Learning to See Rilke's Main Interest in Others Was as a Route to His Inner Self. Jamie McKendrick on the 'Diaries of a Young Poet'
McKendrick, Jamie, The Independent (London, England)
IN THE YEARS which these three diaries cover (1898-1900), Rainer Maria Rilke, the most inward-bound of poets, travels across Europe, to Italy and Russia, and then takes up residence in Germany; but the most strenuous journeying is internal. This is especially true of the first, "The Florence Diary", ardently addressed to Lou Andreas- Salome, a married woman and established writer 14 years older than the 22-year-old Rilke. It's curious that so soon after the beginning of the affair she should pack him off to Florence to study Renaissance art, setting him the task of recording his experiences in a diary for her. (The introduction suggests she may have arranged for an abortion during his absence.)
Her response to the diary fell short of the rapturous one Rilke expected: he records, with insight into his own motives as well as courtly self- abasement, that he "wanted this time to be the rich one, the giver, the host, the master, and You were supposed to come and be guided by my care and love and stroll about in my hospitality. And now in Your Presence I was again only the smallest beggar at the outermost threshold of Your Being." Whatever else she objected to, she must have found the transparent agenda behind the following entry unwelcome: "A woman who is an artist is no longer compelled to create once she has become a mother. She has given her goal a place outside herself and from that moment on may in the deepest sense live art."
The diary reveals an extraordinarily precocious, but also precious, mind ranging over questions of Renaissance art and using such questions to advance his own poetic credo. There is, however, more metier than matter. A kind of religiosity of art, a hushed, soulful veneration often overcomes him - especially when considering his own potential and vocation. Very few passages lead one to believe that Italy is populated by anything but landscapes, architecture and works of art. Lacking anything raw and inchoate, the writing translates his youthful uncertainties into vatic exhortations and polished aphorisms. His remarks about other writers are surprisingly few and indistinct. Throughout these diaries his discussion of the visual arts is far more specific and passionate. Like Greek Art for Marx, the Renaissance for Rilke represents a discontinued springtime, and he looks to his own era "to begin the summer of this far- off and festive spring". Seasonal imagery overabounds in these pages as an emblem of the psyche: "If behind our sadness a shimmering springtime flickers and moves about in high clouds, then our sadness will be more heartfelt, and our feeling dons purple robes when it forms wreaths out of falling leaves . . ." Here Rilke's prose frequently dons purple robes, with a preference for expensive materials like silk and damask. Although the first two diaries are addressed to Lou, they have a calculated discretion about them. For any biographical information, the reader has to refer to the translators' clear and helpful introduction and notes. In terms of his own self-presentation, hardly a hair seems out of place. In the third, "The Worpswede Diary", a number of pages have been ripped out following the painter Paula Becker's decision to marry, an event that we can only surmise was traumatic enough for Rilke to write something heartfelt and unembroidered. …