Century Old Visions: Rilke

This is the first in a series of posts devoted to creative works from the early days of the 20th Century.

1906 portrait of Rilke by Paula Modersohn-Becker

“Where others have found a unifying principle for themselves in religion or morality or the search for truth, Rilke found his in the search for impressions and the hope these could be turned into poetry…For him Art was what mattered most in life.” C.M. Bowra

Rainer Maria Rilke was a poet and novelist whose life straddled the 19th and 20th Centuries. His writing explores the fundamental questions of life through the eyes of a lyric poet.

“For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us.” 

From Rilke’s First Elegy   

Duino Castle

In 1912, as a guest of his patron Princess Maria von Thurn und Taxis at the Duino Castle, he began work on The Duino Elegies. Aside from brief periods of work in 1913 and 1915, his struggles with depression consumed his ability to work and his elegies languished. After ten years he experienced a burst of creativity that he described as “a boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit,” and completed his masterpiece.

Les Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, 1905

From the fifth of his Duino Elegies, inspired by Picasso’s Les Saltimbanques.

There, the withered wrinkled lifter,
old now and only drumming,
shrivelled up in his mighty skin as though it had once contained
two men, and one were already
lying in the churchyard, and he had outlasted the other,
deaf and sometimes a little
strange in his widowed skin.

And the youngster, the man, like the son of a neck
and a nun: so tautly and smartly filled
with muscle and simpleness.

Angel: suppose there’s a place we know nothing about, and there,
on some indescribable carpet, lovers show all that here
they’re for ever unable to manage—their daring
lofty figures of heart-flight,
their towers of pleasure, their ladders,
long since, where ground never was, just quiveringly
propped by each other,—suppose they could manage it there,
before the spectators ringed round, the countless unmurmuring dead:
would not the dead then fling their last, their for ever reserved,
ever-concealed, unknown to us, ever-valid
coins of happiness down before the at last
truthfully smiling pair on the quietened

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