The Book of Hours
Rilke published the three complete cycles of poems that constitute The Book of Hours (Das Stunden-Buch) in April 1905. These poems explore the Christian search for God and the nature of Prayer, using symbolism from Saint Francis and Rilke's observation of Orthodox Christianity during his travels in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century.
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Rilke wrote his only novel, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (translated as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), while living in Paris and completed the work in 1910. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and he adopts the style and technique that became associated with the Expressionism that entered European fiction and art in the early 20th century. Rilke was inspired by Sigbjørn Obstfelder's work A Priest's Diary and Jens Peter Jacobsen's second novel Niels Lyhne (1880) which traces the fate of an atheist in a merciless world. Rilke addresses existential themes, profoundly probing the quest for individuality, the significance of death, and reflection on the experience of time as death approaches. Rilke draws considerably on the writings of Nietzsche, whose work he came to know through his lover, Nietzsche's former lover Lou-Andreas Salome. His work also incorporates impressionistic techniques that were influenced by the painter Cézanne, and sculptor Rodin (whom Rilke knew). He combines these techniques and motifs to conjure images of mankind's anxiety and alienation in the face of an increasingly scientific, industrial, reified world.
Rilke began writing the elegies in 1912 while a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis (1855–1934) at Duino Castle, near Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. During this ten-year period, the elegies languished incomplete for long stretches of time as Rilke suffered frequently from severe depression—some of which was caused by the events of World War I and his conscripted military service. Aside from brief episodes of writing in 1913 and 1915, Rilke did not return to the work until a few years after the war ended. With a sudden, renewed inspiration—writing in a frantic pace he described as "a savage creative storm"—he completed the collection in February 1922 while staying at Château de Muzot in Veyras, in Switzerland's Rhone Valley. After their publication and his death shortly thereafter, the Duino Elegies were quickly recognized by critics and scholars as Rilke's most important work.
The Duino Elegies are intensely religious, mystical poems that weigh beauty and existential suffering. The poems employ a rich symbolism of angels and salvation but not in keeping with typical Christian interpretations. Rilke begins the first elegy in an invocation of philosophical despair, asking: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?" (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?) and later declares that "every angel is terrifying" (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich). While labelling of these poems as "elegies" would typically imply melancholy and lamentation, many passages are marked by their positive energy and "unrestrained enthusiasm." Together, the Duino Elegies are described as a metamorphosis of Rilke's "ontological torment" and an "impassioned monologue about coming to terms with human existence" discussing themes of "the limitations and insufficiency of the human condition and fractured human consciousness ... man's loneliness, the perfection of the angels, life and death, love and lovers, and the task of the poet."
Sonnets to Orpheus
With news of the death of his daughter's friend, Wera Knoop (1900–1919), Rilke was inspired to create and set to work on Sonnets to Orpheus. Within a few days, between 2 February and 5 February 1922, he had completed the first section of 26 sonnets. For the next few days, he focused on the Duino Elegies, completing them on the evening of 11 February. Immediately after, he returned to work on the Sonnets and completed the following section of 29 sonnets in less than two weeks. Throughout the Sonnets, Wera appears in frequent references to her both direct where he addresses her by name and indirect as allusions to a "dancer" or the mythical Eurydice. Although Rilke claimed that the entire cycle was inspired by Wera, she appears as a character in only one of the poems. He insisted, however, that "Wera's own figure [...] nevertheless governs and moves the course of the whole".
The content of the sonnets is, as is typical of Rilke, highly metaphorical. The character of Orpheus (whom Rilke refers to as the "god with the lyre") appears several times in the cycle, as do other mythical characters such as Daphne. There are also biblical allusions, including a reference to Esau. Other themes involve animals, peoples of different cultures, and time and death.
Letters to a Young Poet
In 1929, a minor writer Franz Xaver Kappus (1883–1966), published a collection of ten letters that Rilke had written to him when he was a 19-year-old officer cadet studying at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. The young Kappus wrote to Rilke, who had also attended the academy, between 1902 and 1908 when he was uncertain about his future career as a military officer or as a poet. Initially, he sought Rilke's advice as to the quality of his poetry, and whether he ought to pursue writing as a career. While he declined to comment on Kappus's writings, Rilke advised Kappus on how a poet should feel, love, and seek truth in trying to understand and experience the world around him and engage the world of art. These letters offer insight into the ideas and themes that appear in Rilke's poetry and his working process. Further, these letters were written during a key period of Rilke's early artistic development after his reputation as a poet began to be established with the publication of parts of Das Stunden-Buch (The Book of Hours) and Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Images).