In Defense of Rilke

Many of you know I’m a fan of poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I fell in love with his words the first time I read them (“The Swan” was my first), and I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on his poetry. One of my manuscripts for teens is a historical fantasy that includes Rilke as one of the side characters, so needless to say, I’m unabashedly pro-Rilke.


Imagine my shock a few weeks ago when there was quite a hubbub over a New York Times article entitled “Fallen Idols,” which included Rilke as the poster boy for bad behavior, calling him “a selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat.”

Not so fast.

This same New York Times article cites Ralph Freedman’s 1996 biography of the poet as evidence that Rilke was pretty much an asshat. Yet a smart review of Freedman’s biography published in The Atlantic the year the book came out outlined a thorough rebuttal of some of Freedman’s assumptions, including:

This is all ludicrously unfair. It’s certainly unfair to say that Rilke didn’t give the women he loved and who loved him the “choice to remove themselves for the sake of their art.” He was in no position to give or deny freedom to his independent-minded wife, let alone to any woman of whom he was merely a lover. Only their passion, or admiration, or use for Rilke bound these women to the famous poet. 

To get the full picture, I’d recommend reading this entire review, which breaks down point for point why Rilke was not the asshat painted by Freedman.

However, to be fair, as a female writer of fiction myself, I often imagine what it would be like to share an evening with Rilke. Whose role would I play, the much-older benefactress, Marie von Thurn und Taxis, who “was wise enough both to nurture Rilke’s gift and to keep her distance from her complicated protégé”? His wife, Clara, who “enthusiastically seconded Rilke’s definition of two artists wedded as each, in Rilke’s cautiously ambiguous phrase, ‘the guardian of the other’s solitude'” Or the “brilliant and beautiful Lou Andreas-Salomé,” the lover shared his passion and broke his heart?

If this were indeed fiction, a night in each of those bodies would be pretty cool. But in reality, I know I’d have been one of a myriad tongue-tied and starry-eyed fangirls, letting the great poet monopolize the conversation with his brilliance. Because in the end, what remains of Rilke is his body of work, not his deeds. Therefore, like Lee Siegel, that reviewer for The Atlantic, I’ll leave the last words to Rilke:

But you I want now, you, whom I knew

like a flower, whose name I didn’t know,

to remember just one time and to show you,

beautiful companion of the unconquerable cry.