The Book of Hours by Ranier Maria RilkeJanuary 4, 2011
From the introduction of The Book of Hours by Ranier Maria Rilke by Anita Barrow and Joanna Macy. Poems that follow are their translations as well.
Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an
The hour is striking so close above me, so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
Rilke wrote the poems that make up The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch) in three brief, intense periods of inspiration between 1899 and 1903. When he began, he was twenty-three years old and had already published three volumes of poetry. By the time The Book of Hours was published in December 1905, Rilke had written several of the works for which he is best known, including The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke and a series of letters to Franz Kappus, which would be collected under the title Letters to a Young Poet.
The impulse to begin the poems, as Rilke wrote to Marlise Gerding in May 1911, came after a period during which he received what he called “inner dictations,” words that came to him mornings and evenings and that struck him with their force and persistence. The process of writing, as Rilke told Gerding, strengthened and stimulated the inspiration, and he realized that a genuine work had been initiated.
But the poems that came forth — like the poems that were to follow in 1901 and 1903 — were not intended for the public. Intimate, sacred to him (Rilke called them Gehete, prayers), unmentioned in his letters and even in his journal, these were placed only in the hands of his beloved Lou Andreas-Salome. “Gelegt in die Hande von Lou,” he wrote in dedication when preparing the final manuscript. He chose the title then, inspired by the French medieval tradition of livres d’heures, devotional breviaries for lay use.
Rilke’s Early Life
The poet was born on December 4, 1875, in Prague, then a provincial capital in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and christened Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke.
His parents’ limited means made them all the more conscious of their social status as members of Prague’s small German-speaking elite. In their pretentious, insular world he had, he said, “an anxious, heavy childhood.”
An only child, Rene endured the sentimental upbringing of a mother who still grieved the loss of her baby daughter, and who brought him up as a girl until he was six years old. Increasingly unhappy in her marriage, she took him into churches to pray with her and, as he would later recall with distaste, kiss Christ’s wounds on the crucifix. At home she spent long private hours playing with him and dressing him “like a big doll.” His father, a stiff, uncommunicative man, was a railroad official who had served as a cadet in the emperor’s army, and he still grieved the loss of His military career. For his son, the elder Rilke mandated a military school.
At ten years old. in prescribed uniform and haircut, Rene found himself abandoned to an emotionally repressive, loudly regulated, hyper masculine world. He cooperated as well as he could, but his five years there were hateful to him. (Even thirty years later, he would characterize that experience as carrying for him “the feeling of one single terrible damnation.”) Teased by the other boys, he was agonizingly lonely, but the cruelest thing was the crowding of the mind in the close quarters, with constantly interrupting commands, bullying, and competition — from which he found relief only in the relative silence and solitude of the infirmary.
Poetry was a refuge for him there, and when ill health finally won him his release from the military academy, poetry shaped the student life into which he threw himself, in Linz and especially in Prague and Munich. Rilke’s energy and versatility brought him friends and recognition in university literary circles. Something of a dandy, with his silver-headed cane and bowler hat, he found himself gifted with a strong capacity for relationship, particularly with women, and eager for the discoveries and disclosures these relationships allowed.
He adopted easily the romantic lyricism of his time, with its affectations and vaunting, facile subjectivity. Afire with creativity and enthusiastic about his own work, he was tireless in promoting it: not only with famous poets and writers of the period, whom he deluged with letters, but also the populace at large, among whom he distributed a self-published journal free of charge.
Despite family pressures and expectations, Rilke knew he could not define his life other than as writer, as poet. Yet he was faced with the need to support himself economically, so this calling was hard to defend. He went through the motions of matriculating for a law degree, then for one in philosophy, but the urge to create, to bring to birth something new and necessary, made it impossible to follow through with anything resembling a conventional career.
Without support from his family, he turned to others for the material help he needed in order to write, and took up what would become a lifelong burden: seeking a sponsor, an advance on future work, a suitable place to write, a grant or job to tide him through, over and over again explaining, justifying, promising, thanking. Already, however, he was able to point to considerable literary output, as poems, prose pieces, and plays appeared in journals and even on the stage.
The mature Rilke would dismiss the literary efforts of these early years. They surely served his poetic gifts by exercising them, but they embarrassed him later with their shallowness and their essentially imitative character. The soon-to-be-composed Book of Hours, although uncharacteristically kept secret for years, was the first work that the poet would acknowledge throughout his life as an authentic expression of his art and his being.
