensitive and introspective. His poetic style was rich and supple, varying from the simple to the elaborate and profound. It is generally characterized by striking visual imagery, musicality, and a preponderant use of nouns. The erotic and spiritual love between men and women is a constant theme. In tone Rilke's verse was often mystical and prophetic; he used symbolism as a means of expression and created poetry that bears a strong resemblance to medieval verse. This resemblance may reflect Rilke's religious outlook—his probing into the emotional and spiritual issues involved in the search for goodness and transcendence in the absence of a personal God and his absorption with death as a poetic theme. Rilke was antimodern in many ways, an attitude particularly evident in his antipathy for large modern cities.


Rilke's first book of poetry, Leben und Lieder [life and songs], appeared in 1894, but not until the stories of Geschichten vom lieben Gott (1904, tr. Stories of God, 1931) did his mature mysticism find expression. His visits to Russia inspired one of the three books of Das Stundenbuch (1905, tr. Poems from the Book of Hours, 1941), with which he achieved fame and in which he treated God as an evolutionary concept. His Neue Gedichte [new poems] (2 vol., 1964) are distinguished by the power and beauty of their verse, and critics often prefer them to Rilke's own favorite verse, his Duineser Elegien (1923, tr. Duino Elegies, 1930, 1961), which are written in a purposely staccato style and contain his most positive praise of human existence. Rilke's only novel was Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910, tr., The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1964). He was a superb and prolific letter writer. Rilke's reputation has ascended to great heights since his death. Most of his work has been translated.


See his Journal of My Other Self (tr. 1930) and Letter to a Young Poet (rev. ed. 1954); biographies by H. F. Peters (1960), E. M. Butler (1941, repr. 1973), D. Prater (1986), and R. Freedman (1996); studies by E. C. Mason (1961), K. A. Batterby (1966), J. Rolleston (1970), A. Stephens (1972), E. Schwartz (1981), W. H. Gass (2000), and R. Corbett (2016).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Rilke, Rainer Maria


Born Dec. 4, 1875 in Prague; died Dec. 29, 1926, at Valmont, a sanatorium near Montreux, Switzerland. Austrian poet.

The son of an official, Rilke spent his childhood and youth in Prague and later lived in Munich, Berlin, Paris, and Switzerland. He studied literature, art history, and philosophy at the universities of Prague, Munich, and Berlin.

Rilke’s first collections of poetry—Life and Songs (1894), Sacrifices to the Lares (1896), Crowned With Dreams (1897), Advent (1898), and In Celebration of Myself (1900)—develop themes and images typical of decadent poetry at the turn of the century; they are musical and display a diversity of sound structure. After trips made in 1899 and 1900 to Russia (where he met L. N. Tolstoy), and partly under the influence of Russian literature, a humanist trend became increasingly apparent in Rilke’s poetry. In the first two books of The Book of Hours (1899; 1901), Rilke viewed religion, manifested in the democratic spirit of medieval mysticism, as the only force that could give meaning to human existence. But he soon lost faith in this concept, as seen in the third volume of The Book of Hours (1903; complete edition, 1905) and in New Poems (1907-08).

Social motifs and gloomy scenes of the life of a large capitalist city began appearing in Rilke’s works. Influenced to a large extent by Kierkegaard, Rilke attempted, in his depiction of the hero of the novel The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), to show that the governing force of man’s existence is individualism, although he recognized the tragedy and futility of this approach.

Rilke welcomed the November Revolution of 1918 that took place in Germany but soon became disillusioned with it. The striving for a philosophic comprehension of life characteristic of Rilke’s poetry was most fully expressed in the Duino Elegies (1923) and Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). Orpheus became a symbol of culture, which for Rilke had genuine humanist values. These values, in his view, could preserve man’s humanity in a capitalist world that was losing this quality. Rilke’s poetry is close to symbolism but lacks symbolism’s subjectivism. His works have had an important influence on 20th-century art and philosophic thought.


Sämtliche Werke, vols. 1-6. Edited by the Rilke Archive. Frankfurt am Main, 1962-66.
Briefe. [Frankfurt am Main, 1966.]
In Russian translation:
Sobr. stikhov. Translated by A. Bisk. [Odessa] 1919.
Lirika. Translated by T. Sil’man. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Vorpsvede, Ogiust Roden, pis’ma, stikhi. Moscow, 1971.
Izbr. lirika. Moscow, 1974.
Lirika. Moscow, 1975.


Admoni, V. G. “Poeziia Rainera Marii Ril’ke.” Voprosy literatury, 1962, no. 12.
Istoriia nemetskoi literatury, vol. 4. Moscow, 1968.
Günther, W. Weltinnenraum: Die Dichtung R. M. Rilkes, 2nd ed. Bern, 1952.
Bollnow, O. F. Rilke, 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1951.
Holthusen, H. E. R. M. Rilke in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Hamburg, 1964.
Mason, E. C. R. M. Rilke: Sein Leben und sein Werk. Göttingen, 1964.
R. M. Rilke zum vierzigsten Todestag. Frankfurt am Main, 1967.
Ritzer, W. R. M. Rilke-Bibliographie. Vienna, 1951.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.