The Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) provides an important case study for the ambivalent appropriation of Christian discourse in modernist literature. His crowning poetic achievements of the Duino Elegies (1912-22) and the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) are milestones in twentieth-century attempts to create a mythology that no longer relies on the philosophical and religious framework of Christianity. Yet in contrast to many other modernist writers, Rilke is still deeply involved in an (albeit discarded) Christian heritage. In this essay, I want to demonstrate that--paradoxically--he crucially draws on Christ imagery to express a post-Christian worldview. I offer an interpretation of two Rilke texts neglected by previous scholarship: Visions of Christ (1896-98) and The Letter of the Young Worker (1922). These texts, despite their status as "minor works," play a key role in Rilke's oeuvre. In the following, I present these two texts and show how they demonstrate Rilke's literary re-imagining and transformation of Christian tropes and narratives. (1)
Much has been made of Rilke's intense Catholic upbringing. Critics have frequently admonished his mother, Sophie Rilke (1851-1931), for her alleged religious fanaticism in raising her only child. Various anecdotes have provided material for those who want to explain Rilke's "almost excessive anti-Christian attitude" (2) (letter to Marie von Thurn und Taxis, December 17, 1912 [Rilke Briefe 379]) by referring to harrowing childhood experiences. (3) But regardless of the possible biographical roots for Rilke's rejection of Christianity, his mother's efforts at providing a religious education did bear fruit in one respect: the ubiquitous presence of Christian imagery and narratives during his upbringing furnished Rilke with a point of reference against which he could develop his personal notions of the spiritual life.
Visions of Christ
Arguably, Visions of Christ represents Rilke's first substantial literary work. The eleven pieces that make up the cycle of narrative poems certainly do not possess the poetic finesse of the later New Poems, but in terms of original thought they are more compelling than the majority of the juvenilia written before the Book of Hours. This originality may be a result of the personal urgency with which the topic of religion presented itself to Rilke.
From a biographical perspective, the cycle is of special significance because it provided Rilke with the occasion to come into initial contact with Lou Andreas-Salome (1861-1937), who for a brief time would become his lover and who remained a close friend and confidante throughout his life. In 1897, in his first letter to her, he praises her essay "Jesus the Jew," published the previous year. Two aspects of the essay may have particularly resonated with him. (4) Andreas-Salome places Jesus into the context of the this-worldliness of Judaism, which stands in stark contrast to the focus on the afterlife common to other religious traditions (Andreas-Salome 347). A similar rejection of a hereafter would become a recurring topic in Rilke's critique of Christianity. Furthermore, Andreas-Salome's essay conflates the religious and the aesthetic spheres:
But it may happen that what a religious genius internally experiences on an individual and hidden level ... produces an absolutely appropriate articulation in words and images, so that, as in the work of a poet the highest artistic dream appears, the highest religious dream of humankind appears before us in complete perfection as if it were graspable and shaped [plastisch]. (344)
In his response to Andreas-Salome, Rilke relates the essay to his work in progress, the Visions of Christ:
Dr. Conrad sent me the April 96 issue of the Neue Deutsche Rundschau. A letter of Conrad pointed me to an essay in it, Jesus the Jew. Why? At the time, Dr. Conrad had read a few parts of my Christ-Visions (five are supposed to be published shortly in the "Gesellschaft") and assumed that sparkling essay would be of interest to me. He was wrong. It wasn't interest that drew me further and further into this revelation; a trusting faith led me upon the earnest path, and finally it was like jubilation inside me: finding what my dream epics give in visions to be articulated in such masterly clarity with the gigantic thrust of a holy conviction. ... [T]hrough the uncompromising force of your words my work received in my mind a blessing, a sanctification. I felt like one whose great dreams with all their good and evil have been fulfilled because your essay corresponded to my poems like dream to reality [,] like wish to fulfillment. (5) (letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, May 13, 1897; Briefwechsel 9-10)
The rhetorical gestures of this passage include various religious terms. Andreas-Salome's essay engenders a "sanctification" of Rilke's poetry--a reversal of sorts is taking place here: whereas Andreas-Salome infuses the religious sphere with aesthetic terminology, Rilke uses the language of the sacred to characterize the elevation of his poetic work. Both essay and poetry cycle for the most part renounce conventional religious beliefs but continue nonetheless to adhere to the linguistic forms of sacred discourse.
Rilke ultimately withdrew the poems from publication. He may have feared offending the conventional Christian attitudes of his surroundings or may have felt that these poems were an integral part of his personality and were still in the process of becoming. In response to a request for their publication, he wrote: "I have many reasons to suppress the Christ images--for a long, long time to come. They are what is developing, that which accompanies me my whole life" (letter to Wilhelm von Scholz, February 19, 1899; qtd. in Schnack 80).
Rilke continued to hold the cycle in the highest esteem. In 1912, after having written the New Poems and the Malte novel, he still referred to the Visions of Christ as "great poems" (letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, January 10, 1912, Briefwechsel 258) and once more considered their publication. One year later, Andreas-Salome argued for a continuity between the Visions of Christ and the Duino Elegies (at this time, the first two elegies had been written):
In terms of tone they stand so far apart from the two present, latest poems,--but all that you have created moves unfailingly [einheitlich] between these bygone Christ visions and the coming angel visions. (letter to Rilke, July 24, 1913; Briefwechsel 301)
In Andreas-Salome's reading, the Visions of Christ possess the status of an anticipatory work: a direct line can be drawn from them to Rilke's mature oeuvre.
But the poems were not made public until after Rilke's death. A few excerpts appeared in the 1930s, but only in 1957, over half a century after their composition, were the poems published in their entirety.
The cycle is unfinished. On a manuscript sheet, Rilke jotted down the titles for seven of the eleven existing poems. Ernst Zinn, the editor of the Samtliche Werke--the standard edition of Rilke's works--added one untitled poem to this list, and published them as the first series. The three remaining poems comprise the second series, which, in Rilke's intention, was projected to bring the cycle to its conclusion. (6)
The cycle's title, Visions of Christ, points to a structural aspect that unites the poems. With the exception of the final poem, "The Nun," all pieces revolve around the mysterious appearance of a male figure, for the most part in a contemporary turn-of-the century setting. This figure carries traits of Jesus, yet virtually always appears in a context of suffering rather than of salvation. This early cycle already encapsulates two primary components of Rilke's …