Rainer Maria Rilke and Solitude

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is a paragon of solitude on three different levels. His personal interest in solitude as a safeguard of creativity is evident throughout his life and is specifically referenced in his writings, including his correspondence. More intensive creativity itself led to greater solitude, Rilke realized, as in his description of his early mentor, the sculptor Auguste Rodin:

Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps more solitary.

Solitude for creativity evoked an old conflict Rilke describes succinctly in a poem: "For somewhere reigns an old hostility / between living one's Life and doing one's Work." The poet was attentive to this conflict even in mundane circumstances, as when he wrote to a friend concerning a new flat he was about to rent:

The only question is whether I will manage to keep out all intrusions and stay as quiet and undiscovered as I have been accustomed to being elsewhere.

At the same time, Rilke's personal life was that of a loner, wanderer, and social misfit, one who could not establish close personal relationships despite a wide circle of well-born and cultured acquaintances and admirers throughout Europe. This central characteristic of his life prompted Sigmund Freud to remark (in characteristically acerbic fashion) that Rilke was a "great poet but rather helpless in life."

A third dimension to solitude in Rilke overwhelms these personal and anecdotal aspects, namely the role of solitude in his poetry. Perhaps a person's solitude cannot be disengaged from a particular sensibility about society, the world and a philosophy of life. In the poetry of Rilke, the complex layers of such views are intertwined and highlighted by a brooding and omnipresent solitude.

Rather than follow closely the details of Rilke's life with the chronology of his poetry and writings, it will suffice to point to certain highlights while pursuing the theme of solitude in the evolution of his poetic genius.

Rilke was raised by an aloof father of modest clerical skills and an overbearing, ambitious, and well-born mother whose personality overwhelmed the only child. Rilke was educated in a rigorous military school, during years he described as "one long terrifying damnation." He had few friendships and spent his years tramping Europe from Austria and Germany to France, Italy, and Switzerland, haunting the accommodations made for him by willing acquaintances or renting congenial and threadbare living quarters. Rilke married once but ultimately lived alone because he failed to comprehend his own needs and those of his spouse.

Early Poems and Letters

The Book of Hours (1905) represents Rilke's first significant collection of poetry, a modest work projecting a disappointed religious faith, idealizing the stark Christianity of Russia in images of poverty and simplicity contrasted with European decadence. Rilke's pain is here still externalized.

During this period Rilke wrestles with the boundaries of an artist's social responsibilities, which is the core of the solitary's dilemma as well. Though written very late in his life, this passage is reflective of this dilemma and his thoughts even at this early stage:

A human compassion, a sense of brotherliness, is certainly not alien to me. ... But what completely distinguishes such a joyous and natural sympathy from the social impulse as we understand it today is my complete lack of any desire, in fact my reluctance, to change or "better" as they say, the situation of anyone at all. The situation of no one in the world is such that it [i.e., the situation] might not be of singular benefit to his soul.

Even in later years, as a decided pacifist with antipathy toward the ruling class of Europe, Rilke nevertheless consorted with its wealthier and privileged representatives who, after all, appreciated the arts. This was the dilemma of the artist and creative personality, and always has been: does compromise with the world for art's sake amount to hypocrisy? Eventually, the arts become the creative solitary's path.

But early on Rilke was also trying to define solitude in the context of sheer creativity. In Letters to a Young Poet, he advises his correspondent to cultivate his muse by eschewing literary critics and  excessive self-criticism, instead advising him to connect to the natural world and to freely plumb the self. To Rilke, a large component of self was childhood and memory. By this means, he wrote,

Your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes, far in the distance.

When his young correspondent expresses concern about resolving philosophical questions, Rilke artfully distinguishes them from art and life:

Try to love the questions themselves. ... Live the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing, live your way into the answer. ...

But everything that may someday be possible for many people, the solitary can now, already, prepare and build with his own hands, which make fewer mistakes. Therefore, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.

The transition from the solitude necessary for creative work to solitude as a virtue and form of living, is clearly emerging in the central letters of this period.

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside of yourself and meet no one for hours -- that is what you must be able to attain.

Rilke suggests that the simplicity of the child at play, oblivious to the busy and senseless goings-on of the adults, is the state of solitude he recommends. For the activities of the world are contrived and lifeless, while the spontaneity of the child's world is a "wise non-understanding." This view is not defensive, not scornful, yet freed of "conventions, prejudices, and false ideas." Thus for the solitary looking out into the world, "all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life."

Rilke's solitude goes further:

If there is nothing you can share with other people, try to be close to Things. Things will not abandon you. The nights are still there, and the winds that move through the trees and across many lands. Everything in the world of Things and animals is filled with being, of which you are part.

About this time Rilke wrote candidly to a woman acquaintance (with an eye to everyone he knew):

I beg all those who love me to love my solitude too, for otherwise I would have to conceal myself even from their eyes and hands, like a wild animal hiding from enemies bent on its capture.

