Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: The Book of Fresh Beginnings

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: The Book of Fresh Beginnings

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: The Book of Fresh Beginnings

Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke: The Book of Fresh Beginnings

Excerpt

Telling Rilke’s story, by way of introducing a selection of his poems, is a fairly tricky business. This poet was a solitary figure, atypical even as an artist, who shrank from many of the ties — family, nation, politics — that defined his contemporaries; at the same time he was also, in many ways, a mirror of his era. Cosmopolitan, cultivating aristocratic patronage, taking the whole of Europe as his spiritual homeland, he exemplified many of the best characteristics of European culture before the First World War. Which way you see him depends somewhat upon your distance and focus, and on the cut of your paradigm. And while the twin curves of his life and career may not be altogether characteristic of other great modern writers, they tell us a good deal about changes that took place as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth and about the way art responded to those changes — in some cases reinforcing them, in others resisting and protesting them.

So many statements about Rilke require contradiction or qualification as soon as they are made; those corrections then require their own readjustments, so that our insights and reactions zig and zag. Rilke was married and had a daughter, but he found he could not live with his family. Nevertheless, he regularly wrote long, marvelous letters to his wife. His language and nationality were German (Prague Bohemian, more precisely), but he detested the time he had to spend in Germany, especially during the First World War, and greatly preferred France, Italy, Scandinavia and Switzerland. For all that, his ties with German culture, especially German romanticism, are deep and significant. And if we say that Rilke was not someone who sat around in salons with symbolists or in cafes with Dadaists and futurists, we must immediately add that he was profoundly sensitive to the artistic currents of his time.

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