A poet carves a sculptor in words

Rilke spent almost four years living with and working for Rodin in Paris

They were surely one of the oddest couples in 20th-century art: Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor, sixtyish and wildly famous, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the 26-year-old German poet, at the beginning of his career, who showed up on the sculptor's doorstep on a September afternoon just over a century ago to begin a monograph on the great man.

The monograph pleased the master, and led to an offer of lodging and employment for Rilke as the sculptor's secretary. The poet even took his Rodin show on the road, as a lecture delivered in Dresden and Prague. But then came a falling out; less than four years later, the younger man found himself "dismissed like a thieving servant."

However badly it ended, the time together did yield for Rilke two remarkable pieces of writing - the monograph and the lecture.

This volume comprises those two pieces, plus an introduction, in prose as rich as a fine pâté, by William Gass, author of "Reading Rilke" and other books. Rilke illumines Rodin's creative process; he also sheds light on his own ideals of the artistic genius. Gass adds context and helps us read between the lines.

Up close and personal, Rilke had the opportunity to observe Rodin's immense artistic dedication - but also his tendency to get more than professionally involved with the women who modeled nude for him. Rilke's observations are wonderfully astute. Speaking of his drawings, he wrote, "Rodin assumed that if a model's most inconspicuous and unassuming movements were captured quickly, they would provide an unfamiliar intensity of expression, because we are not accustomed to observing them with keen, active attentiveness."

Or consider this: "Rodin developed his memory into a resource that is at once reliable and always ready. During the sitting his eye sees far more than he can record at the time. He forgets none of it, and often the real work begins, drawn from the rich store of his memory, only after the model has left."

It was an encounter, though, almost destined to end painfully. Rilke brought to Rodin's atelier the breathless, idealistic adoration of a disciple, as well as his rather fussy, proto-vegan eating habits.

When he first arrived in Paris, Rilke barely had a means of communicating with the master. Rodin could not have been expected to speak German, and Rilke's mastery of French was still a work in progress. And so the poet had to "run after Rodin's rapid French as though for a departing bus," as Gass puts it.

Rilke's first weeks in Paris were a difficult time, spent on the very margins of society when he wasn't at the studio or Rodin's country place at Meudon. But it was the sort of painful solitude out of which good work can come. Rodin exposed Rilke to an artistic work ethic. "You have to work, nothing but work." For the poet used to waiting for inspiration, this was a new - and very useful - concept.

"Writers work with words, sculptors with actions," was a Renaissance motto. For readers interested in either field of endeavor, this volume is a treat.

Ruth Walker is on the Monitor staff.

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