from The Rilke Alphabet
In her memoirs, Rilke's close friend and confidante Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe explains that she and Rilke's other wealthy patrons "received so much more" from the poet than they could ever give him. Rilke regularly received money from various supporters. He was invited by different patrons to stay at their vacation homes off season, or was allowed to live rent free for months at a time on their estates, among them the Duino castle of the Thurn und Taxis family near Trieste and their property in Lautschin in Bohemia, while the owners were traveling. The contributions that Rilke occasionally received seem high, considering what a poet could earn with publications and readings at the time. It wasn't enough for a comfortable life. But the work, which Marie von Thurn und Taxis held so dear, demanded a higher price.
When you add it all up, the money Rilke received in his lifetime was just sufficient to accrue as dividends the jealousy and mean-spirited barbs of fellow poets. Gottfried Benn concluded, with a mix of the artist's resentment of inherited wealth and envy: "Even these hundreds of counts and countesses from their fifty castles—, it's hard not to find it funny [ .. .]. Finally it all comes together nicely, and another aristocrat's castle opens up, where you can write poems about the poor."(1) Thomas Mann, no stranger to wealthy patrons himself, added: "Those Rilke-hags surely must have been awful, and I'm not making an exception for the princesses and countesses with whom the Austrian snob maintained a correspondence."(2)
How to counter these jealous accusations that Rilke allowed society ladies to play sugar mama while he wrote poems about the poor, the beggars, and the wretched of the earth? After his time in Paris, from 1902 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, when Rilke was primarily working on his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and New Poems, he glimpsed those social outcasts mostly from protected interiors well insulated from the outside world by cast-iron gates, silken wallpapers, and lace curtains. Is Rilke's reliance on the rich remedied by his lifelong financial support of wife and daughter, or by the fact that he used his influence to help others and to arrange for the education of his lover Baladine Klossowska's sons (who grew up to become the painter Balthus and the writer Pierre Klossowski)? In the reckoning of Rilke's life that continues to this day, with critics faulting him for relying on the rich while writing about the poor, we can draw up such a tally. Up to the present we witness the occasional cri de coeur of disappointed readers who discover that their favorite poet had many lovers, chose not to stay married, did not actively raise his daughter (who grew up with her grandparents), and was generally a selfish narcissist who failed in his parental duties. It should be mentioned that Ri1ke reproached himself throughout his whole life. "We live our lives so poorly because we arrive in the present always unprepared, incapable, and too distracted for everything. I cannot recall a time in my life without this reproach or even worse misgivings. Only for the ten days directly following [my daughter] Ruth's birth, I think, did I live fully and without any loss; only during those days I found reality to be as indescribable, down to the smallest detail, as it is probably all the time."(3)
But the accounts hardly square in Rilke's favor. Even the memory of the short spell of happiness after his daughter's birth is put to the service of his work, which is why this moment "without waste" also passes quickly. For while Rilke was openly asking his wealthy friends to pay for fancy soaps and shirts, to buy him stationery, custom-made standing desks, beige underwear from "Système Dr Lahmann," and bed socks, and cover his bills for month-long stays in elegant hotels, he left his wife, Clara; daughter, Ruth; and various girlfriends mostly in the lurch. Rilke was in fact a moocher and a spoiled dandy who let himself be taken care of by flattered baronesses, unattached princesses, and prestige-hungry industrialists, and while doing so failed to do right by his child. Even the kindly Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, to whom Rilke dedicated Duino Elegies, did not suspect in what currency Rilke was repaying his debts to his patrons.
