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Poems are not . . . simply emotions . . . they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things . . . and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you have long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained . . .; to childhood illnesses . . . to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel . . . and it is still not enough.
--The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
"It would not be enough for a poet to have memories," said Rainer Maria Rilke's protagonist and oracle, the young poet Malte Laurids Brigge. "You must be able to forget them." His author lived by that credo, saving and storing each life experience before expunging it with cold dedication.
It is not difficult to imagine a setting for these remarks: the dingy room on the Left Bank of Paris by the flickering kerosene lamp, the poet's pen scratching on paper pulled out of stacks heaped on table and chairs; or perhaps, as so often in the Bibliotheque Nationale, amid silence, clearing throats, and shuffling feet; or a few years later in a cottage near Rome, or later still in the dying Swedish summer, under a beech tree.
Until the end, the poet knew that real life finally exists only within., waiting to become something other than itself. As he said in his Seventh Elegy:
Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within U.S. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller.
He wrotethese words in a tower during the last phase of his brief life, surrounded by high Swiss mountains, a man looking older than his years, writing feverishly at his stand-up desk, as memories, evoked and promptly displaced, were remolded according to his artful design.
The poet's life began in Prague.
He grew up during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the facades of the great buildings along the Vltava River still looked splendid. The plaster covering the ancient bricks had not yet peeled off as cafes and theaters cast their lights upon the water. And the Hradcany Castle looked down upon the city, dominating the scene with its massive walls, a symbol of imperial power.
Vaclavske Namesti--or Wenzelsplatz, as the Germans called it in that bilingual city--is a generous plaza lined with trees and a busy thoroughfare leading from the broad steps of the National Museum toward the center of town. The area surrounding it was the focus of Rilke's childhood. The rumbling carts and horse-drawn wagons have now been replaced by automobiles and trucks, but most of the old structures still stand, suggesting time frozen in an unchanging present. As today's visitor emerges from the subway station near the museum and turns into the streets where the young Rilke lived, he finds a scene that even now connects him with the distant past of the 1870s. The street where Rilke was born--Jindrisska ulice or Heinrichgasse--trails among tired-looking buildings that still betray their nineteenth-century origin behind their renovated storefronts.
A few yards farther down from Heinrichgasse 19, where the young Rilke lived with his parents in a rented flat (the building has since been torn down to make room for a bank), the street widens into a square with a gate and a church. Svatemo Jindrisska or St. Heinrich, standing next to a well-kept rectory, is wide and commodious with a round nave and a stubby steeple of the same yellow sandstone as the gate. This was the place where Rilke was baptized and where his mother offered her devotions during his early years.
The geography of the world surrounding the young Rilke reflects in many important ways the topography of the future poet's mind. Across from Heinrichgasse 19 was the Herrengasse--Panska ulice--the street in which his maternal grandparents owned an impressive mansion and in which his mother had spent her girlhood. This building, too, was torn down to make room for a bank, but one can still discern from the adjoining ornate structures how elegant the place must have been. Peering out of the window of his parents' apartment, the child could not help but be aware of the great contrast between his own home and the mansion around the corner where, he feared, he might not quite belong. Already as a small child, then, Rilke lived in two contrasting yet not far distant places: Heinrichgasse for the common folk and Herrengasse, "the street of the gentry," Jindrisska and Panska ulice. They were to make up the fabric of his life, the texture of his work.
Prague was one of the principal cities of the Austro-hungarian Empire, a city of divergent classes, languages, peoples: Czech, German, Jewish. German remained the language of the Austrian governing elite, the military officer corps, and the professional establishment. It was also the native language of a considerable population of Germans and German-speaking Jews who were responsible for a lively and often controversial culture.
The complex history of Prague and Bohemia as part of the Austrian empire created tensions akin to those in a colonial city where a German minority dominated community and economic life and a Czech majority were looked down upon and too often relegated to the lower reaches of the social scale. But by the time of Rilke's childhood, Czech intellectuals were becoming increasingly vocal, especially with the establishment of an autonomous Czech component of the Carl-Ferdinand University, which supported the further growth of an indigenous professional class. And a rich literary and cultural tradition was being nourished by contemporary artists of stature.
