[This page by Marielle Sutherland] 

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)


Rainer Maria Rilke is considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. His poetry is read widely across the world, appreciated for its musical, innovative language, its philosophical, aesthetic and visionary ideas and its attempt to steer a course between conventional religion and narrow rationalism.


René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke was born in Prague, capital of Bohemia (then part of Austria-Hungary). His father became a railway official after a failed military career, and his mother came from a rich Prague German-Jewish family, though she was a fervent Roman Catholic. His mother had lost a baby girl before René was born, and in mourning for this girl she dressed the young René as a girl. At the age of eleven he was sent to a military academy where he was extremely unhappy. Throughout his life he had passionate relationships with women, but these ended when Rilke began to crave his solitude again, arguing that love was greatest when it was distanced and unfulfilled. The most famous of these is Lou Andreas-Salomé, a married Russian intellectual and author, and it was at her request that he changed his name to the more masculine, Germanic ‘Rainer’. He married the sculptor Clara Westhoff but lived in separation from her. During the First World War he was conscripted into the Austrian army, but friends intervened and shortly afterwards he was transferred to the War Archive in Vienna. Initially, like many German and Austrian Expressionist poets at that time, he saw the potential of the War to renew humanity and society, but very quickly this enthusiasm gave way to devastation at the reality of war. He lived in various north European countries, mainly financed by aristocratic patrons, and he also undertook extensive visits to Russia, Italy and Egypt which inspired his work. He died in Switzerland in 1926 of leukemia. He was a prolific writer of letters, and these are often read alongside his poetry to illuminate his aesthetic concepts.


Rilke’s work traces the shift from nineteenth to twentieth century thought and aesthetics. His poetry gradually moves away from Romanticism, subjectivism, sentimentality and aesthetic decadence and takes on the crises and anxieties of the post-Nietzschean, post-war, mechanised modern world, searching for reconnection with the ineffable, with nature and with objects through art. His life was characterised by the restlessness and unease that the twentieth century brought with it, moving around Europe under the patronage of a variety of aristocrats, binding with and separating again from family and lovers, struggling to preserve humanity and a sense of awe against the rationalising demands of modern everyday reality. As part of this restlessness, his poetry is marked by crises and breakthroughs, poetological interrogations of itself and shifts in style. Rilke’s poems open out, rather than exhaust, meaning and interpretation, so he is not a religious poet in the traditional sense but a poet trying to express the openings within human life that take us to an expanded awareness of reality. Various motifs that gesture towards this are revisited and refigured throughout his work, e.g. the angel, God, animals, flowers and childhood. Rilke, along with other poets of his time (e.g. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Paul Valéry, Georg Trakl, Gottfried Benn and Georg Heym), learned from Nietzsche’s critique of language. He felt words could no longer express relationship between the inner human self and its outer world because of the impersonal, dehumanising forces and the commodification of objects surrounding the modern individual. The complexity of the human mind could not be represented using traditional techniques. This crisis was exacerbated by the new realities of the First World War, leading to Rilke’s creative block between 1912 and 1922 as he searched for a new mode of saying and affirming human life and transience. He felt he had found this as he completed his two final major collections of poetry.


Rilke's works include:


Das Stunden-Buch; The Book of Hours (1905)


Das Buch der Bilder; The Book of Images (1906)


Neue Gedichte; New Poems (1907)


Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)


Duineser Elegien; Duino Elegies (1922)


Sonette an Orpheus; Sonnets to Orpheus (1922)


Please click on the above links for further information.


