Das Stunden-Buch; The Book of Hours

[This page by Marielle Sutherland] 

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


Das Stunden-Buch;The Book of Hours is Rilke’s first major collection of poetry.


Rilke’s earlier collections of poetry are not well known and are often considered mediocre (with overly musical language and simple rhyme schemes) and Romantic (overly emotional, effusive, mystical and not engaged with contemporary reality), however, they do contain traces of Rilke’s emerging individual voice and sophisticated ideas. Among these early collections are Larenopfer; Offerings to the Lares (1896), Leben und Lieder; Life and Songs (1894), Advent (1897) and Mir zur Feier; In Celebration of Myself (1899). Offerings to the Lares has received more interest because it presents a picture of Prague at the turn of the century in poems that transfigure the city, its surroundings and aspects of Czech culture, offering themselves up to the ‘lares’, the Roman gods of house and hearth. Rilke begins here to show a modernist anxiety about the loss of past, traditions, homeland and spiritual centre.


Although raised a Catholic, Rilke embraced Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, rejecting the transcendent Christian God along with Church doctrine and morality, but he maintained a strong sense that within art human beings can create an openness and reverence for the fullness of life.


In Das Stunden-Buch; The Book of Hours (1905) Rilke’s God is not a supreme being who is transcendent and set apart from the believer but an elemental force of life that is created by and immanent within the believer. The speaker in the three cycles of the The Book of Hours is a Russian monastic icon painter, a figure who combines the ideas of creative development, religious meditation and Romantic inwardness. Rilke described how the poems of The Book of Hours came to him as inspiration and inner dictation after visiting a monastery in Russia where the monks prayed several times daily, following a breviary or a ‘book of hours’. The poems are considered one of the high points of German neo-romanticism because they explore the self, the sublime and the aesthetic, yet by the end of the book Rilke begins a more modern turn towards city life and the everyday world around him.


Das Stunden-Buch;The Book of Hours contains the poem Was wirst du tun, Gott, wenn ich sterbe? / What will you do, God, when I die?


In the simple and direct language of prayer, the painter-monk addresses God not as a transcendent deity but as a force immanent within himself and his art. The poem has been considered blasphemous, but Rilke is articulating here the complex concept of God’s existence as created and sustained by human language and representation. The artist feeds, accommodates and clothes the divine, giving it nourishment and shape in the form and force of his expression. The artist-monk is afraid that God will disappear when he dies and is unable to sustain him, and this fear points to the mutuality of the relationship – the artist-monk’s need for God in order to go on living himself. The simple rhyme scheme tends to distract from the sophistication of the ideas in this poem.