During these fin-de-siecle years for the Hapsburg monarchy, German middle-class families like the Rilkes were also caught in conflicting social and ethnic pressures. Being part of the governing minority produced some of their anxieties and those of many of their compatriots. As Germans, both the poet's parents felt privileged by nature, yet neither was an aristocrat, a status that would have guaranteed their entry into German society.
Rilke's father, Josef, born in 1838, had failed in his ambitions even within the bourgeoisie. At the time his son was born in 1875, he was a minor railroad official who had not managed to obtain a commission in the army after many years of service, including some distinction in Austria's war against an insurgent, unifying Italy. A throat ailment forced him to take too many sick leaves, and when by 1865 officer status had become even more elusive, he took a job with the Turnau-Prague-prague Railway (secured with the help of his more successful older brother, Jaroslav), in which he advanced moderately over the years. Still, when he courted Rilke's mother, he was handsome and well mannered and comported himself like an imperial officer, even in civilian clothes.
Born in 1851. thirteen years younger than her future husband, Sophie (or, as she called herself, Phia) Entz was the daughter of a highly placed bank official with the title of Imperial Counsellor; her mother, Caroline, came from. an upper bourgeois (but not aristocratic) German family, well established and distinguished as manufacturers and landowners. Although Carl Entz never achieved the rank of nobility, he had risen to prominence within his class, and the mansion in the Herrengasse where Phia was raised with her sister and two brothers would remain in her memory as a treasured ideal: a baroque edifice with high ceilings, broad stairways, and many rooms filled with polished furniture.
Yet Phia felt trapped in her sumptuous home. At one point she shocked everyone by rebelliously draining a bottle of champagne. The act was symptomatic of the same drive toward personal freedom that would later energize her son. Social ambition--a passion the grown Rainer Maria would share--was the main outlet for a woman in her time, which led her to respond to the promise Josef Rilke's military bearing implied. She married him in 1873.
Since Jaroslav Rilke had been recently elevated to the peerage, Phia may have hoped that this privilege might also be extended to his younger brother. Unfortunately for her, this turned out not to be the case. Indeed, her expectation that Josef would lead her into the noble houses of the first families in town was to prove an ill-fated illusion for which she would never forgive him.
In their modest apartment in Heinrichgasse, they were soon in straits, for Josef's salary did not suffice for Phia's needs. Her dowry was quickly spent, and the cramped, badly furnished flat was a constant reminder of her error. Meanwhile, her sister Charlotte had become an aristocrat by marrying a titled imperial officer, Mahler von Mahlersheim, who rose to the rank of colonel by the time of Rilke's childhood.
Phia's expectations of Josef were not ungrounded. There was a tradition in Josef Rilke's family on which the myth of the noble line had been based, just as there was a tradition for military service, though severely disrupted by death, illness, and hopelessness for three of the family's four sons. The first blow was the death from dysentery of Emil, the second son; there followed Josef's decision to abandon his career; later came the suicide of the youngest son, Hugo, whom the child Rilke loved well, because he could not bear being still a captain at fifty-one. Only the eldest son, jaroslav, was successful. The one brother to pursue a civilian career, he lent luster to the family as a distinguished attorney. Their sister, Gabriele, however, found a titled husband, Wenzel, Knight of Kutschera-Waborski, a prosecuting attorney in Prague, by whom she had four children.
Jaroslav was the magnet of the family, a source of nurture and protection for them all, whose generous though autocratic spirit was to shape the young Rilke's life. He used his high worldly position with the grandeur of an Old Testament patriarch. His law office represented a great number of important German families in Prague and the Bohemian territory, many of them landowners who depended on his expertise in real estate. He was also politically active as a delegate to the Bohmische Landtag, the legislative assembly of the Bohemian territory.