Translations into English


Stephen Cohn (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies (Manchester: Carcanet, 1989)

Stephen Cohn (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke: Neue Gedichte / New Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1997)

Stephen Cohn (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus with Letters to a Young Poet (Manchester: Carcanet, 2000)

Martyn Crucefix (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies (London: Enitharmion, 2006)

Charlie Louth (trans.), Letters to a Young Poet. Rainer Maria Rilke (London: Penguin, 2011)

Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (New York: Random House (Vintage) 1985)

Stephen Mitchell (ed. and trans.), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (London: Picador, 1987)

Don Paterson (trans.), Orpheus: A Version of Rilke’s ‘Die Sonette an Orpheus’ (London: Faber & Faber, 2006)

Burton Pike (trans.), The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Champaign, London and Dublin: Dalkey Archive, 2008)

Susan Ranson (trans.), Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Book of Hours’: A New Translation with Commentary (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008)

Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland (trans.), Robert Vilain (ed.), Rainer Maria Rilke. Selected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Jo Shapcott, Tender Taxes: Versions of Rilke’s French Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 2001)

Edward Snow (trans.), The Poetry of Rilke (New York: North Point Press, 2009)

Geoff Ward (trans.), Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (London: Salt, 2006)


Further Reading in English


Maurice Blanchot, ‘Rilke and Death’s Demand’, in Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. by Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp. 120-45

Patrick Bridgwater, ‘Rilke and the Modern Way of Seeing’, in Rilke und der Wandel in der Sensibilität, ed. by Herbert Herzmann and Hugh Ridley (Essen: Die blaue Eule, 1990), 19-42  

Jo Catling, ‘Rilke’s “left-handed lyre”: Multilingualism and the Poetics of Possibility’, Modern Language Review 102:4 (2007), 1084-1104

Hannah Vandegrift Eldridge, Lyric Orientations: Hölderlin, Rilke, and the Poetics of Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016)

Ralph Freedman, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Helen Sword (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996)

Robert Hass, ‘Looking for Rilke’, introduction to Stephen Mitchell (ed. and trans.), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (London: Picador, 1987), pp. xi-xliv

Erich Heller, ‘Rilke and Nietzsche, with a Discourse on Thought, Belief and Poetry’, in Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (London: Penguin, 1961), pp. 109-55

Lukas Hoffman, ‘Love of Things: Reconsidering Adorno’s Criticism of Rilke’, Monatshefte 114:2 (2022), 242-61

Ben Hutchinson, Rilke’s Poetics of Becoming (Oxford: Legenda, 2006)

Richard Jayne, The Symbolism of Space and Motion in the Works of Rainer Maria Rilke (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1972)

Michael L. Koch, ‘Rilke’s Early Angels’ Connections to Corporeality and Language’, German Life and Letters 65:4 (2012), 439-56

Karen Leeder and Robert Vilain (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Rilke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

E. A. and M. M. Metzger (eds.), Companion to the Works of Rainer Maria Rilke (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001)

Donald Prater, A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)

Lawrence Ryan, ‘The “Thing” as “Poem in Itself”’, in Rilke-Rezeptionen. Rilke Reconsidered, ed. by Sigrid Bauschinger and Susan L. Cocalis (Tübingen & Basel: Francke, 1995)

Judith Ryan, ‘Rainer Maria Rilke’, in Judith Ryan, The Vanishing Subject (London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 51-62

Judith Ryan, Rilke, Modernism and Poetic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Marielle Sutherland, Images of Absence: Death and the Language of Concealment in the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (Berlin: Weidler, 2006)


Further Reading in German


Günther Anders, ‘Über Rilke und die deutsche Ideologie’, Sans phrase: Zeitschrift für Ideologiekritik 7 (2015) (Freiburg in Breisgau: ça ira Verlag, 2015) 

Manfred Engel (ed.), Rilke-Handbuch: Leben-Werk-Wirkung (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 2004)

Rüdiger Görner, Rainer Maria Rilke. Im Herzwerk der Sprache (Munich and Vienna: Hanser/Zsolnay, 2004)

Karen Leeder and Robert Vilain (eds.), Nach Duino. Studien zu Rainer Maria Rilkes späten Gedichten (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010)

Otto Lorenz, Schweigen in der Dichtung: Hölderlin-Rilke-Celan. Studien zur Poetik deiktisch-elliptischer Schreibweisen, Palaestra 284 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989)


Web Links in German

International Rilke Society, based in Switzerland

The Rilke Project: Settings of Rilke’s poems to music