Journey from `lament to praise'. New biography traces difficult life of poet Rainer Maria Rilke

A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Donald Prater. New York: Oxford University Press. $27.50 Rainer Maria Rilke, the purest of pure poets, the aesthete vegetarian Orphic poet. Rainer Maria Rilke has, oddly, become popular. Translations of his poetry can be found in most bookstores; there are many to choose from. And there is now a shrewd and authoritative biography by Donald Prater. Prater wisely avoids literary criticism, but gives us ``a portrait of the man,'' quoting extensively from Rilke's letters in doing so.

Rilke's life began unpromisingly enough in Prague in 1875. Rilke's mother wanted a girl and dressed her son as if he were one for the first couple of years. Later, he spent several unhappy years in military academies, and then went to business school in Linz.

He rejected this life with a vengeance.

Rilke's adult life was one of constant movement, one long attempt to avoid entangling relationships. His life with sculptress Clara Westhoff (they were married in Bremen in 1901) lasted as long as Clara, herself an artist and initially in favor of living separately, could stand being married to someone for whom human attachments caused deep anxiety; they had one child, a daughter named Ruth.

Continuously in need of money and a place to stay, Rilke depended on a vast network of friends (chiefly women who found his poetic wooing irresistable). His principal labor was keeping up with a voluminous correspondence. Unreadable today, his early poetry was popular; his autobiographical prose -- ``The Lay of the Love and Death of the Cornet Christoph Rilke'' (1904) and ``The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge'' (1910) -- went before him, opening doors and hearts.

Rilke was a confirmed ``narcissist,'' but a critical one, one bent on writing great poetry.

And out of this unhappy existence came a poetry whose power to console is perhaps unmatched.

It wasn't until near the end that Rilke's life began to make sense. As we now can see from Prater's meticulous reconstruction of the life, Rilke's ruthless habit of self-analysis, which so often left him depressed, was not aimless. Not that Rilke knew what he was after. He was a human experiment, a living hypothesis, determined to turn ``to eternity's account'' the details of his own experience. It was a kind of self-sacrifice, but to what end?

The first breakthrough came with the ``New Poems'' (1907, 1908), composed while Rilke worked in Meudon as Rodin's secretary. Prater writes: ``. . . all were characterized by his endeavour to follow Rodin in forming a `thing of art' more definite than its model, lifting it `up out of time' and giving it to space to make it `capable of eternity.' ''

It would be more than a decade before Rilke reached the final stage of his journey.

The breakthrough came in 1921, in Muzot, Switzerland. Again, Prater's detailed account of the background is of great value. To see Rilke's needs being met one by one is to have one's views of his demanding nature alter.

Rilke's deeply responsive friendship with Paul Val'ery; his gratitude toward his ``miracle-working'' friend, Nanny Wunderly, whom he called ``the epitome of unpossessive love''; his remorse over his desertion of a young Austrian woman he had thought he could help -- friendship, gratitude, and guilt helped prepare Rilke for the final visit of his poetic daimon.

The setting was the little Chateau de Muzot. Nanny had it outfitted to his specifications, including a standing table. They found a housekeeper who didn't mind serving her silent master vegetarian meals at odd hours. The scene was set. Rilke warmed up by writing letters.

Then, in a storm of inspiration, he wrote the poetry for which he has become popular: the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

As Prater shows, Rilke had been stuck for ten years in a corner of negativity. He had borne eloquent witness to the terrifying presence of the messengers of poetry he called Angels. But he had also, briefly, in Duino, Italy, sung ``ecstatic praises to angels saying yes.''

``It was only in the complete solitude of Muzot,'' Prater writes, ``free from all distractions, and above all from those of love, that inspiration gave him the words to turn the tide of his poetry from lament to praise. . . .'' Whatever the subject -- ``love, death, childhood, the relationship of plants, animals, and inanimate things to human consciousness, the joys and inadequacy of transient earthly existence'' -- Rilke now wrote in a mode of almost ecstatic celebration.

The almost is important. Rilke's ``Angel'' is not a mystical being. It is, rather, Being revealing itself in existence; or rather, as Rilke said, ``singing is Being.''

Rilke may be popular now because reading his poetry one gets the sense that one's own particular ``right to happiness'' is not a political right, but a metaphysical one. Reading his life we learn what this lesson cost him and everyone who cared for him. But where else, in an age increasingly dominated by the mass media, are we to get our image of man, of ourselves?

Could it be that people are reading Rilke because he offers a fresh, challenging, and, finally, deeply consoling, sense of individual worth?

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. Sonnet to Orpheus, I, 23 Not till the day when flight no longer for its own sake ascends into the silent heavens propelled by its self-conceit, so that, in luminous outlines, as the tool that has come to power, it can float, caressed by the winds, streamlined, agile, and sure -- not till a pure destination outweighs the boyish boast of how much machines can do will, overwhelmed with gain, one to whom distance is close be what alone he flew. Translated by Stephen Mitchell

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