Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rilke's Birthday - "He Will Be Spacious"

Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague in 1875. One of the world's greatest poets, Rilke is the main character in my recent novel, Lost Son.

Here’s Rilke at age 23, writing in his journal during his first stay in Florence, overflowing with fresh impressions upon seeing some of the western world’s greatest works of art. In substance these youthful thoughts are already quintessentially Rilkean, as though the young poet is laying the foundations of a religion all his own.

The translation is by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler, from their beautiful Diaries of a Young Poet:

Know then that art is: the means by which singular, solitary individuals fulfill themselves. We have all been born in chains: they have them silver-plated or gilded. But we want to rend them; not through ugly and brute force; our desire is to grow out of them.

Know then that the artist creates for himself—only for himself. What for you becomes laughter or weeping, he must shape with the hands of a wrestler and raise it up out of himself. In him there is no room for his past; and so he gives it a separate, independent existence in works of art. But only because he knows no other material than that of your world does he place them into our days. They are not for you. Do not touch them, and regard them with awe.

There is an unspeakable brutality in the present-day relationship of the crowd to the artist. His confessions, which helplessly take refuge in the forms of common things, are regarded by the many as no different from those things. All have their hands on them; all may pronounce what is to their liking and what does not suit their whim. All take the holy vessel into their hands as if it were an object of daily use, as if it were a possession that at any moment they might break without punishment: defilers of the temple!

Therefore the artist’s way must be this: to bridge obstacle after obstacle and to build step after step, until at last he can gaze into himself. Not straining, not forced, not on his tiptoes: calmly and clearly as into a landscape. After this return home into himself, deed after deed will be a leisurely joy; his life will be a creation and he will have no further need for the things that are outside. He will be spacious, and all maturity’s extent will be inside him.

The artist’s work is a putting-in-order: he places outside himself all things that are small and transitory: his lone sufferings, his vague longings, his fearful dreams, and those joys that will fade. Then the realm inside him becomes spacious and
festive, and he will have created that worthy home for—himself.

“Often I have such a great longing for myself. I know that the path ahead still stretches far; but in my best dreams I see the day when I shall stand and greet myself.

“Once during this last dear winter we talked about it: whether the creative person is qualitatively different from the others. Do You remember?
[note: Rilke is addressing Lou Andreas-Salomé.] Only now do I know the answer. The creative individual is the more spacious person, the person out beyond whom the future lies. The artist will not for all time endure alongside the man. When the artist, the more mobile, the deeper of the two, becomes ripe and strong enough to engender his own kind, when he lives what now he dreams, the man will wither away and little by little die out. The artist is the eternity that juts into our days.....

“....Give art your protection, so that it does not learn of the day’s quarrel; for its homeland is the other side of all time. Its struggles are like the storms that bring the seed, and its victories are like springtime. Its works are: unbloody sacrifices of a new covenant....

“....Every artist is born in an alien country; he has a homeland nowhere but within his own borders. And those of his works that proclaim the language of this homeland are most deeply genuine....”

See also Cunningham's "Rainer Maria Rilke: Myths, Masks & the Literature of a Life"


  1. That photo of Rilke is not when he was 23. That was taken closer to his time of death in his mid 40's. Rilke at 23 had an entirely different dash and magnatism, usually sporting a mustache.

  2. Christopher, You're not the first to be confused by this post. Where I've written: "Here's Rilke at 23..." I'm referring to the age at which he authored the diary entry that immediately follows, thus my sentence continues: "...writing in his journal during his first stay in Florence." I would have put a caption to the photo to better indicate that it represents an older Rilke, but alas, I'm not that techno-savvy (and, well, mistakenly or not, I kind of thought it was obvious). I chose this particular photo precisely because I think it shows a Rilke whom, at that late stage in life, has as the diary entry states, "a home nowhere but within his own borders."

    While you can rest assured that I know Rilke's various portraits all too well, (I've lived long and deeply with this poet during the six-year writing of LOST SON and well before), I thank you for helping other readers avoid confusion. ~M.A.C