Ray Ockenden

Rilke the Romantic

A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke

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Oxford 488pp £25 order from our bookshop

Letters, Summer 1926: Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Rilke

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Jonathan Cape 256pp £15 order from our bookshop

Rilke had few masters, and no disciples; in a literal sense, his work is self-contained. It has never become an undisputed part of the 20th century literary canon, though it illustrates in exemplary fashion a discernible aspect of Modernism: the conscious turning-aside from the centrifugal tendencies of the modern age and the creation of an imaginative world scarcely shaped by historical or social realities. That his writing has continued to exert a powerful fascination on those – individuals, rather than groups – who accept its spell can perhaps be explained in terms of the magnetic attraction of willed self-sufficiency. In his work as in his life, Rilke demanded to be accepted on his own terms; and work and life were for him (as, in a different mode, for Kafka) indistinguishable. The project of shaping one’s life into a work of art is a familiar Romantic enterprise, which Rilke carried to an extreme of dedication. At 27, he could confidently maintain: ‘He who creates must be a world for himself, and find everything within himself.’

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