Whenever I used to tell people in Germany that I was writing a book on Rilke, I would encounter the same, slightly embarrassed response. Isn’t he all a bit effusive and mystical, a bit gushing and metaphysical? Isn’t he a bit much? Untranslatable terms such as Schöngeist or Schwärmerei would soon be thrown around, damning him with quaint praise. Rilke’s poetry is very beautiful, yes, but it’s all very dated and 19th-century, no? Can we really take him seriously in the 21st century?
Lesley Chamberlain’s new book does precisely this. A labour of love, it tackles head-on the very quality that puts some people off Rilke: inwardness. Defined as a tendency to individualistic and reflective thought, Rilke’s inwardness manifests itself throughout his poetry, both in the thematic preoccupations (angels, roses, the inner