Any fervent admirer of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) -- regarded by many as the greatest European poet of the century -- would do well to avoid Ralph Freedman's enormously detailed and scrupulously researched biography: On page after page it portrays one of the most repugnant human beings in literary history. As John Berryman so aptly put it: "Rilke was a jerk."
Many writers may be eccentrics, isolatos and obsessives, but they usually retain at least one or two admirable qualities aside from their devotion to art: Think of Joyce's and Nabokov's love of family, Flaubert's stringent work ethic, Zola's political courage, James's kindliness. Even the most problematic moderns -- such as Pound and Celine -- can earn our sometimes grudging sympathy. But Rilke the man is hard to pardon or excuse.
Paradoxically, though, the author of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (both 1923) has long been viewed as a saint of modern art, a man who dwelt alone in a perpetual solitude of the soul, who made himself into a sensitive Aeolian harp for the shifting winds of poetry. Yes, he was ruthless to others as he was to himself and yes, he shamelessly flattered rich aristos, but a poet has to live somehow. Isn't "Orpheus. Euridice. Hermes" worth a few broken hearts and a heap of rich women's gold?
A tricky question. Yet Life of a Poet makes clear that this hollow-eyed communer with angels, Greek torsos and death was not merely a selfish snob; he was also an anti-Semite, a coward, a psychic vampire, a crybaby. He was a son who refused to go to his dying father's bedside, a husband who exploited and abandoned his wife, a father who almost never saw his daughter and who even stole from a special fund for her education to pay for his first-class hotel rooms. He was a seducer of other men's wives, a pampered intellectual gigolo, and a virtual parody of the soulful artiste who deems himself superior to ordinary people because he is so tenderly sensitive, a delicate blossom easily punished by a passing breeze or sudden frost.
In this long biography Freedman, author of a standard life of Herman Hesse, chronicles scores of episodes in which Rilke callously shifts his allegiances, whether personal, financial or political, solely for his own temporary advantage. Scarcely out of his teens, he permits his "fiancee" to use her savings to underwrite his first book, then dedicates the poems to a baroness and abandons the bewildered young girl. Yet for all his Uriah Heepishness, Rilke must have possessed undeniable charm -- else how do you explain the veneration in which he was held by so many, from soft-hearted ladies to hard-headed publishers. "If the word magic," wrote Paul Valery of his German counterpart, "has any meaning, I should say that the whole of his person, his voice, his look, his manners, everything about him gave the impression of a magic presence. You would have said that he had a way of giving to each word, as he spoke, the power of a charm." Of course, poets often possess the same rhetorical skills as con men. Once, in the midst of a love affair, Rilke actually persuaded the wronged husband to underwrite the rent for his errant wife's studio-love nest.
Rilke's poetry has always been easier to love than to understand. It is abstract, religiose, difficult to translate, solemn, obsessed with death, and sometimes unintentionally ludicrous. Only the most Teutonic soul would fail to laugh at the second line of the first sonnet to Orpheus: "O tall tree in the ear!" Any English major could interpret the phrase's significance -- phallic imagery, echoes of the Annunciation, etc., but the words themselves remain essentially ridiculous.
Perplexed by this strange yet powerfully seductive verse, many readers would welcome a reliable guide, one that would clarify Rilke's "passionate affirmations of life that must at once be denied." Freedman announces in his preface that he hopes to offer a critical biography that will interpret both the poems and their author. Alas, he fails to deliver on this promise. He talks for instance about Rilke's experiences in Paris and their importance to his 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, but he never really explicates that sickly-sweet, death-centered text. He resorts to abstractions when discussing the poems, elaborating on their genesis or general meaning, yet without engaging very deeply with any of them. Most of the time Freedman is principally a recorder of events, laying out reams of research: One yearns to hear Rilke's voice in these monotone pages.
Still, the facts are all here for any who may want them. Freedman exhaustively chronicles the Prague childhood, the fruitful association with the remarkable Lou Andreas-Salome, travels to Russia, Scandinavia, Egypt and Spain, the apprenticeship to Rodin, the "interior marriage" to Clara, and every sycophantic encounter with the minor nobility of the Almanach de Gotha. For a guy who always wanted to be alone, Rilke seems to have known everyone: He visited Tolstoy (who snubbed him); encountered Gorky in, of all places, Capri; translated Valery; received (anonymously) 10,000 Austrian kronen from once is jealous of my dog . . . / And boys, the as if by poison." Passages in Malte Laurids Brigge can be serenely beautiful: "The day began like spring, like spring in paintings."
Despite their density, even the Duino Elegies pull us into their austere realm of Life-in-Death with their exhortatory music and gnomic utterances: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'/ hierarchies?" "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." In the ninth and I think greatest of the elegies one even hears a voice like that of Eliot in the Four Quartets (a work somewhat analogous to the German masterwork):
But because truly, being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have been this once, completely, even if only once: to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
Rilke stands among the greatest of those poets who use art as a means of knowing themselves, and who demand of their readers a corresponding receptivity, a willingness to delve into the pure ether of being. Sometimes Rilke would wait years for "a call from within" and then dash off 30 poems, several of them masterpieces, in a week. His work is so inward, so austerely removed from the quotidian that it seems both vatic and ineffable. "There's an ancient hatred/ between our normal life and the great work." To read the Duino Elegies is to feel that thought has become prayer, words music, the poet and the reader almost one.
Perhaps Rilke can be forgiven his human failures after all. Or . . . perhaps not. I still wish he'd been nicer to people, so that one could admire the man, as one does so many of his poems: unreservedly. "Who speaks of victory?," he once wrote pragmatically. "Enduring is everything."
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.