Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of His Poetic Style

Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of His Poetic Style

Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of His Poetic Style

Rilke's Craftsmanship: An Analysis of His Poetic Style

Excerpt

Although his virtuosity is often admired, Rilke, unlike some of his contemporaries, has rarely been hailed as a master of form. In the great number of publications on the poet, interest is generally centred on his message and on his life, while literary histories stress his importance as a great mystic poet. Yet Rilke was undoubtedly one of the greatest stylists and artists among German lyric poets.

Since he published no critical writings apart from art criticism, we have only his letters as a source of information on what Rilke himself thought of style and technique. His utterances on the subject, measured by what he poured out on other matters, are not numerous, but from what we have, we can establish with certainty that he was very conscious of the paramount importance of craftsmanship in poetry. From an early period he speaks of 'Handwerk', or métier as he liked to call it, and from what he has to say in this connection it is clear that he considered it the premise of his art; without a sure mastery of all his artistic means he could not, in his central period, imagine himself as a poet.

His early gropings for this 'Handwerk' are somewhat pathetic; at a certain period (in 1903) it was almost a moral issue for him:

. . . darum tut es mir so furchtbar not, das Werkzeug meiner Kunst zu finden, den Hammer, meinen Hammer. . . . Es muss ein Handwerk stehen auch unter dieser Kunst; eine treue, tägliche Arbeit . . . muss doch auch hier möglich sein! Irgendwie muss doch auch ich dazu kommen, Dinge zu machen; nicht plastische, geshriebene Dinge--Wirklichkeiten, die aus dem Handwerk hervorgehen.

At that time Rilke was convinced that a technical foundation, such as the plastic arts and music possess, would mean salvation for his undirected efforts. In fact, such a foundation hardly exists for the lyrical poet: while young sculptors, painters and musicians have to spend years in acquiring the technique of their art, all the young poet needs is a mastery of metre or metres, and an intimate knowledge of the language he is writing in, in the sense that he must be thoroughly at home in it; with this equipment and no other, young . . .

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