I went through a Rilke phase in my youth and recently rediscovered him. He was a thoughtful kind of guy and a fine poet. I like his lyrical poems, especially “Ich lese es Heraus aus deinem Wort” (translated):
I read it here in your very word,
in the story of the gestures
with which your hands cupped themselves
around our becoming – limiting, warm.
You said live out loud, and die you said lightly,
and over and over again you said be.
But before the first death came murder.
A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened,
A screaming shattered the voices
that had just come together to speak you,
to make of you a bridge
over the chasm of everything.
And what they have stammered ever since
of your ancient name.
But I also like his prose. Rilke was a writer who was prepared to suffer for his art (perhaps a little self-indulgently) — someone who would not let mundane matters such as fame intrude in his inner life. In this passage from The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge Rilke perfectly captures what writers go through as their work gets misinterpreted (as it so often does) or they let other people define them.
There I sat with your books, obstinate man, trying to understand them as the others do, who don’t leave you in one piece but chip off their little portion and go away satisfied. For I still didn’t understand fame, that public demolition of someone who is in the process of becoming, whose building-site the mob breaks into, knocking down his stones…Don’t ask anyone to speak about you, not even contemptuously. And when time passes and you notice that your name is circulating among men, don’t take this more seriously than anything else you might find in their mouths. Think rather that it has become cheapened and throw it away. Take another name, any other, so that God can call you in the night. And hide it from everyone.
I always think of poor old J.D. Salinger when I read that passage. Salinger was quite right to retire from the crass attention of the public and I guess Rilke felt the same way. Here’s to both of them!