Yet Jaroslav, too, was possessed by the lust for nobility. He married into an aristocratic family--his wife was Melvine, Freiin von Schlosser--and was active in trying to establish his own family as descendants of a noble line from Carinthia. He almost succeeded. In 1873 Jaroslav acquired the title of Knight of Ruliken, but only for himself and his children. At one time he had employed most of his office for weeks in an effort to trace his family origins, but he could not prove his nobility. When the attempt failed, the emperor bestowed the title only upon him and his direct descendants in recognition of his service.
Eventually Jaroslav would turn to his brother Josef's only son to groom him as his likely successor. Rilke's failure to live up to his family's expectations as either a soldier or a jurist, fighting instead for the right to be a poet, became one of the great conflicts that shaped his career.
I have no beloved, no house,
no place where I can live.
All the things to which I give myself
grow rich and spend me.
The poet entered a world without moorings that allowed him no place to rest. Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Joseph Maria Rilke, born prematurely on December 4, 1875, was at first so weak that his parents had to wait a fortnight before they dared take him to the Church of St. Heinrich down the street for his christening. The previous year a daughter had died a week after her birth, and Phia now watched over this newborn with excessive care. In fact, during Rilke's early years she acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy. Two of his names--Rene and Maria--make plain the mother's attempt to lend him a female identity. For five years, until he went to school, she dressed him like a girl against his father's ineffectual opposition. "I had to wear beautiful long dresses," Rilke recalled many years later, "and until I started school I went about like a little girl. I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll."
At his nineteenth birthday Rene's indignation emerges clearly in a letter to his fiancee, Valerie von David-Rhonfeld, in which he blamed his mother for a childhood of which he had only the darkest memories. Phia appeared to have been perpetually absent, leaving him "in the care of a conscienceless, immoral maidservant." She who should have regarded him as her primary duty loved him only when she could parade him "in front of some astonished friends" in a new little dress. Phia, by contrast, insisted that as a small child he liked his female role, playing with dolls and wanting a doll bed and kitchen as a present. He spent hours combing his doll's hair.
Phia's fondness for seeing Rene in delicate long dresses cannot be seen merely as the fashion in those days. There seems to have been a playful conspiracy between mother and son with deeper psychological tensions. Rene and his mother, whom he strikingly resembled, surely shared pleasure in disguise, in "dressing up"; the girls' clothes and games must also have confirmed the strong bond that held mother and son together, especially when he felt threatened. According to a family anecdote, on one occasion when he was expecting to be punished the seven-year-old boy made himself into a girl to placate his mother. His long hair done up in braids, his sleeves rolled up to bare his thin, girlish arms, he appeared in his mother's room. "Ismene is staying with dear Mama," he is quoted as saying. "Rene is a no-good. I sent him away. Girls are after all so much nicer." Decades later Rilke used the same anecdote in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, but instead of calling himself "Ismene," Malte used "Sophie"--Phia's full name.
For the growing child, this feminine posture was soon associated with a gift for writing verse. Phia urged poetry upon him before he was even able to read. At seven he started to copy poems, and he knew many of Schiller's lengthy ballads by heart before the usual German schoolboy would have been able to recite them. Her teaching insisted on refinement. Very early in life Rene had to learn French, which Phia encouraged him to use wherever feasible in place of "vulgar" Czech. Her instinctive support of her child's literary talents was thus combined with snobbery. Moreover, through Phia the young poet-to-be was administered a powerful potion of romantic religiosity, an adoration of saints and saints' lives, holy relics, and fervent devotions, which enriched his repertoire of images for the rest of his life.
But there was a countercurrent. Rene's father may not have been able to stand up to his wife, who hurt his sensibilities by parading their son in female dress, but he managed to supply him with toy soldiers and dumbbells for exercise. Josef was not without success; Rene developed genuine feelings for chivalry and military glory. Many of his childhood drawings were of soldiers, knights in armor, horsemen bearing banners with crosses. He saw himself as a brave commander of troops. At the age when he started copying poems to please his mother, he wrote his father from a summer holiday that he was now "a major in the second cavalry squadron" and had a "saber hammered with gold." He was also a knight with a "tin decoration" and was "eating like a wolf, sleeping like a sack." He was even climbing trees.
