LIFE OF A POET: Rainer Maria Rilke by Ralph Freedman

LIFE OF A POET: Rainer Maria Rilke

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The sublime poet's selfish character, impulsive amours, and artistic development recounted in illuminating detail. ""Rilke was a jerk,"" wrote poet John Berryman in his Dream Songs. Freedman's fine-grained new biography of the great German poet bears out Berryman's uncharitable judgment, albeit with considerably more decorum and nuance. Freedman, a retired professor of comparative literature (Princeton Univ.; Hermann Hesse, 1979) explores the poet's life and art in rich detail. Born in Prague in 1875, Rilke soon left the Austro-Hungarian provinces behind him in his steady rise to the uppermost echelons of the European art world. Freedman paints a picture of the artist as ruthless young aesthete: the heartless self-absorption in constructing his poetic persona, the fawning over aristocrats--especially potential benefactresses--and the near-indifference to the wife and daughter he abandoned in order to better follow his calling. There is ample opportunity for moralizing here. Happily, Freedman does not fall into the trap, giving the full measure of Rilke's personal shortcomings without needless clucking. Instead, he soberly pursues his larger aim, which is to illuminate Rilke's ""long struggle for the style that would ultimately define him."" Freedman quotes generously (though exclusively in translation) from Rilke's poetry to reveal not only its relationship to the poet's personal experience but also, more importantly, to follow the development of his craft from its origins in the purple kitsch of his youth to the powerful and unique lyric idiom of his maturity. Freedman is particularly good on Rilke's relationship to Rodin and to the visual arts in general, which helped to shape the poet's sense of a new direction in poetry. A fine study that is scholarly yet readable and admirably brings the poet's feckless life into balance with his artistic achievement.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
Page count: 600pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"