With The Book of Images or Pictures (1906) , Rilke presents the philosophical framework characterizing all future work, not so much a style as a voice, leaving behind the dreamy symbolist for the spiritual quest that will haunt Rilke his entire life, the theme of failed transformation and transcendence. And there we discover the many images and evocations of solitude.

Among the images of solitude are weary angels wandering silently, of children who know their rooms intimately, of lonely travelers and of a solitary tree silhouetted against the sky. There are strong and moving portraits of social alienation: a blind man, an idiot, a dwarf, a waif. Over these is the sense of melancholy with its fractured objects, as in the poem "Lament": a dead star, a stopped clock, a passing voice full of tears. " Everything is far and long gone by."

Here is the portrait of "Autumn":

Whoever has no house now, will never have one,
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restless, while the dry leaves are blowing.

These are images of solitude in which the poet gropes for meaning, to understand the irrevocable as distinct from the involuntary. The poet's solitude is not imposed by society and authority but is a recognition of the individual insight into the nature of self and reality, which, however, is only the beginning of a quest.

Among the poems of this early collection is "The Solitary." Here the poet sees how different he is from everything else, like a sailor come from an unknown sea, not recognizing the people he encounters. In the poem "Solitude," this feeling is made palpable with a grand simile:

Solitude is like the rain
rising from the sea to meet the nightfall
from the dim far distant plain ...
Solitude falls like rain in that gray doubtful hour
when the streets all turn into dawn ...
When those who are hopeless and forlorn and sorrowfully alone,
When all men, who hate each other, creep
together into a common bed for sleep
while solitude flows onwards with the rivers.

With New Poems (1907), which Rilke completes a year after The Book of Images, comes the tactile sensibility influenced by his years as secretary for the famed French sculpture Auguste Rodin. Where Rilke had worked as the inspired solitary, he now wrote "not about feelings but about things felt," in what he called Ding-Gedichte or "Thing-Poems."

In this collection Rilke offers images of panthers, swans, flowers, paintings and statues, in which he explores his own responses, sifts them, then returns them to the poetic muse for meaning.

Among these poems, teetering between symbolist and modern, breathing an air of reservation and introspection, is another "The Solitary." This on opens with the word "No," as if responding to a suggestion or refutation denied.

No! a tower shall arise from my heart,
and I be placed atop it
where there is nothing else, not one last hurt,
nor the ineffable, where the world falls short ...

Thus the poet envisions transcending suffering, in a place where there is

nothing beyond
that will darken, then grow light again,
not even one last yearning face
banished in the not-to-be-silent night ...

not even an uttermost stone face
yielding up the center of its weight.
The distance that annihilate it
will bring to it a more blessed fate.

This blessed fate seems a bleak annihilation of self, but compare this to the mystical sense of "The Buddha in Glory." Here Rilke contemplates a (now-lost) statue of the Buddha in Rodin's garden, and gropes his way toward an understanding of emptiness in the fate of human consciousness, clearly inspired by Buddhism:

center of all centers, core of cores,
almond, self-enclosed, growing sweet --
all the universe, to the farthest stars
and beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit ...

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich thick nectars rise and flow.
Illuminating your infinite peace,
a billion stars go spinning through the night,
Glowing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

Later Work

Years passed, all of interest to the scholar of Rilke but which must here be hurried past in order to explore the grand vision of the Duino Elegies. This set of ten poems was begun in the solitude of the castle Duino in Italy overlooking the Adriatic Sea, and completed a decade later in another castle, that of Muzot in Switzerland. All of Rilke's poetry, his dabbling in fiction, his essays, all the wanderings and introspection, culminate in the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

The premise of the Duino Elegies had been foreshadowed in Rilke's earlier concern about the aloneness of human beings in a god-forsaken universe, where memory and patterns of intuition raise the sensitive consciousness to a realization of solitude. The earlier elegies evoke the presence of angels as surrogates for the absence of God, as the opening lines of the first elegy ring out in both fear and resignation:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even in one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

Rilke evokes the Old Testament version of the angel as terrifying (Gabriel Rossetti's painting, "The Annunciation"), versus the benign pagan version of angel as nature spirit. Rilke's sentiment is closer to that of an orthodox reactant to mainstream Christianity, as in Kierkegaard or even Nietzsche, anticipating existentialism.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note
Of my dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world.

Our aloneness in the universe is not assuaged by memory or imagination or love (as his own experience confirmed to him). Rilke's preoccupation is death, which absorbs all. He uses images of death as varied as perfume growing faint, of fading facial expressions, of evaporating dew, migrating birds, physical love, the end of childhood, "steam from a dish of hot food." So then do the angels manage to absorb our temporary radiance.