For all his attachment to his mother, the child also sought to please his father, and it was more than a superficial connection. Later, his daughter and family liked to think of him as "his father's child through and a judgment obviously informed by the desire to show him as acceptable male rather than as his mother's pet. And it is true that as an adult Rilke found nicer things to say about his father, who died when the poet was thirty, than about his mother, who survived him by five years. Even as at nineteen he reviled Phia as "a pleasure-loving, miserable being," he found good words to say about his father: "Whenever he was home, only my papa bestowed upon me love combined with care and solicitude." As a mature man he glossed over his father's failures, pretending that Josef had actually become an officer "following a family tradition" and describing his later career as occupying a rather high position" as a civilian working for a private railroad. In the descriptive poem composed at the time of his father's death in 1906, "Portrait of My Father as a Young Man," he depicted Josef In full military regalia, thus dressing him up as well:
In front of the full ornamental braiding
of the slim aristocratic uniform,
the saber's basket hilt. . . .
Yet Josef Rilke never understood his son's insistence on becoming a poet, a decision he correctly associated with Phia. Poetry seemed to him always frivolous compared with a "real" job like a bank clerk's. But he also supported his son with an allowance whenever he could, even after Rene's marriage. His father, Rene told a correspondent, was of "unspeakable goodness," making the son's life, which Josef could not understand, an object of touching daily concern." When Rilke wrote his autobiographical novella, Ewald Tragy, in 1899--which was so close to the facts that he never published it in his lifetime--he treated Josef with real understanding despite their conflict.
As a child Rene was assailed by two opposite pressures. Inchoately at first, he seems to have sensed that he provided the arena in which his parents' battles were fought out. But as Josef's military "manliness" and Phia's poetry became part of Rilke's psyche, the combination bore fruit in his work. Many of Rilke's stories and poems, early and late, are filled with both tender maidens and knights and soldiers, most notably his famous lyrical tale about a heroic death in combat after a night of tender love, his Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke. At the height of his powers, Rilke's childhood conflict infiltrated Malte Laurids Brigge, where the qualities represented by his parents are distilled into archetypal figures to whom he attached varying judgments at different points of his life: a young, beautiful, and loving maman and her delicate sister Abelone on one side; a stern, distant, soldierly father bedecked with decorations on the other.
In an almost classical way, the child Rene anticipated the adult poet Rainer by balancing Phia's "poetic spirit" against Josef's "soldierly virtues," which he identified with all masculine pursuits in business and commerce as well. Yet the poet's style was that of his mother. Like Phia, he pretended to greater affluence than he actually commanded; like her, he dreamed of titles and surpassed her dreams by often living with the highborn and wealthy. Like her, he sought disguises, which became part of his poetry. At the beginning of his life, as at the end, his interior world absorbed contrasting forces with their conflicting demands and out of them created a new reality: "We transform all this; / it is not here," Rilke wrote decades later in the very different context of his "Requiem to a Friend." "We mirror it within / from out of our being." It was a cosmic game of dressing up.
Illness--actual illness, fear of illness, illness of body and illness of mind--formed a powerful dimension in Rene Rilke's young life. It brought him close to his mother, since it was the one occasion when she dared not leave his side. Again and again, as he suffered from the headaches that were to plague him all his life and as he fought off sudden, unexplained fevers, his mother would be drawn to his bedside, holding his hand and soothing him in his pain. They lived in constant fear of coughs, sore throats, swollen glands. Anxiety and illness were almost synonymous in Rene's childhood. But his anxiety and illness also fashioned in him an awareness of his own functioning, which was a strong index of his later ability as a poet. Through them, he learned to "see into the life of things."
