Context: Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist. He wrote both poetry and lyrical prose. Rilke was born into the Austria-Hungarian Empire and lived his earliest years in Prague. His childhood is described as an unhappy one with estranged relations to both parents. Their marriage was not happy and the father had a failed military career while his mother never recovered from the loss of an infant child. His parents pressured the poetically and artistically talented youth into entering a military academy, which he attended from 1886 until 1891, when he left because of an illness.
From 1892 to 1895 he was tutored for the university entrance exam, which he passed in 1895. Until 1896 he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and München. In 1897 in Munich, Rainer Maria Rilke met and fell in love with the widely travelled, intellectual woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé who once had a “romance” with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Rilke changed his first name from “René” to “Rainer” at Lou’s urging because she thought that name to be more masculine, forceful, and Germanic. His relationship with this married woman, with whom he undertook two extensive trips to Russia, lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Lou continued to be Rilke’s most important confidante until the end of his life. Having trained from 1912 to 1913 as a psychoanalyst with Sigmund Freud, she shared her knowledge of psychoanalysis with Rilke.
Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926 in Schweiz. The leukemia which killed him had been almost reluctantly diagnosed.
Themes: 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. In this section of the sonnets (XVI) which I’ve translated myself from German 🙂 ; we encounter friendship and death as major themes.
You, my friend, me alone, because…
We make through words and finger signs
an attempt to claim the world,
maybe its weakest and most horrible parts.
Who will point with the fingers to a smell? –
But from the Powers, which threaten us,
you can feel many…You know the Dead Ones,
and you are afraid of magic spells.
Look, now we must endure it together
Bits and pieces as it was a whole.
You, it will be difficult to help. For all: plant
me not in your heart.
I will grow too fast.
Though, my Lord’s hand will I take and say:
Here. That is Esau in his fur.