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img577Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a Czech /Bohemian poet and writer of German descent, born in Prague, whose literary work belongs to Germany’s great literary heritage.

He studied at the Universities in Prague, Berlin and Munich, and debuted at the age of nineteen in 1894 with Leben und Lieder (life and songs). Rilke’s verse, lyrical poetry and the haunted images, evoked in his work, put him as a writer on the cusp between traditional and more modernist authors.

Rilke was also a man of art beyond letters. He was involved with artists of the Worpswede Group, and had fallen in love with a Russian aristocratic woman Lou Andreas-Salome, a psychoanalyst and author fifteen years older than Rilke who had been a pupil of Freud. He met Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author on an extensive trip through Russia in 1899. During this period, he worked on a volume of his book The Book of Hours which appeared in 1905. The mysticism of Russia greatly influenced him, and in the book he expresses his spiritual quest in the most eloquent German.

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Rainer at age 24

The slender, non paginated volume shown at the top of the post, in a near immaculate dust jacket (fourth printing, probably 1943-1944 with a few revisions of the English versions as well as five new translations) is a collection of poems from the The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch in German).

It was translated by the poet and translator Babette Deutsch and printed in 1941 by New Directions, the American publisher of note, in their new venture, the so called, Poet of the Year Series. The 1941 series included important work by authors like William Carlos Williams, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Spencer, Josephine Miles, John Donne and others.

Interesting, is the fact that it is a bilingual text on opposite sides. The decorations, meaning the cover and a few capital letters, are by the Italian/American artist Valenti Angelo (1897-1982) illustrator, author, very well known for his superb work at the Grabhorn Press.

His favorite medium was the linocut. With respect to our book, Valenti’s work echoes the period of the Prussian Kaiser Reich and the feeling of the author’s writing.

Rilke influenced many poets, like Stephen Spender, Robert Bly and even W.H. Auden. Others, like the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein admired this early poetry equally. His influence extended over a long period of time. Below is an example of what a famous artist thought about Rilke’s work, in this case, a reference to another Rilke book  The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs .

The reference was found in the 1978 folio volume, Famous Artists Annual.

In this volume, the artist Ben Shahn discusses his work and on the right hand page is a lithograph pictured. Underneath the following text: “One of Ben Shahn’s twenty eight lithographs illustrating Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Bridge , a journal of a poet’s impressions and dreams. The lithographs, Shahn says in his afterword, were intended not to illustrate the text objectively but rather the emotions he experienced when he first read the book during a visit to Paris in 1927. Shahn’s comment: I felt spiritually very close to this poet who had had many of the same experiences as I, Shahn writes Rilke’s words touched me deeply. I, too, was just beginning to question my own innermost beliefs and to seek my own directions in art. Rilke’s lines encouraged me to question, search, and doubt.

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img874The poet had moved to Paris around 1902 intending to write a monograph on the French sculptor Rodin and Rodin’s vision of art and life. Frequenting these art circles he also met and admired the work of the impressionist painter Paul Cezanne.

Thus it was in Paris,where he started to write and finish in 1910 his only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge referred to by Ben Shahn.

The legacy,the importance of Rilke  and his other perhaps better known works must be left for a future post.