Happy 144th Birthday to Rainer Maria Rilke!

Happy 144th Birthday to Rainer Maria Rilke!

More than a century has passed since Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) wrote these poems, yet they continue to draw readers as if they had first appeared only recently. This has much to do with their lyric beauty and with the way they startle us into new ways of seeing. It also points to the spiritual vitality that courses through them, and how they suggest what it might mean to “live artistically,” as Rilke put it in a letter to a young poet named Franz Kappus. They do so by reaching toward what the poet describes as “the hour when a new clarity” might be birthed, drawing on the wellspring of tradition as voiced by a spiritual seeker whose yearnings offer guidance in an unsettled time.

These poems show us what it might mean to open more fully to the inner impulses of our lives, to make ourselves vulnerable to the outer world of the senses in order to let “every impression and every seed of a feeling” find its way in the deep place of soul within. But this takes patience. There are no short-cuts, no easy solutions or ready-made answers. And such discoveries, as Rilke suggests, while “unreachable through reason alone,” do lie within the reach of our experience. As a whole, this collection—written in a burst of creativity during the last weeks of September and early October, 1899—explores the soul’s journey in ways that are often startling and yet also strangely alluring, reflecting his devotion to a wisdom untamed by religious conventions and responsive to the deeper truths of life.

How are we to find our way into such depths? 
Rilke would have been puzzled by the question, knowing that the way itself is a journey of love by which we learn to give our lives, as with works of art, “room”—the word belongs to the poet’s core vocabulary—to grow, without narrowing our expectations to our preconceptions or the demands of what is familiar. In this sense, the poems stand in the long tradition of literature we find within yet also beyond the boundaries of religious communities, writings we have come to call “mystical.” Rilke may not be a mystic, properly speaking (though this question continues to be vigorously debated), but these poems surely belong to the genre in its broadest and truest sense. This ought to remind us that to understand them, as with all art, vulnerability trumps mastery, and “patience is everything.”

On the surface, Rilke crafts these poems as the prayers of an old orthodox monk and icon painter who, in the opening poem, invites us to overhear him as he speaks of his vocation:

The hour bows down and stirs me
with a clear and ringing stroke;
my senses tremble. I feel that I can—
and seize the forming day.

Already we sense that the poet’s gift has to do with the kind of attention he brings to life, an offering he sees as the seeds of his art given to meet the longings of others. Everything matters for this to transpire in the patience of waiting, the openness of heart, and the fullness of devoting oneself to what is real, in both the material and spiritual realms within and beyond us. In the process, we find ourselves called to bear witness to the whole of life in the particulars, to what we are aware of as well as what lies hidden “in the dark, in the unconveyable, the unconscious” of our experience. As he goes on to put it in this initial poem:

Nothing is too small for me, and I love it anyway
and paint it on the golden base and large—
and hold it high; and I don’t yet know whose
soul this might yet free. . . . [1]

He thus views the artist’s life not as a sacrifice but as an offering, a way of opening, to and through the yearnings we share with others. This is one reason these poems, as with Rilke’s work generally, draw us as they do.

The poems of this collection call us to look both outward and within, to seek the divine in the ordinary details of both everyday life and in the mystery of our inner life. Rilke dares to address God with the intimate “You,” though never in a clichéd manner. He confesses, too, that, while “a thousand theologians plunged / into the ancient night of Your name” [55] and “the poets scattered You about” as if “a storm passed through their stammering,” [56] he intends to approach God differently, boldly claiming that

I don’t want to know where You are;
speak to me from every place. [52]

All of the poems in this volume chronicle this search for the divine in the sanctuary of the soul, though he persistently reminds us that this yearning is to find its proper shape in how we experience ourselves and our world. For Rilke, “inner” and “outer” are but dimensions of the larger whole of spiritual experience, often carrying us beyond the familiarities of creed and doctrine. Originality is not his aim, but authenticity surely is.


Mark S. Burrows
Bochum, Germany

From the Preface to Prayers of a Young Poet

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