In a direct response to the accusation that he was an irresponsible father, Rilke recommended that Ruth's fiancé, Carl Sieber, assess the totality of his failures and mistakes—including his dependence on rich patrons—against his work. On the occasion of Ruth's wedding, which Rilke chose not to attend, he wrote to his future son-in-law: "I can be accused of the fact that my strength and my constitution are not adequate for both (the realization of my inner life [and ... ] the work required to achieve an external life); I have nothing to counter such criticism, except to point quietly to those areas to which I have devoted all of my abilities, and to wait and see whether I am acquitted or condemned in the end."(4) It is not a pleasant thought that Ruth Rilke had had to do without her father from infancy so that today we can enjoy the poems and letters to which Rilke "devoted all of [his] abilities." Rilke's calculation does not exculpate him: A parent cannot, as most would agree, be replaced by anything, not even Rilke's letters and writings, which Ruth and Carl spent their adult lives editing and publishing. But the fact is this: Poetry does not necessarily originate from pleasant thoughts, and certainly not always from good conduct. Rilke makes his art without Ruth—ruthlessly, so to speak—instead of caring for his daughter, and thus brings her suffering, grief, and injustice. Thus critic Marjorie Perloff rightly faults Rilke for "raiding his daughter's trust fund" to pay for expensive hotels. (Ultimately Ruth lived off her father's works, which she edited and published during her adult life.) But when Rilke uses his patron's funds, is it a different matter? To be sure, Rilke's work is worth more, especially from today's perspective, than such assessments, and also more than the fur coats, grand dinners, and hunting trips that his rich patrons would otherwise have spent their money on and that have long been forgotten. But this surplus value is the result of another system that has its share of inequities and lies at the origin of the wealth of the bankers, industrialists, factory owners, and aristocratic heirs who were Rilke's patrons. By sponsoring artists, many of these wealthy patrons hoped to legitimate their wealth. Rilke sets aside moral considerations in taking this money. The wealthy "princesses and countesses" do indeed receive much more than they ever gave Rilke. For Rilke pays back their magnanimity by softening the appearance of their specious morality with his art, for which he leaves his own child and instead of saving, squanders the money.
Let's wipe the slate clean of these calculations, which only tell us something that Rilke first learned upon reading Charles Baudelaire, whose collection of provocative prose poems inaugurated our modernity in 1860: that for him there exists no difference between writing poetry and committing a horrible crime. Rilke had already taken this maxim on as his own in 1901, the year his daughter, Ruth, was born, in an open letter published in Die Zukunft (The Future). The context was a long commentary on the trial of a Viennese man who carried out an emergency operation on his son without the help of a doctor. When the son died, he cut the body into pieces and burned them in an oven. Rilke saw in this horrible case no possibility to "create and arrange categories of crime": "That, on the contrary, the unavoidable presence of such categories is dangerous, since every crime, like every work of art, is a unique case, with its own roots, its own development, under its own sky, which rains and shines down on the strange sprouts of unfathomable acts." (5)
Rilke views art and horror as individual cases (he makes a similar point in one of the letters in Letters to a Young Poet) that cannot be offset by or compared to anything else. The work of art and a criminal act, according to Rilke, both stand in equal measure for the complete absence of morality.
Let's try a more modest calculation. And since this is a calculation about a seriously impractical poet who couldn't do the "work required to achieve an external life," let's simply replace one metaphor with another. Rilke, after all, attained supreme mastery at the ingenious substitution and multiplication of words with the help of metaphors, metonyms, and synecdoches that we call poetry.
In the summer of 1914, Rilke received (along with Georg Trakl, Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, and Else Lasker-Schüler) an anonymous contribution of twenty thousand Austrian crowns from the heir and (yet-to-become) philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. That is a lot of money. To put it crudely (and why not be crude when it comes to money): That's a lot of toads, according to a quick and conservative calculation, more than US $440,000 in 2013. (Rilke was living on about four thousand crowns a year at this point.) Since Rilke never found out who made this donation, it remained a genuine gift, even though Wittgenstein, without knowing it, would later profit from Rilke's help. (In 1919 Wittgenstein was looking for a publisher for his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and Rilke offered a mutual friend, though unbeknownst to Wittgenstein, to use his [Rilke's] influence to help get it published.(6) Nanny Wunderly-Volkart and her cousin Werner Reinhart gave Rilke an even larger sum of money, on which he lived in Switzerland from 1919 to 1926. He considered Nanny Wunderly-Volkart a dear friend (and solver of all sorts of household problems). Rilke made it quite clear to all of his patrons that his work would not free them from their vague feeling of guilt at being wealthy capitalists. In fact, Rilke occasionally found ways to rub in the fact that these patrons hoped to sponsor an artist, but that he would not be owned by them. Thus Rilke spent a pile of money, with which he could have financed his simple life for quite some time, during a long stay in a Berlin luxury hotel, and then asked for more financial support and defended himself vehemently against the objection of his sponsors that such a lifestyle was not appropriate for poets.(7) These criticisms by his rich patrons, who hoped to wipe their conscience clean but also put Rilke in his place, as if poets were less entitled to live in certain ways, thus overlap with the mean-spirited remarks of jealous fellow writers Benn and Mann, and later critics venting their frustration after gleaning a few gossipy details about Rilke's life off the Web. From the perspective of bourgeois morality, Rilke should have cared for his child instead of traveling the world on someone else's bill.
