This portrait of 20th-century European poet Rainer Maria Rilke is by his friend the Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, who painted it when both were adventurous idealists in their 20s. I have a particular fondness for it because it was when I working at The Women’s Press in London in the early 1980s that we published the first-ever monograph on Modersohn-Becker. Through that work I made my early discoveries of the exceptional writings of Rilke. Decades later my spiritual and psychological study of Rilke, In the Company of Rilke, has been published in Australia and the United States. Yet despite the exceptional reputation of this poet, and the liberating effect his writing has on such a wide variety of readers, I am still asked (sometimes sceptically): Why Rilke? And, less often, what was it like for you, the reader as well as the writer, to spend years in the company of this man? What follows is my attempt to make some of that a little clearer.
Having been a publisher before I was a writer, and having spent a working lifetime thinking about readers’ interests as well as writing, I think I can claim to be fairly well attuned to the enthusiasms of my publishers. It was no surprise, then, when the news that I had spent most of four or even five years on the life and work of a poet was met with a respectful but muted response. A poet? Poetry? In this difficult time and “market”?
Yet there was curiosity also, from my publishers and others in the writing world, because the poet who had captivated me so wholeheartedly was not just “any” poet but Rilke, widely regarded as one of the giants of 20th-century writing. What’s so remarkable about Rilke, though, is less that he is a “giant”- many languish forgotten – but that he continues to be widely translated, quoted and read. Defying time and place, his particular unconventionality appears to be increasingly in tune with our concerns and questions, and especially our yearnings.
In a memorial talk he gave on Rilke in 1946, shadowed by the Second World War, the controversial philosopher Martin Heidegger had asked, “What are poets for in these destitute times?” This remains a brilliantly pointed question now, too, when not just the so-called high arts but the humanities in general have lost much of their power to illuminate how we might think about life or how we might think about the meaning and purpose of our own individual lives.
And yet many people who read for insight rather than for distraction continue quietly and instinctively to look to poetry to affirm and unfold what Rilke himself called the “deepest things”. They may do this only occasionally but it is often on occasions – birth, loss, celebration and death – that poetry can articulate longings that would otherwise leave us “lost for words”. Merging sometimes with prayer, substituting sometimes for prayer, in those rare undefended moments it is often only poetry that will do.
A dearth of encouragement to think deeply and spiritually isn’t new. Rilke himself had written presciently of the increasing mechanisation and brutalisation of life, the intellectual and cultural trivialisations of beauty and inwardness, and the social as well as personal devastation that would follow these losses. One of his most famous poems, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”, ends with the passionate entreaty: You must change your life. Changing your life in Rilke’s company more precisely means changing your relationship to life, as well as to death.
What also establishes Rilke so securely as an exceptional voice for our own time is that he engages with those “deepest things” from far outside any conventional framework – and especially outside conventional religious frameworks. In fact, he proceeds from a depth of self-enquiry, openness and uncertainty that all seem remarkably attuned to the modern questing an questioning mind.
Rilke is a poet who values questions over answers; who abhorred critics who failed to engage with the sensuality of poetry and the actual experience of reading it (rather than just talking about it). Rilke is a poet who speaks often and intimately to God – while also doubting God (and especially the “God” of pious or dogmatic thinking). Rilke has been described as a modern mystic but I think that’s far too simple. Some of his insights and some of his poetry are mystical, especially in their confidence that we can and perhaps must seek a direct rather than mediated relationship with the transcendent. In another of his poems he declares confidently, “There is only one Poet…”, alerting us to the influences of this [divine] “Poet” on a mind open to its power. Yet no simple description truthfully fits Rilke. In his consideration of others, in his devotion to any practice other than art, he would have made no claim at all to mysticism; nor would he want that to be claimed on his behalf.
Instead – and here again Rilke steps recognisably into our time – he lays bare a naked psychological complexity, intimately detailed in his journals, his thousands of letters, his one difficult novel, and much of his magnificent prose writing. With naked honesty his writing declares: “Here is a flawed human being whose inner dilemmas are sometimes extreme.” This adds to our reading experience.
I loved researching and writing the biographical “story” that threads its way through the book. I have never been interested in writing biography but the contexts that shaped Rilke were never less than fascinating. Briefly, Rilke was born to two unhappy, mismatched parents in 1875 in the German community of “provincial” Prague. He died in a small, uncomfortable chateau in a French-speaking corner of Switzerland in 1926. He wrote mainly in German, though was fluent in several languages, but did not regard himself as German and certainly not as Austrian. (Prague was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) He lived for years also in France and described Russia as a spiritual home. He was in many ways “European” in ways that we would easily recognise, yet were way ahead of his own time.
Intense, needy, often extreme, the enduring love of Rilke’s life was poetry itself. He was faithful to that calling and little else. The woman he loved most was the feminist writer and pioneering psychoanalyst, Lou Andreas-Salomé, a formidable woman who, in turn, was also adored by Nietzsche and admired by Freud. Under her spell, Rilke “adopted” Russia, changed his name from René to Rainer (“more manly”, Lou thought) and altered his handwriting to echo Lou’s. Still in his early twenties, still loving Lou, Rilke married the sculptor Clara Westhoff and had one child, Ruth, but the three almost never lived as a family. His weakness for talented and often titled women is well known, as was his incapacity to sustain the kind of intimacy about which he wrote so beautifully.
Writing about Rilke, I nonetheless always had his 21st-century readers in mind, always thinking about what we seek through and beyond the printed page. To explore more explicitly how subjectively we read – as well as write – I chose to look at Rilke through the analytic framework of two influential contemporary writers: Alice Miller and James Hillman. “Looking with Alice and James” was one of the sections of the book that gave me most fun to write…and it perhaps one that Rilke himself might (despite his strong reservations about critics) also have had most amusement reading. Until we contrast two different, yet clearly persuasive views about a formidable complex writer, our own prejudices and assumptions might seem so “natural” we barely notice them… Yet Rilke is constantly saying, “Look! See! Notice! Understand!”
Despite my academic training in literature and spirituality, my training as a psychotherapist, and now decades of experience as a writer of fiction and non-fiction – plus those earlier years as an innovative publisher – I took on this study of Rilke with something resembling innocence. Yet, as I write this, I realise that’s been my experience writing each of my books that I value most. Innocence and an eagerness to know more open the way for inspiration to rise – or fall – to a potent place within our own “poet’s mind”.
In a long professional writing lifetime where, as a working mother, I have had to be exceptionally mindful of what would make at least modest commercial as well as creative “sense”, it was an exceptional privilege to spend those years with the poetry, the man and the questions and insights his company provokes. Some months before I completed the book I was facing the prospect of yet another demanding public talk on a quite different subject. “Use your knowledge of Rilke,” I was urged by a Rilke-loving friend. “It’s when we feel most stretched or depleted that Rilke always has something more to give.” How right he was. And is.
Rainer Maria Rilke died in 1926, aged 51. It was far too early. He felt acutely the loss of the decades he would miss. Yet what he left makes it impossible not to return to Heidegger: “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy.” It’s those utterances of the holy – even in the presence of life’s inevitable complexity and losses – and the unorthodox, welcome transformation of what ‘holy’ might mean, that kept me entranced. More significantly still, those utterances affirm what matters most. Then, now, always.
In 2024, Dr Stephanie Dowrick will publish, with Dr Mark S. Burrows, a new and exciting book: A Wiser Way: Living your deepest questions with Rainer Maria Rilke. (Monkfish Publishers, & Allen & Unwin)