A passage in Malte Laurids Brigge describes Rilke's childhood memory well:
Fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the seam of my blanket may be hard--hard and sharp like a needle; fear that this tiny button on my night shirt may be bigger than my head, huge and heavy;fear that this little bread crumb that now falls off my bed might splinter below like glass, and the oppressive dread that with it everything may be smashed, all of it, forever . . .
And Malte adds: "I pleaded for my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel it's still as hard as it was then, and growing older has been of no use at all." This was not just Malte's condition, for to Rilke as well childhood illnesses were distressing memories. "Far back in my childhood," he recollected in 1903, "within the great fevers of those illnesses, dwelt those great, indescribable fears . . . those deep, unspeakable fears that I now recall.
The pressures even in the preschooler's life were often suffocating. He longed for change, and for one brief moment in 1881 it seemed possible. The occasion was a job that interested his father, as manager of the large Bohemian estate of a Count Spork. Rilke described this episode to his daughter as late as 1924; the vivid details after more than forty years suggest the depth of the five-year-old's wish for change. The baroque castle that would have been the manager's residence fitted in well with Phia's and Rene's fantasies. They built up Josef's practically nonexistent credentials: a brief time spent working on an aunt's estate when he was a young man. Rene entertained daydreams of carriage and sleigh rides, high-ceilinged rooms and long white corridors--and none of the dissension and misery he knew in Prague! The letdown following the scheme's inevitable collapse must have been devastating.
Nor were his grandparents in the nearby Herrengasse any help, for the very awe of her parents' home, which Phia had instilled in him, made Rene feel constrained. He thought of his grandfather Entz as forbidding, and dinner in the mansion was an agony. As he told his wife many years later, he felt as though each spoonful of soup in that house were shoved into his mouth like something foreign. Actually, he felt easier with his grandmother, who was handsome and more approachable than her husband. Rilke remained on friendly terms with her, even when as an old woman she lived with his mother, from whom he had become estranged. But when Rilke was a child, the atmosphere in her house was no less burdensome than the frosty silences in his own home.
In 1882 the preschool world with its dreams and miseries came to an end. Phia put Rene into his "first little trousers" and took him to school. It was a German Catholic school of the Piarist Order--an educational order dating back to the sixteenth century--which suited Phia's tastes for patrician elegance. The building and courtyard of the school were located in the Herrengasse just across the street from his grandparents. The Heilige Kreuzkirche or Holy Cross Church--then functioning as the school chapel--still stands in its pseudo-gothic magnificence. The school was attended by children of some of the first families of Prague, and Rene's parents considered themselves lucky that Rene was granted a stipend. It also provided education for the more affluent children of the middle class, including important future writers (many of them Jewish) like Max Brod and Franz Werfel. The teachers were mostly priests from the surrounding countryside.
As might be expected, illness pursued Rene almost from the start. The first year was tolerable, but in the second year he missed two hundred class hours, and in the third, two entire quarter!g. However, except for arithmetic and physical education, he managed to earn high marks. But if he thought he would be less lonely, he was mistaken. He avoided the physical activities his peers valued and was often teased as a mama's boy. Still, in this well-ordered, upper-middle-class atmosphere of a private school, Rene's suffering was muted.
In May 1884, just after starting the third grade at the beginning of school that Easter, Rene wrote a poem to celebrate his parents' wedding anniversary. It was the last such occasion. The relationship between Phia and Josef had lapsed into unending tension. Soon it fell apart, and Rene's parents began to live in two different places. The child stayed with his mother. But Phia left more and more often for Vienna, apparently to be with a male friend, while the boy found himself alone with the maid. Under the pressure of this loneliness, with few playmates outside school, he became more and more absorbed by writing verse. Vacationing with his mother in Italy during the following summer of 1885, the nine-year-old wrote to his father that he was "diligently practicing [his] poetry" and would be "decked with laurels" when they got back to Prague.
Rather than laurels, what awaited Rene on his return from this holiday was concern about his future, the need to make a decision in view of his impending graduation from the Piarists' school. Without resources or a real home for him since their separation, his parents had to find a boarding school that offered a chance for a full scholarship. The obvious answer was a military school where Uncle Jaroslav could obtain a free place for him. The academy of St. Polten, in lower Austria not far from Vienna, offered both a satisfactory academic education and a training course designed to prepare students for an officer's commission. It seemed ready-made for their needs.
