If you are the type of person who loves when poets experiment a little with the basic essential rules of grammar, then Rainer Maria Rilke is your man. Navigating the world of Rilke’s prodigious verse is a voyage through a land where nouns become verbs and verbs becomes nouns and where words intended to convey abstractions are instead used to present concrete images while words normally used to convey a singular concrete meaning are expanded and enhanced for the purpose of metaphorical coverage of so much more. A Rilke poem is experimental, but not in the kind of way that seems designed merely to stimulate frustration in anyone who equipped with at least a Master’s degree in literature.
It has been noted by more than scholar that Rainer Maria Rilke is to be considered the creative genius behind the finest German-language poetry of the 20th century. Don’t jump to the conclusion that just because Rilke managed to turn the notoriously unpoetic German language into flights of creative verse that he was also one of those who used the German language to forward extreme political views or advance a philosophy of dark hopelessness. Rilke’s poetry often, in fact, offers an underlying philosophical view that stands in direct opposition to the both the terrifying nationalism of many heroes of the German artistic movements as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in the process of unraveling and to the nihilistic mood of Nietzsche which would prove to be so horrifically misunderstood and misapprehended. Rilke’s poetry is, instead, very much a celebration of multiculturalism that proved way ahead of its time. In fact, the reason that Rilke’s poetry continues to be the focus of so much academic study has much to do with the fact that he stood so far apart from any movements and that his urges to create were so much product of his own iconoclasm.
Rilke’s short life which was constantly under attack from poor health spanned almost exactly the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. Prior to becoming one of the most influential poets of the century, Rilke actually seemed on the way to becoming famous mostly for his close working relationship with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, creator of The Kiss. Rilke served as the artist’s secretary for more than half a year, a period that saw the future poet go from being a sponge soaking up everything that the sculptor could teach about the creative spirit—most especially Rodin’s directive to never wait for inspiration, but to make the creation of inspiration part of the process of creating art—to viewing himself as a metaphorical prisoner in a symbolic jail.
From figurative prison that jail cell emerged the newly committed poet who would go on to urge younger poets to “go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.” That reason which bid Rilke to write resulted in intermittent torrential outpouring of verse that critic J.B. Leishman famous described in the most elevated terms imaginable: “Nothing like these poems had been written before; nothing like them has been written since.”
The primary works upon which Rilke’s status is based includes the Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus and The Book of Hours.