The Evolution of Rainer Maria Rilke

Article excerpt

LIFE OF A POET: RAINER MARIA RILKE

by Ralph Freedman

640 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35

UNCOLLECTED POEMS

By Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Edward Snow

266 pages, North Point Press, $22

RILKE'S BOOK OF HOURS

Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

166 pages Riverhead Books, $21

BY MOST STANDARDS, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was no role model. One of this century's greatest poets, he was born a sickly child of a broken family of Bohemian-Alsatian heritage. His own marriage with sculptor Clara Westhoff turned incompatible, leading to decades of separation from her and his daughter. He became a secretary to Auguste Rodin and later spent much of his life philandering around Europe with rich, talented friends.

Conscripted at age 40 in World War I, a reluctant soldier in a baggy uniform, he served only six months in a cushy assignment to archival duties. He pulled strings and was discharged.

Throughout his life, Rilke knew or associated with the great spirits of Europe: writers like Tolstoy, Gide and Valery, and artists too. He wrote in Russian and Italian and published several books of poems in French. He translated the sonnets of Michelangelo and Louise Labe into his native German. Above all, his fame as a German poet flourished.

The turmoil of Rilke's private life is recounted in sharp, honest detail in Ralph Freedman's profusely documented, illustrated biography. Freedman writes masterfully of the times and settings in which the poet produced such great works as the "Duino Elegies" and "Sonnets to Orpheus." He describes Rilke's many moods and personalities, his restless nature and ambivalent politics; and most importantly, the evolution of a great poet. …