Rene was rather intrigued by the prospect of a military boarding school. In his loneliness he welcomed the idea of being with many boys of his own age, and he had colorful visions of military splendor. Rank and title, shining swords and glinting helmets, enlivened his imagination. In a wooded park in Prague he agreed to their choice--"a stupid boy deciding my own fate with a childish word."
A year passed, another summer in the country. Then, in September 1886, at the age of ten, Rene Maria Rilke entered the military school of St. Polten.
In retrospect, Rilke's confrontation with the military became a metaphor for hell. Years later, in a long autobiographical letter to a friend, the Swedish author-psychologist Ellen Key, he turned that experience into an accusation against his parents, especially his mother. The man of twenty-seven had not forgiven: "As soon as she left the house, I was put into one of our large educational institutions for officers." The ten-year-old child who had grown up without siblings and with few playmates suddenly found himself locked in with fifty hostile boys. For four years he would endure this institutional life "despite illness and resistance."
Again and again Rilke recounted these years as a time of absolute suffering. From his impetuous letter to Valerie von Rhonfeld at nineteen to his no less agitated remarks to the scholar Hermann Pongs when he was forty-eight, Rilke constantly embellished, rewrote, and retold that almost unimaginable experience. And yet--as with many of his later reflections about his childhood and family--these ex post facto statements take on a different meaning in the context of his actual responses at the t*me. His letters to his mother during these school years--beseeching letters full of affection--suggest a troubled, often even a desperate child in an institution that he alternately loathed and loved. They do not suggest either that he was his mother's relentless enemy or that he was totally a victim of mindless brutality.
The school was near the small town of St. Polten, a bishop's seat west of Vienna with provincial, leisurely ways, yet easily accessible from the metropolis. The single elongated structure with two gabled wings was strictly institutional; its many open windows, however, filled it with light rather than the dank atmosphere of military barracks. Yet two photographs Phia preserved bear angry captions: "The prison of my poor sick child" and "The Institution, the precious home of my dearest, my most beloved child. "
When he first arrived at the school, like any new student, Rene found himself in a completely alien situation. Instead of well-meaning priests from the countryside, his teachers were now military officers and noncoms. There was no home to go back to at the end of the school day, and while he was no longer alone, his schoolmates presented new problems. His peers were bound to be put off by a boy of their own age acting like a miniature adult. He seemed vulnerable, ill at ease with everything they took for granted--easy comradeship and a comfortable relationship with the body. Still, Rene's almost daily letters to his mother, though surely unusual for an aspiring cadet, project an ordinary child's pleasures and concerns. He looked forward to a visit from his uncle, Hugo, soon after he got there. Hugo, his father's younger brother, was himself an army officer, so his appearance in the school may have been particularly welcome to Rene. He was also sure to bring some special delicacy as a gift. Many of these letters from school contained similar bits of information as well as thanks for food packages, a request for skates, expressions of hope for a visit--in short, they were notes any child might send home from boarding school. But two discordant themes appeared almost at once: illness and inordinate discomfort with his peers.
Practically from the time he entered school, reports on a recurring pattern of illness, recovery, and relapse began to form part of Rene's correspondence with his mother. On the one hand, these repetitive tales about his indispositions simply continue the pattern of his earlier childhood that had brought him and Phia closer together. The often poor state of his health would therefore be a natural topic. But there was a new aspect to the illnesses as they became part of his school life. Rene was soon using his headaches and fevers to win brief respites from pressure; anxiety about his health also brought his mother rushing to aid him in his distress. She appeared to him as an angel: "Ach komm als rettender Engel, hilf!"--"oh come as my saving angel, help!" Or he would cry out: "Now I must bear this another week! God have mercy on me. Oh my Mammatscherl!" When she announced a visit, he felt rasende Freude--mad joy.