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Rilke: Dichotomy Daughter


By Lyric Latshaw

Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague on December 4, 1875, is one of the most widely read poets in the English-speaking world. A German-language poet and novelist, Rilke created a new approach to lyrical prose and a poetic plethora of unsettling enchantment and exploration as a reaction to existing as a highly sensitive boy under the harsh conditions of suffocating family dynamics, military school, and vast European exposure during the 1890s and the early 1900s. His poems and novels were not only shaped by his haunting early relationship with his mother, but by his eventual escape into and love for the landscapes and culture of much of 1890’s Europe, specifically his inspirational experiences with mysticism in Russia and the Impressionists in Paris. Raised under a couple of opposing classes, Rilke lived as a constant, human-sized class-war: his father a civil servant and his mother a descendant of the bourgeoisie, the couple was deeply unhappy on both emotional and societal levels (Keating). Throughout his poems, Rilke hints to the haunting relationship he maintained with his mother, Phia Entz, and perpetual pressures received from his father, Josef Rilke. Due to a collection of experiences and constant experiment with belief of more than what can be physically observed, Rilke perceived life as a sort of ranging process in which death was heavily looming if not directly involved in each day. Rilke explored the openness of humanity and the thought of welcoming death as a mean rather than an end, bringing into question the chance of death as an acceptable, human element of this life. Rilke’s work is widely known for its creative imagery and intense lyricism, along with his lifelong attempt to philosophically and consciously hold the tension of opposites together. It was Rilke’s opposition to Christian dualism that inspired and compelled him to give voice to the reconciliation of suffering and beauty, life and death. It may have been Rilke’s earliest life experience that served as a template for his ability and familiarity with embodying opposites. Rainer “Maria” Rilke was born as his mother’s “replacement child” for his older sister who had died the year before. Rilke’s mother treated Rainer as the instrument through which she could reach and raise her lost daughter: clothing him in extravagant dresses, responding only when he answered to his middle name (and the name of this lost child) Maria, and punishing the masculine version of her son while treating the presented feminine “Maria” with love and apology (Bly). In this way, Rilke was born into death. Later in life, he experienced a writer’s block that led to a long descent into depression and a horrific year of service in World War I. Throughout his life he turned to his art as his religion, incorporating his mystical search for a personal consciousness into much of his work (Holthusen). His poetry, analyzed in “The Way In” and “Childhood,” conveys a theme of one’s individual experience of such tension in opposites, exploring the notions of deep existential yearning with finding and articulating nuanced observations to restore faith in the essential experience of that which cannot be articulated.

The confluence of his sensitive nature along with navigating these early experiences of surviving by bringing one aspect of himself to life while killing the other off and holding both life and death in his body may have enabled him to perceive life as a process in which death was heavily looming if not directly involved in each day of life. His proclivity towards the dichotomous and towards the conscious simultaneous holding of tension in two things which appear oppositional is evident throughout his work. His early adulthood in Russia was fundamental in further establishing this way of being. Within the tension between the tangible matter of Russian landscape and the ineffable spiritual substance of Russian community, Rilke’s poetic voice began to embody a devotion to imbuing language itself with the very essence of that inner experience which is beyond utterance. Rilke’s writing is soaked in what scholars refer to as ekphrasis, or “giving voice and language to the otherwise mute art object” (Cushman). In his poetry, he acknowledges the possibility of existence of two contradictory elements of life at one time and filling the same space, perhaps because he was forced to exist as both Rainer and Maria throughout his childhood, as both sensitive young poet and compliant male soldier. Through the use of ekphrasis, his expression of 1890’s Europe encapsulates both the static historical reality of the time and the fluid timelessness of numinous internal process. It is within this context that Rilke began to lyrically infuse the mundane with holiness, not only calling forth the sacredness of everyday objects, but intentionally drawing the reader beyond the words of the poem into the experience of the poem. This is evidenced in the poem “Entrance,” in which the reader experiences the focus of one solitary object and in contrast, the totality of all things (Bly). Through image of singularity, Rilke evokes the opposite—the entirety of the world.