The Years that Brought Forth the Book of Hours
While a student in Munich in 1897, far away from his mother’s devout superstitions, Rene Rilke was drawn to sort through his own religious assumptions and attitudes. He sensed that there must be an authentic ground to the imposing superstructures of his culture’s faith, and in a deeply inward process that contrasted with his busy life in coffeehouses, literary salons, and editorial offices, he wanted to find it.
A long series of poems titled Visions of Christ presented a superfluous Jesus defeated and shamed by his arrogant attempt to interpose himself between humanity and God. These poems were not published until after Rilke’s death, but he did send some to a writer he had not met, who had written an essay that he felt reflected a similar orientation. The essay was “Jesus the Jew,” and the writer was Lou Andreas-Salome.
A two-month sojourn in Tuscany drew Rilke into the world of Italian Renaissance religious art. Avidly he drank it in, exhilarated by the sensuous colors and forms, and the warmly human portrayal of the divine. The unmannered tenderness of Fra Angelico and Botticelli conveyed an authentic, alluring devotion, and showed Rilke that the holy can be rooted in the body and in human relationship. Lou Andreas-Salome was a beautiful thirty-six year old Russian woman of strong intellect and independent character, born in St. Petersburg and living in a friendly, platonic marriage with an older German professor.
When Rilke, at twenty-one, finally met her in a Munich salon in May 1897, she was already noted for Nietzsche’s earlier devotion to her. The young poet immediately pursued her with great determination, and they became lovers, in the most passionately fulfilling relationship either had yet known. Lou was the one woman Rilke would never cease loving, while he remained for her, as she later wrote, “the first true reality” in her life; they were “like brother and sister, but from primeval times before incest became a sacrilege.” Their friendship, even after it stopped being sexual (at her discretion), was fundamental and generative to every aspect of the poet’s development.
To begin with, he quieted down. His energies, scattered centrifugally in the frenzied, somewhat superficial life he had been leading, settled and deepened. Lou’s own love of nature pulled him out of the city, out to walk barefoot through meadows and copses that now were real to him in their own right and not just a backdrop to his moods. Lou was at work on a book about Nietzsche, and the iconoclastic philosopher’s thought provided a broader context for Rilke’s own rebellion against the hypocrisies of conventional Christianity. Two changes in his life were emblematic of Lou’s impact: he dropped, at her urging, the name Rene for the more masculine-sounding Germanic Rainer; and his handwriting was transformed into a more confident, elegant, and relaxed script.
In the spring of 1899, Rilke accompanied Lou and her husband to Russia and discovered the land and the spirituality that would so strongly imbue The Book of Hours — and his life. From there, he wrote his friend Frieda von Billow:
At bottom one seeks in everything new (country or person or thing) only an expression that helps some personal confession to greater power and maturity. All things are there in order that they may become images for us. And they do not suffer from it, for while they are expressing us more and more clearly, our souls close over them in the same measure. And I feel in these days that Russian things will give me the names for those most timid devoutnesses of my nature which, since my childhood, have been longing to enter my art.
It is as though Rilke had been waiting for whatever in the world would correspond to feeling-states that had been constellating inside him, and he found it in Russia — in the living forms of communal worship he witnessed there, and also in landscape and architecture. He felt in its everyday life a closeness to instinct and passion, which had not survived in the wan and sickened cities of Western Europe.
On his return, Rilke tried to keep as much of Russia about him as he could. He launched into a study of Russian literature and went about dressed in Russian peasant garb. When, on September 20, 1899, in Schmargcndorf near Berlin, he sat down to write the phrases that spoke themselves within him, it was in the persona of a Russian monk living in a cloister, summoned by the bell to the task of seeing and meeting what was most real to him in the world.
The sixty-seven poems Rilke wrote over the next twenty-five days would form the first part of The Book of Hours, called The Book of a Monastic Life. These intensely inward conversations with God distilled the seeking of the past years for an unmediated and intimate encounter with the heart of the universe. In November he wrote in his journal — the journal in which he never mentioned The Book of ‘Hours – “ I have begun my life.”
It is possible to read The Book of Hours as a cycle of love poems, and it is certainly possible to read into their creation the sensuous awakening of Rilke’s relationship with Lou. The God of these poems is a God whom Rilke seeks to love and be possessed by with the same passion he has for Lou, and also with the same passion he has for his vocation.
In the summer of 1900, after another and longer Russian sojourn with Lou, Rilke was invited to Worpswede, an artists’ colony in the open heath country near Bremen, which was to play a significant role in his life and imagination. Rilke had been urged by Lou toward greater independence from her, and he felt free to develop new relationships.