Even by the fifth elegy, Rilke has returned to the image of angels, now more like the pagan gods, mortal and solitary: "Who are they, these wanderers, even more transient than ourselves ...?"

The alienating sense of solitude in life is due to our desire and will to live, to our refusing to understand or at least acknowledge our end. Unlike the trees that stop blossoming when winter comes, "we still linger, alas, / we, whose pride is in blossoming."

To Rilke, the child who dies young or the creative artist become the fulfilled angel. Such was the theme of his 1909 poem "Requiem for a Friend" written for a deceased painter-friend Paul Modersohn-Becker. The child who dies is the young girl Vera Knoop, the daughter of an acquaintance, who is the Eurydice of his Sonnets to Orpheus. She is the idealized child, whose image might have been beautifully evoked by Maurice Ravel's musical work "Pavane pour une infante défunte" or "Pavane for a Dead Princess" composed in 1899.

Rilke also evokes the image of the hero who dies young: "The hero is strangely close to those who died young. / Permanence does not concern him."

The hero "lives in continual ascent," Rilke writes, moving far beyond the mundane realm of the rest of us. Yet who is the hero but ourselves, ever in our mother's womb or in the womb of being, from which all things emerge as if from a great cosmic labor, as if from the fruit of love. Rilke is preoccupied by the origins and expression of love -- and the mystery of its evanescence.

As already suggested, Rilke failed to find loving relationships that would endure, beginning with his own parents and with the women charmed by his wit and literary gifts but from whom he disengaged for fear of their demands. Hence his marriage failed, as mentioned earlier, within a few years. Rilke's wife was a painter, and Rilke thought of marriage as a collaboration, not a sacrifice.

In Letters to a Young Poet, he thought of lovers not as a union but as "two solitudes [that] protect and border and greet each other," asserting that "all partnerships can only survive as the shoring up of two adjacent solitudes," with each partner a solitude "that wants to move out of itself." Rilke yearned for love's success but maintained an autonomy and impermeability that undermined all of his relationships, or, at any rate, held them at a certain emotional distance. For their part, his friends and acquaintances came to tolerate and understand him. His plea in an early letters had set the tenor of his character and relations (quoted above):

I beg all those who love me to love my solitude too, for otherwise I would have to conceal myself even from their eyes and hands, like a wild animal hiding from enemies bent on its capture.

The Duino Elegies is a search for transcendence, for the transformation of pain. It is a plaintive but vain cry for a transcendent love. Rilke knows that love is external and must be internalized, but love cannot, neither for the solitary poet nor for anyone, ultimately. For nothing survives "Fate the annihilator, in the midst of Not-Knowing-Whither."

Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life
passes in transformation. And the external
shrinks into less and less.

Human beings are painfully aware of their fate because they are conscious of time and death, they are "forever taking leave," unlike the animal, which "sees all time and itself within all time, forever healed."

But another aspect for Rilke is silence. Only the animal being always present dispenses with "saying" while humans try to report what is "unsayable." And ultimately, says Rilke, we belong to the earth and must love it -- not the contrived world of society, not (to use a series of his images) to the street jugglers and billboards and carnivals, but to the blue and yellow gentians, the startled bird, the catkins hanging from the hazel trees, the raindrops falling on dark earth.

The Duino Elegies were begun in Duino and completed (as mentioned earlier) in Muzot in the last years of Rilke's life. At Muzot Rilke exemplified solitude as creative artist but also as solitary. It became his most beloved haunt, in keeping with what the French poet Paul Valery had said of Rilke's days: "eternal winter long in excessive intimacy with silence."

And, indeed, silence reigned at Muzot. The old chateau was some miles from the nearest village. Here Rilke ate sparse vegetarian meals, seeing almost no one. A passing student called him the "hermit" of Muzot, and one commentator notes that Rilke "had turned into a hermit and was becoming [as self-described in a letter] 'infinitely immovable, a prisoner of myself in my ancient tower.'"

At Muzot Rilke had no telephone, no electricity, and no running water. There was a well pump, a garden, a decrepit church, and an unkempt cemetery. His discrete housekeeper understood his needs -- he called her a "phantom." Rilke lived in the second-floor corner of the rambling chateau, with two windows magnificently overlooking the valley. In his workroom was a heavy oak table with a small balconied bedroom and a chapel.

At Muzot, Rilke completed Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. A rose in his garden pricked his finger. The finger wound would not heal, and after many months of strange maladies, Rilke consulted physicians and followed their many prescriptions in vain. Muzot was Rilke's last home before he died in 1926 of leukemia at the age of 51.


Among the many translators of Rilke's poetry are Stephen Mitchell, whose translations include Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Random House, 1982; New York: Vintage, 1984; Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Modern Library, 1995; and Letters to a Young Poet, New York: Vintage, 1986, Boston: Shambhala, 1993. Other translators of note are C. F. MacIntyre, A. Poulin, and John J. L. Mood.