After all the calculations, and after all has been said about the selfish poet, Rilke is still in debt. Wittgenstein's financial contribution does not simply reappear, without remainder and fully transubstantiated from Austro-Hungarian currency into metaphor, in the form of Rilke's angels, his version of Orpheus, swans, nuns, priests, and panthers. In all of his work Rilke relies on such metaphors not in order to surrender entirely to a specific trait or feeling (such as courage, fear, astonishment, piety, hope) or to create a poetic atmosphere, but rather to use the poetic figure to examine such feelings dispassionately. Let's be humble, then, and exchange the twenty thousand Austro-Hungarian crowns, the metaphorical toads, for a few simple frogs. And then I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether Rilke gave back "so much more" than he received from his patrons, or whether he was just a spoiled and selfish shmuck.
Rilke wrote the following letter in April 1921 to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart. It's not a poem, not a crafted story, only one of 470 letters to one of his most generous supporters. Yet it is also the self-portrait of a poet trying to get the creative juices flowing with the description of a reedy pond (Rilke thought of his letters as an "ascent into consciousness")(8). In this letter Rilke takes his writer's block, from which he had been suffering intermittently between 1914 and 1921, and turns it into a poem. Rilke writes about the difficulty of writing poetry during the war years, his military service, and his loss of citizenship. As a non-French citizen, he had been expelled from Paris, which he left with little but a suitcase, overnight in 1914; at the end of the First World War his homeland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had disappeared as a political entity and suddenly, after having no passport and no claim to Austrian citizenship, he had become a Czech in a newly formed state. During this decade-long time of uprootedness, Rilke wrote countless letters and several hundred uncollected poems (many of which were only published posthumously), but he recovered his true lyric voice only when he was able to move to Switzerland after the end of the war. The small, cast-off letter, written in a temporary Swiss residence with park views to "little Nike," as he called the well-heeled Wunderly-Volkart, dwells on some of Rilke's major themes: the expansiveness of our heart; the glorification of love; the poet as visionary; the beloved as muse; the notion that art is unanswerable to other values; the sobering insight that even beauty and love pass away.
I am worried about the frogs. They had already achieved their ideal mating temperature and were behaving quite June-nightishly in the pond. They have such a heart to which their whole rubbery body yields, and with this heart they were singing. Elastically.—But during the night before the weather changed, one of them suddenly stopped, right in the middle of loudly poeticizing, and ceased singing along with the others. They all paused; a momentary break; you could hear the fountain. He pulled himself together, began again, entered on the wrong beat, corrected himself, recited half a stanza, got stuck, —said something unintelligible, fell silent. They were silent along with him, disconcerted. Suddenly, into this next pause, one of them shouted at him from the pond's opposite edge: "……….." (an untranslatable swear word in froggish) "Out with your love!" He apologized in a hoarse voice, —apparently another lead singer was chosen, a small group joined him, —a few measures, forced, without passion, —it didn't work, he too broke off and was silent. Now the first one, the spoilsport, this visionary, who had the whole thing on his conscience, once more did all he could to save the general mood. He put hand on heart, lifted his head up into the peculiarly indifferent April night, and said: I'll try again. —Oh no, how phony that sounded, dry, dismal. —Jointly they discouraged him, enough, enough ... Then, finally, silence. But his beloved whispered to him: "My God, you're not getting sick?!" —I am afraid that indeed he's fallen sick, out of rebuffed love and poetry, and she has probably also caught a cold and has the sniffles; not a flattering look. He, feverish and lethargic, stares at her, who three days ago had been so dear to him, and thinks: her mouth is actually quite ordinary, vulgar—, to even marvel at her eyes has become an effort for him, and takes serious concentration, her golden eyes, out of which stares the flu.(9)
One hesitates to translate this passage. Parts of the letter are in froggish, and in froggish it is perfectly clear. It is Rilke during the war years and afterward, in Switzerland, ill from "rebuffed poetry," and it is coming out of him only slowly. They are screaming at him, across the borders, from all of the spots where poetry is read: Keep writing! Rilke puts hand on heart, wrestles with himself, but it sounds forced. Like a frog, which only wakes from hibernation bit by bit, when there is a steady increase in temperature, Rilke has not "overcome the lingering torpor in [him] from the war years—a few Summer months [ ... ] would be a good start." (10) Someone offers him a free stay in a small, old, and drafty chateau with a pond and fountains near the Swiss town Berg am Irchel, where he stays from November 1920 to May 1921; an infinitely patient publisher does not push him, but keeps sending him a monthly allowance; others manage to get him a highly coveted residence permit for Switzerland, vouch for him with affidavits, take care of his financial needs; a new lover not only prepares the new residence but even refurbishes it, washes his socks, paints, weeds and plants, blocks up rodent holes, makes coffee, breakfast, lunch, and dinner; loves him. But all too soon even this lover, the painter Baladine (Merline) Klossowska, begins to look a bit ordinary, her problems begin to seem a bit too worldly, her money and marriage problems with a Russian man in Paris and their two young sons become almost—vulgar.