There he met Clara Westhoff, a gifted and ardent sculptor three years younger than he. She became pregnant, and they were married on April 28, 1901, at her parents’ home, and set up Housekeeping in a small cottage in Westerwede. There, as the young couple awaited the birth of their child (a daughter, Ruth, born on December 12), thirty-four poems which were to become the second part of The Book of Hours to be named The Book of Pilgrimage — came to Rilke. He wrote them in one week, between September 18 and 25.
As the conversations with God are resumed, The Book of Pilgrimage reflects Rilke’s acute awareness of humanity’s unfolding fate as well as his more personal preoccupations. Images of pregnancy enter the religious discourse: God is described as womb, and more frequently as the new life growing inside the poet.
I wish sometimes that you were back inside me,
in this darkness that grew you. II, 4
Impending fatherhood must have aroused old anger toward the poet’s own father. The patriarchal God is rejected now with a vehemence that never occurs in The Book of a Monastic Life.
His caring is a nightmare to us,
and his voice a stone. II, 6
Rilke was facing the task of supporting his young family with almost no material resources and no regular employment. His letters that autumn express a pervasive economic anxiety. Usually such insecurity narrows the focus of one’s concern; the wonder is that for the poet the opposite happened, and his heart blew open to the suffering of all humanity. Though Rilke reminds God that
I’m still the one who knelt before you
in monk’s robes, II, 2
the persona here is more concerned with the world. The pilgrimage on which he finds himself unites him with that world in the depth of his being.
In August 1902, Rilke went to Paris, commissioned to write a monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He and Clara had decided to change their life and — leaving Ruth predominantly in the care of her maternal grandparents in their comfortable country home — freed each other to pursue their art. Engaged by Rodin as his secretary, Rilke worked long, demanding hours. He was inspired by the sculptor’s relentless self-discipline and rededicated himself to the task of poetry with an enhanced respect for craft. But between the demands the great sculptor made on him and his own intense distress over the urban poverty and suffering he beheld in the city around him, Rilke was rarely able to find time or courage for his own work.
In late March 1903, Rilke boarded a train, traveled through the Alpine tunnels to Italy, and took a room at a Gardened pensione by the sea in Viareggio, which he had loved on his earlier trip. As he wrote to Franz Kappus, to whom the Letters to a Young Poet were addressed, he was there to recover from a great physical and moral lassitude. And there, between April 13 and 20, he composed the poems — again thirty-four of them — that make up The Book of Poverty and Death, the third in The Book of Hours.
Here both death and poverty, viewed so negatively by modern society as evils to flee, are upheld as sources of value and revelation. Instead of canceling life, death is its fruit — and an expression of our most intimate and unique strivings for meaning. This affirmation is all the more poignant in that Rilke had just been warned — by the person he trusted most — of his alleged suicidal tendencies. Apparently he did not resent Lou for making this gratuitous diagnosis at the time of his marriage to Clara, nor was he undone by it; instead he turned death itself into a long-term ally to accompany his life.
The horrors of urban poverty had confronted Rilke in Paris, as he described to Lou in July 1903:
One goes through smells as through many sad rooms…. And what people I met. . . almost every day: fragments of caryatids on whom the whole pain still lay, the entire structure of pain, under which they were living, slow as tortoises … and under the foot of each day that trod on them, they were enduring like tough beetles. .. twitching like bits of a big chopped up fish that is already rotting but still alive…. Oh what kind of a world is that! Pieces, pieces of people, parts of animals, leftovers of things that have been, and everything still agitated, as though driven about helter-skelter in an eerie wind, carried and carrying, falling and overtaking each other as they fall.
The “poverty poems” of this third book reflect Rilke’s anguish in Paris, and are chillingly close to the life in cities today. Rilke has been criticized for sentimentalizing poverty
Look at them standing about
like wildflowers, which have nowhere else to grow III, 19
yet mainly he was simply trying to take it in, that people can make one another suffer so. He tried to look at the destitute with the same tender attention that he would give to a tree. Rilke was not writing deliberately to effect social change, as was Emile Zola, for instance; he was doing what from the dictates of his own spiritual integrity was necessary for any social transformation.
That is the assertion of our essential interconnectedness with each other and with everything that lives. This is not a political tenet as much as a profound experience in the core of one’s being. In that sense these poems arise from the same mystical oneness (we can still call it the body of Christ, Anima Mundi, Buddha nature) that pervaded the two earlier books.
Rilke’s Later Life And Work And Its Relationship To The Book Of Hours
Even before The Book of Poverty and Death, Rilke had begun writing the poems that would be included in The Book Of Images, in a voice more secular and detached than that of The Book of Hours. The poems that followed, collected as New Poems (Neue Gedichte), cast the focus on the thing observed, away from the observer’s inner experience. The next two decades of Rilke’s development were shaped by an increasing awareness of his role as artist. This self-consciousness replaced the naked, transparent approach to things that characterizes The Book of Hours.
