The lonely world of Rainer Maria Rilke, his quest for mentors, and a closer look at Her Going Blind

Did you know that one of world’s most beloved poets was not exactly a nice guy?

His words have inspired countless writers, filmmakers, musicians, painters, and other artists — even Lady Gaga has a Rilke tattoo.

Don’t want to read? Listen to this story and hear a reading of “Her Going Blind” on the tiff loves words podcast.

Growing up Rilke

Rilke was born in 1875 in Prague, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. His full name was René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke. (Yeah!)

His family was German and middle class. His father, an army veteran, worked for the railway and his mother was an upper-middle class socialite.

A year before Rilke was born, his parents had lost an infant daughter. So when Rilke came along, his mother gave him a feminine name and dressed him up in girl’s clothes. Later in life, Rilke said that his mother treated him like a little doll.

Although it was his mother he could thank for his love of poetry, he blamed her for a childhood filled with dark memories, illness, and fear.

At age 11, he was sent to a military boarding school. He hated it. After he was transferred to another school at the age of 16, he was discharged for health issues. He had constant headaches and fevers. In fact, health issues plagued Rilke for the remainder of his life.

In 1894, at the age of 19, his first book of poetry, Life and Songs, was published. In 1895, he published his second book of poetry, Lares’ Sacrifice, and enrolled at a university in Prague to study philosophy.

A few years later, Rilke moved to Munich to study art history. It was there that he met the woman who would become his mentor, his muse, his lover, and a lifelong friend.

When they first met, Lou Andreas-Salomé was 36, married, and a well known literary critic and writer. She was one of the most influential people in Rilke’s life. In fact, Salomé convinced him to change his girly first name to something more masculine, hence “Rainer” — it means wise army in German.

Through Salomé, Rilke is introduced to a circle of intellectuals, writers, and artists. In 1899, he accompanies her and her husband to Russia.

Salomé sets up a meeting with the world renown author, Leo Tolstoy, in hopes that Tolstoy would mentor Rilke and help him flourish as a writer. The meeting DOES NOT go well. Yikes.

But all is not lost. Rilke ends up falling in love with Russia and its people. While there, he writes one of his most famous and well-regarded works during his lifetime: a trilogy called The Book of Hours.

When he leaves Russia, he moves into an artist colony in Germany. There he meets sculptor Clara Westhoff. At age 26, Rilke marries Clara and the two have a daughter.


Meeting the master

Through Clara, Rilke was introduced to the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. He was enthralled. So much so that he moved to Paris to write about Rodin.

Rilke ends up learning much more than he ever imagined from the sculptor. Rodin’s influence marks a pivotal phase in Rilke’s life and especially in his writing.

You see, Rilke was a lonely dude. He was constantly looking for a connection and guidance about how to live.

You see, Rilke was a lonely dude. He was constantly looking for a connection and guidance about how to live. His work up until that point, although it was popular at the time, it was also metaphysical and esoteric and overly emotional.

In Rodin, he finally finds the artistic mentor and direction he’s been searching for.

Rodin tells him to get hyperfocused. He needs to forget about everything in life except for his work — don’t induldge in luxries, in relationships — let go of all of that. Rilke eats it up. He leaves his wife and his daughter. He becomes Rodin’s secretary.

Rodin tells Rilke to that he needs to get back to basics. When Rodin was young, he would go to the zoo and study animals so that he could later sculpt them.

So he tells Rilke to do to the same.

At this point, Rilke is referring to Rodin as his master, so he definitely takes the advice and starts writing more objectively. Rilke calls the poems he wrote in this style “thing poems.” Some of the more famous pieces during this period are “Panther” and the “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

Letters from a young poet…to a younger poet

It was at this time that Rilke also starts exchanging letters with a young student from his old military school. This collection of ten letters isn’t published until after Rilke’s death and but it becomes his most well-known writing: Letters to a Young Poet.

The letters are filled with advice on how to write, how to live as an artist, and why you should ignore the opinions of others. The letters contain what feels like a lifetime of lessons but Rilke was only 26 or 27 when he wrote them.

His words were undoubtedly influenced by all that he was learning from Rodin.

After he left Paris, Rilke traveled around, following threads of inspiration and benefactors. In 1911, he stayed at Castle Duino for a while and then left to admire paintings by the artist El Greco.

In 1914, the sudden outbreak of World War I rocked everything in his world. As you may remember from history class, WWI started when the Austro-Hungarian Archduke, Franz Fernanidad, was assassinated by some Serbs. Austria Hungary wasn’t a fan of that and declared war on Serbia and well, things got crazy.

In all of this chaos, Rilke was unable to get back to Paris, so he moved back to Munich. At one point, he gets drafted and has to go to basic training. But Rilke had friends in high places, so he eventually is discharged in 1916.

After the war, things were desolate. He was poor and struggled to find a place to live. He gets an invitation to move to Switzerland, so he jumps on the chance to escape the post-war environment of Germany. In Switzerland, he gets back to a creative space and finishes a piece he started working on at Duino. The Duino Elegies are published in 1922 and later that year, he pulishes a collection of 55 sonnets called Sonnets to Orpheus.

These two publications are widely considered his best work.

A year later, his health problems force a stay at sanitorium and he never fully recovers. He dies at the age of 52 in December of 1926.

A closer look at Rilke’s work

Rilke’s work may be beloved but the man himself was not always. To many he was seen as narcissistic, opportunistic, and as a womanizer. Rilke was constantly reflecting inward.

That’s what makes the thing poems he wrote during his time with Rodin so imperative to his work. “Her Going Blind” was one of these poems. Rilke is outside of his own head, examining another person.

He treats the study of this woman at a dinner party with such a delicate, and compassionate eye. Where most people would insert pity and move on, he stops and appreciates the details of her other-ness.

Rilke pulls us in alongside him, watching the blind woman navigate a social scenario where she may feel inferior. Yet, he allows us to also see that she has something the others do not.

I think without the obsessive self examination that lead up to his time with Rodin, Rilke wouldn’t be able to have that same appreciation.

Her Going Blind

Translation by Irish poet Seamus Hogan

She sat just like the others having tea
At first it seemed to me as though she held her cup
A little differently from the others
She smiled once
It almost hurt

And as they arose and spoke
and slowly as though led by chance — moved from room to room
Speaking and laughing
I saw her then

She followed the others haltingly
Like someone who soon must sing and before a crowd
Upon her bright and happy eyes was mirror
glinted on a pond

She followed slowly and needed time
As if there was still was something to surmount
And yet, beyond the passage over,
she would no longer walk but fly

Listen to Rilke’s story and hear a reading of “Her Going Blind” on the tiff loves words podcast

Author of Be Happy, B*tch. Tiff is a storyteller, a poet and a public servant. She loves summer in Oregon, her dog Roosevelt and the smell of old books.

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