Multicultural Writers from Antiquity to 1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Alba Amoia; Bettina L.Knapp | Go to book overview
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RAINER MARIA RILKE

(1875-1926)

Luanne Frank


BIOGRAPHY

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke was the only son of poorly matched parents who separated in little more than a decade, not soon enough to spare him the need to accomplish through writing the childhood that their difficulties and his mother's peculiarities denied him. His father, forced to retire early from a military career, became a minor railroad official and anticipated his military dreams' fulfillment by his son. The family was kept in circumstances inadequate to the expensive tastes of his merchant-class mother, who had been reared in a palace. Overextended social hopes, ostentatious religiosity, and desire for the daughter she had lost before Rilke's birth characterized her life with her young son. She took him on her frequent visits to shrines and churches and reared him partly as a girl, keeping him in long curls and lace-trimmed dresses—unsurprising for the time—but also giving him dolls to play with and playing games with him in which he took the role of a daughter. Two of the defining parental tendencies, his father's militarism and his mother's Christianity, he soon abandoned, rejecting both as forms of institutionalized authoritarianism. His mother's pretensions and her false coding of him did not diminish his love for women or erase his ideal of sublime femininity and motherhood; nor did his turn from the Christian God dissolve his yearnings toward divinity in some form.

He was sent to a military school (1886), which he compared with a Siberian prison from Dostoevsky's reminiscences of life in the death house, declaring that he would have been unable to achieve his life had he not suppressed all memories of those five brutal years at school. Writing and reading became a refuge and escape. His health possibly affected, he left in 1891 to study business in Linz. In 1895 he entered Prague's Karl Ferdinand University to read philosophy, changing shortly to law and leaving in the fall of 1896 to study art history in Munich. The Prague years saw him go from invisibility to prominence in the

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