The capacity to shed his ever more burdensome self-image as poet was not available to him again until February 1922. Then, in a period of less than a month, taken by a trancelike inspiration much like that which had produced The Book ofa Monayiic Life, Rilke composed all fifty-nine Sonnets to Orpheus and completed the Duino Elegies, begun ten years earlier.
Rilke’s life throughout those intervening years 1903 to 1922 had been a pilgrimage in the service — not to say on the surface — of poetry. They had been difficult years of struggle for material survival, restless years of repeated moves from one place to another. Rilke was bedeviled by his dependence on the generosity of benefactors, yet he could not give himself to any work save writing. “It is my old inadequacy,” he wrote to Clara. “I have only a single energy which cannot be dispersed.” These were years, too, of repeated liaisons, intense involvements that shattered ever again on the rocks of his necessary solitude. Each time Rilke fell in love, he confronted his fear of being sidetracked and consumed. Although he maintained a voluminous correspondence, he lived by himself, refusing even the companionship of animals.
As the years went on, his search for the sacred was supplanted by a tendency to see in everything he encountered “a challenge, a task, a claim to artistic transformation.” It is not that Rilke lost his hunger for God; rather, it became transmuted into a single-pointed dedication to art that absorbed into itself everything else in his life. Never again, after The Book of Hours, would the dynamic between God and the world be expressed in such immediate and reciprocal terms.
In 1912, ill and depressed and moored in a spell of aridity, Rilke was staying alone at Duino Castle near Trieste, the guest of Princess Maria von Thurn and Taxis. There, one morning, the first lines of the Duino Elegies came to him — by divine inspiration, as he later told the princess. Within weeks he had completed the first two elegies; but after that, although he knew there was more to come, Rilke was unable to write the rest. He wandered, frustrated, agitated, in search of circumstances hospitable to his work.
In a Europe gearing up for the First World War, Rilke’s inner turbulence found no place to be assuaged. More travels, more illness, more troubled relationships; a little work on the Elegies now and again; a good deal of public acclaim. But inwardly a lack of vitality plagued Rilke, and bitterness at the violence and nationalism that interfered with his work. In December 1917, he wrote in response to a letter from an admirer of The Book of Hours: “I’m not living my own life…. I feel refuted, abandoned, and above all threatened by a world ready to dissolve entire in such senseless disorder.”
When he was at last able to pick up the thread of the Elegies, the spirit from which he wrote was deeply reminiscent of the one that had produced The Book of Hours. As he was to write in 1925 to Witold von Hulewicz, his Polish translator, Rilke regarded the Elegies as “a further shaping of those essential [inspirations] which had been given already in The Book of Hours.”
Rilke never repudiated The Book of Hours. He maintained that a substantial continuity existed between it and all subsequent works. What had changed most between the inspiration of 1899 and that of 1922 was the almost exclusive stress he put on the function of poetry itself. In the old dialectic equation between person and God, the role of the human became emphasized to the point of isolation –
If I cried out, who would hear me
among the hierarchies of angels?
and that at a most terrifying juncture of history.
Yet still Rilke knew how to sing, and with a singleness of heart, as if the world depended on it:
… Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window
.. And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them;
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most
transient of all.
As he wrote these lines of the beloved ninth Duino Elegy, the younger Rilke must have taken hold — the one who in 1899 had told God:
… I want to portray you
not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple
I want, then, simply
to say the names of things. I, 60
I would describe myself like a landscape I’ve studied at length, in detail;
like a word I’m coming to understand; like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime; like my mother’s face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged. I, 13
Rilke never lost his conviction in the utter reality of the world, or in our human capacity to redeem it through that act of transforming attention, which is naming — or love.
Ich lebe mein I,eben in wachsenden Ringen
I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Und Gott Befiehit mir, daβ ich schriebe:
And God said to me, Write:
Leave the cruelty to kings.
Without that angel barring the way to love
there would be no bridge for me
And God said to me, Paint:
Time is the canvas
stretched by my pain:
the wounding of woman,
the brothers’ betrayal,
the city’s sad bacchanals,
the madness of kings.
And God said to me, Go forth:
For I am king of time.
But to you I am only the shadowy one who knows with you your loneliness and sees through your eyes.
He sees through my eyes
in all the ages.
Dich wundert nicht des Sturmes Wucht
You are not surprised at the force of the storm — you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know: he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window
The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.
Summer was like your house: you knew where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered
Through the empty branches the sky remains. It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.