Whoever you are: some evening take a step
out of your house, which you know so well.
Enormous space is near, your house lies where it begins,
whoever you are.
Your eyes find it hard to tear themselves
from the sloping threshold, but with your eyes
slowly, slowly, life one black tree
up, so it stands against the sky: skinny, alone.
With that you have made the world. The world is immense
and like a word that is still growing in silence.
In the same moment that your will grasps it,
your eyes, feeling its subtlety, will leave it…

As Strathausen observes, the poem not only holds dichotomy in imagery, but closes with a dichotomous grammatical experience, using punctuation that typically evokes resignation or uncertainty as a symbol for fulfillment and intentionality. He holds feelings of both presence and absence simultaneously:

“For Rilke, even a mere dot on the page literally contains a world. Hence, the final ellipsis in ‘Eingang (Entrance[/The Way In])’ is not a sign of poetic resignation, but actually delivers fulfillment…Rilke fills the poetic silence with the matter of language. He envisions the voice of an unalienated language in the form of an ellipsis that marks its absent presence in the rationalized world of present absence.”

Strathausen also notes Rilke’s relationship to the opposing forces of life and death within “Entrance.” He states that Rilke’s intention is to animate with movement what are otherwise still words so that “the reader enlivens the seemingly dead words of the poem itself, and the real activity of the latter serves to validate the imaginary performance of the former. To read is to realize the poetic gaze that gives life, meaning that the reader becomes a poet in his own right.” In this way, Rilke creates an experience for the reader to be poet and reader, recipient and creator, simultaneously. In that vein, Rilke’s subsequent time in Paris being inspired and influenced by Auguste Rodin was also pivotal in his further development of a dichotomous nature. He was struck and haunted by the contradictions of the misery, poverty, sickness and death he witnessed in the city, along with life-giving newness in artistic ideas, inspiration and creativity as offered to him by Rodin and the Impressionists (Strathausen).

The poem “Childhood” opens with “a confusion of opposites” (Pool), conveying further Rilke’s recognition of polarity in the process of living. Both imagery and syntax drag at first and then both suddenly become the opposite—loud, colorful, moving, fast.

Time in school drags along with so much worry,
and waiting, things so dumb and stupid.
Oh loneliness, oh heavy lumpish time. . .
Free at last: lights and colors and noises;
water leaps out of fountains into the air,
and the world is so huge in the woody places.
And moving through it in your short clothes,
and you don’t walk the way the others do—
Such marvelous time, such time passing on,
such loneliness.

This experience of yet again holding these opposites is reflected as he “alternates between narration and meditation in each stanza. He presents impressions of color and light, much as an impressionist painter might” (Pool). Even in recalling childhood, Rilke accounts for this nonverbal existence of a vast range of cacophonous sensations that can overwhelm or exist within a person or a moment at any given time. As noted by Pool, Rilke is able to access a sense of universal understanding in this space of purgatorial concession:

“In addition to the linguistic wealth, there is a universality in this poem. Far from being sentimental and conventional, it utilizes images of a fairly typical late nineteenth-century, middle-class childhood to convey something of the depth of the poet's perception. Many people find their childhood escaping them, and yet they cannot let them go. Such a duality, a desire to fix fluid memories in place is characteristic of a life of spirit and mind and perception.”
As one progresses through “Childhood,” it is difficult to tell whether childhood was a time of joy for Rilke, and that is precisely what the poet aims to portray: despite the tangible events of a moment, a person can experience multiple distinguished emotions simultaneously, as if holding more than one jar at once. Rilke writes, “What crazy mourning, what dream, what heaviness, what deepness without end” (Childhood 16). In this jolting diction, we can see the depth of motion within Rilke’s experience of life. A sensation for which many of us witness in our own moments and selves, but lack the ability to express or even recognize it.

Rainer Maria Rilke is able to reach the most personal, nonverbal spaces with his gifted sense of understanding and the translation of this experienced compassion into poetry. His poems and novels have crossed language barriers, somehow maintaining an element of poignant human nuance throughout. In his poetry, as observed in “The Way In” and “Childhood,” Rilke explores the friction of contrarian moments and situations, acknowledging the possibility of parallelism in opposite, clashing existences and finding a universal way to express this truth. The biting, warm sharpness created by Rilke about these deeply rooted notions have allowed for the global and personal access of many young artists and wandering souls to these ideas. Because of this natural attraction, Rilke has been one of the most widely-read poets in the English, German, and French-speaking world.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert. Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke A Translation from the German and Commentary. HarperPerennial, 1981.

Cushman, Jenifer S. "Beyond ekphrasis: Logos and Eikon in Rilke's poetry." College Literature, vol. 29, no. 3, 2002, p. 83+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Holthusen, Hans Egon. “Rainer Maria Rilke.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Aug. 2017

Keating, Michael. “Rainer Maria Rilke.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Accessed 12 Nov. 2017,

Pool, Frank. "Critical Essay on 'Childhood'." Poetry for Students, edited by David A. Galens, vol. 19, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Strathausen, Carsten. "Rilke's Stereoscopic Vision." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 195, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

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