Rainer Maria Rilke is considered to be one of the greatest lyric poets in German literature. Rilke commonly wrote in both lyrical and verse form. He created object poetry, which was an attempt by Rilke to describe physical objects. Rainer Maria Rilke's rise to fame happened as a result of his two most prominent works Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke is commonly considered to be one of the more prominent poets during the transitional period from traditional poetry to modernism.


Rainer Maria Rilke (Rene Karl Wilhem Johann Josef Maria Rilke) was born on December 4, 1875 in Prague. He was the only child of of Josef Rilke and Sophie Entz. His childhood was not a very happy one as his mother referred to him as Sophia and forced him to wear girl's clothes until he was five years old. His parents separated when he was nine, and one year later his father sent to military school at St. Polten and Mahrisch-Wesschirkenn. He left the military academy and spent time at a business school in Linz. Rilke then went to work for his uncle's law firm, his uncle being the person who ultimately realized how truly gifted Rilke was.

Rilke continued his education at Charles University in Prague in 1895. It was here that Rilke realized that he would pursue a literary career. Rilke was already a published poet by this time, having had his first collection of poems, Leben and Lieder, published in 1894. He published two more collections of poems, Larenopher (Sacrafice to the Lares) and Traumgekront (Dream Crowned) in 1895 and 1896.

Along with some friends, Rilke made a trip to Russia in 1899. He met many noted Russians including Leo Tolstoy. Rilke was incredibly impressed with Russia, and a Russian influence can be seen in many of his works. Many of these poems became published as the Book of Hours: The Book of Monastic Life. Rilke moved to an artists' colony at Worpswede in Germany in 1903. While there, Rilke met a young sculptress named Klara Westhoff, who happened to be a former pupil of Auguste Rodin. They married and had one daughter, Ruth. During his marriage, Rilke wrote the second part of the Book of Hours: The Book of Pilgrimage. However, Rilke and Westhoff separated after just a year of marriage. After his marriage ended, Rilke moved to Paris to work for and write a book about Rodin.

Rilke, unhappy in Paris, left for Italy in 1903. While in Italy, Rilke finished the final part of the Book of Hours: The Book of Poverty and Death. During this time, Rilke suffered from a sense of failure. However, It was also during this time that Rilke began much of his more prominent work. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge were published during this time. A new series of poems entitled New Poems was also published during this period. New Poems showed Rilke develop into a new style of writing in which he emphasized physicial reality. He looked at things without the subject matter attached to them.

Rilke began on his next critical work, Duino Elegies, in 1912. He did this while staying at Duino castle which belonged to a patroness, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. He continued work on this in Paris. However, while away to Munich, his apartment and personal property were seized by the French government which believed him to be an enemy alien. During the summer of 1915, Duino Castle was bombed and completely reduced to rubble. On November 22nd and 23rd, Rilke wrote a somber fourth elegy of the Duino Elegies. The following day, Rilke was drafted into the Austrian Army.

Rilke served at the War Archives office in Vienna until June of 1916 when he released from military service. It was until 1922 that Rainer Rilke continued writitng. A friend allowed him to use a small chateau they had purchased in Switzerland as a place of peace and solitude. Here he completed Duino Elegies. Rilke also wrote a sequence of fifty-five sonnets, entitled Sonnets to Orpheus, as a tribute to the young daughter of a close friend. In 1923, Rainer Rilke's last two major works were completed. Rilke wrote a few poems over the next few years until his death on December 29, 1926 as a result of leukemia.

Famous WorksEdit

  • Loneliness
  • The Panther
  • Archaic Torso of Apollo
  • The Swan
  • Duino Elegies
  • The Sonnets to Orpheus
  • Autumn Day
  • The Sisters
  • Falling Stars
  • Song of the Sea
  • You Who Never Arrived
  • Sunset
  • The Future
  • Moving Forward
  • To Lou Andreas-Salome

The PantherEdit

His vision, from the constantly passing bars, has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.

It seems to him there are a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over, the movement of his powerful soft strides is like a ritual dance around a center in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly--.

An image enters in, rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles, plunges into the heart and is gone.

Interpretation: This poem can be seen as a metaphor for the obstacles that we face in our lives. We stand behind them, pacing behind them, and just staring at the obstacles. We think of ways that we could possibly get past them. However, sometimes the obstacles defeat us.

Archaic Torso of ApolloEdit

We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit.

And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power.

Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

Interpretation: Rilke looked at this work of art without applying any of the backstory of the piece. He simply saw the piece of art for what it was and what it physically depicted.

Discussion QuestionsEdit

How did World War I change Rilke's writing style?

What influences can be seen in Rilke's work and in what works do those influences appear?

Compare and contrast Rilke's poems with poems of other poets of the same era?

What metaphors can be seen in Rilke's poem The Swan?

What changes can seen in Rilke from the beginning of his literary career to the end of it?


Frye, Northrop. Study of English Romanticism. Harvester P, 1982. 135.

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