And nevertheless the frog story sounds lighthearted, lively, effortless; we join the chorus of his fans who call out to Rilke: More, more, keep writing! The "rebuffed love and poetry" result in a letter more precious than reams of short stories by other authors. Although the inhibited poet can hardly lift his head up above his windowsill, he weaves from a bit of quiet, some scraps of time, and a premature concert on the pond that went bust a finely spun bit of froggery, in which his whole weepy suffering and his self-pity are released in froggish.
Who's still counting the dividends of Wittgenstein's twenty thousand toads? Who can give a proper account of the pathos of the suddenly rebuffed beloved, "the one who three days ago had been so dear," with her froggy "golden eyes," and measure this pathos of a suddenly cooled love against the gift of a few crowns, francs, marks, lire, which Rilke wasted on expensive soap and sleep in luxury hotels, only to beg for more? Who can provide a ledger that tallies the poet's behavior in life against his work, when it's really all about expansive hearts in slimy rubber bodies, and the nearly inhuman effort of wresting songs from the mundane experiences of the flu?
Whoever makes such calculations has obviously come down with a very bad cold.
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1. Quoted in Heinz Ludwig Arnold, ed., Rilke, Kleine Hommage aum 100. Geburtstag (Munich: Edition Text und Kritik, 1992), 40, 47.
2. Ibid., 44.
3. Letter to Clara Rilke, September 13, 1907, in Briefe. 2 vols. (Wiesbaden: Rilke Archiv, 1980) (ALT), 1:176.
4. Letter to Carl Sieber, November 10, 1921, in ALT 1:256.
5. Letter to Maximilian Harden, February 1, 1901, in Briefe. 2 vols. ed. Horst Nalewski. (Frankfurt: Insel, 1991), 1:80 (emphasis added).
6. Letter to Ludwig Fischer, November 12, 1919, in Briefe zur Politik, ed. Joachim Storck. (Frankfurt: Insel, 1992) (BZP), 292.
7. From October 12, 1917, to May 7, 1918, Rilke lived in the Hôtel Continental in Berlin, which Karl von der Heydt, who was supporting Rilke financially, called "one of the most expensive hotels in Berlin." "The question, L.R. [lieber Rilke], 'don't you need something?' has, to be honest, not entered my mind," writes von der Heydt, visibly put off by the high-class address and Rilke's repeated requests for more money. Rilke, Briefe an Karl und Elisabeth von der Heydt, 410.
8. Letter to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart, October 7, 1921, in Briefe an Nanny Wunderly-Volkart 2 vols. ed. Ratus Luck (Frankfurt: Insel, 1977) (WUN), 1:566.
9. Letter to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart, April 18, 1921, in WUN 1:408.
10. Letter to Ludwig von Ficker, November 12, 1919, in BZP, 293.
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About the Author
Ulrich Baer is Vice Provost for Arts, Humanities and Diversity and Professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University. He is editor and translator of Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters of Life, editor of 110 Stories: New York Writes after September 11, and author of several books on poetry and photography. His most recent book is Beggar’s Chicken: Stories from Shanghai.
Andrew Hamilton (translator) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at Indiana University.
The Rilke Alphabet
Fordham University Press