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An early sketch of Leonid Pasternak's portrait of Rilke in Moscow | © Alex Bakharev / Wikimedia Commons
An early sketch of Leonid Pasternak's portrait of Rilke in Moscow | © Alex Bakharev / Wikimedia Commons
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Rainer Maria Rilke: Unrecognised Feminist Or Narcissistic Idealist?

Picture of Matthew Janney
UK Books Editor
Updated: 20 March 2018
Remembered primarily as a poet of great philosophical insight, Rilke’s complex treatment of women in both his life and art frequently goes unnoticed.

There’s an irresistible allure to the lyrical prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, widely considered one of Austria’s greatest poets. These lines taken from his posthumous work, Letters to a Young Poet demonstrate that unparalleled clarity we have come to associate with the poet – to distill the complexity of the universe into the simplicity of an image: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

His words – cinematic, dreamlike, mesmeric – have for the last century been lauded for their philosophical depth, their symbolic splendour and their feather-like sensitivity towards the most urgent questions of existence. As such, his legacy belongs to the school of solitude and introspection, remembered most eagerly as a desert island companion directing you towards the inner workings of your soul. If Charles Baudelaire’s legacy is intertwined with the streets of Paris, or if T.S. Eliot’s stretches out across the Margate sky, Rilke’s remains in the quiet embrace of individual solitude. But rarely do we consider Rilke a proponent of early feminist thought, despite the significance of women in shaping his ideas and the humanity with which he describes the female human being.

In ‘Letter Seven’, of his most famous collection of correspondence, Rilke writes: “Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easy-going man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves.” In what might be considered the beginnings of a 1904 feminist manifesto, it appears Rilke is not just championing the vitality of women, but arguing their essence is of a purer humanity than that of the opposite sex, who he criticises for their “deforming influences”.

He adds: “Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.” Today in 2018, society is still grappling with viewing women as wholly independent and subjective beings, such is the effect of centuries of male-centred thinking. It seems Rilke understood this, and could commit these ideas to a language well beyond his time.

But Rilke was not the human embodiment of his writing, and any critic must be careful to avoid the common pitfall of identifying the “designer with the design” as Vladimir Nabokov recalled, who himself referenced Rilke in his works. So the question arises: were Rilke’s feminist ideals genuinely felt, or a poetic tool through which to refine his artistic brush?

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Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 | © Roman Boed / Flickr

Women had an overwhelming influence on Rilke the man and poet: as a boy growing up in Prague, his mother would dress him as a girl, having lost an infant daughter a year before he was born; originally named René Maria, he was given two traditionally female names by his mother; it was Lou Andreas-Salomé – his muse, lover, confidante and in some ways a surrogate mother – who suggested he change René to Rainer; Rilke enjoyed a litany of furiously intense and short-lived relationships with wealthy patronesses and female artists throughout his life, eventually marrying the German sculptor Clara Westhoff.

With the exception of Westhoff and Andreas-Salomé who remained with the poet throughout his life in some form, Rilke’s love life appeared to follow a consistent pattern, outlined by Hayley Radford in her 2009 BBC Radio 4 documentary, ‘The Women of Rainer Maria Rilke.’ With an almost ritualised inevitability, Rilke’s affairs would last a mere six-weeks, fuelled by a period of incandescent letter-writing, before extinguishing them, often with dreadful consequences. As Oxford professor Karen Leeder highlights in Radford’s documentary, there’s a great “battle in [Rilke] between needing independence, needing his own space – but needing the inspiration of love.”

Whilst this withdrawal will have undoubtedly caused great anguish to the people around him, it was arguably the very thing that allowed him to flourish as a poet. In his book My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, German writer Hermann Hesse captured the global effects of Rilke’s solitary pursuits: “And at each stage now and again the miracle occurs, his delicate, hesitant, anxiety-prone person withdraws, and through him resounds the music of the universe; like the basin of a fountain he becomes at once instrument and ear.”

Indeed, women were both the conductors of his life, and the instruments by which he could develop as a thinker of profound insight. Are we to see Rilke as the champion of women his writings lead us to think, or the self-obsessed artist whose idealisations of the female muse empower and destroy with equal force?

Both can of course be true, but his legacy should reflect this, and resist categorising his identity as one or the other. To essentialise is to dehumanise, a charge that could well be levelled against Rilke: Carousel is a poem that both captures the “luminous” maturation of young girls whilst homogenising their experience; Woman in Love deftly captures the cosmic ambivalence of falling in love, but as the narrator questions “Who am I?”, the spirality of her being is flattened into a two-dimensional circle. Whilst critics have praised Rilke’s intuition into the female experience, there are limits to the empathic reaches of his soul.

To draw any rigid conclusions would be to stumble over the very hurdle that I – with Nabokov’s help – identified earlier. Hayley Radford’s characterisation of Rilke as a “flawed idealist” but “forever on the scale of the stars”, does well to articulate the primary preoccupation of his life: to pursue art at all costs. Whilst his ideals were flawed, his flaws were the very cracks through which his ideals could pour out. In Michael Wood’s article in the London Review of Books, he described Rilke in his own words, as “a beginner who can’t begin”. Was his feminist project another beginning he couldn’t quite begin? My charge is that Rilke’s ideals superseded his behaviour. To describe him as a feminist would be to retrofit a political activism that feels incongruous to his artistic pursuits. He attempted to speak for all humanity, to transform man’s dragons into loving princesses. His attempt was flawed, but his failure was great.