Rainer Maria Rilke: Branding a Poet's Life
Reading about the life and art of Rainer Maria Rilke is like wading into a whirlpool with an irresistible, spiralling current. Just as the reader is swept away and uplifted by powerful writing that illuminates the complexity and wonder of existence, the biography of Rilke exerts an equally compelling force in a downward direction. Any reader caught in the swirl of Rilke scholarship - a river of mythology, speculation and facts - feels like a buoyant cork at one moment and a sinking stone the next. To attempt to separate the man from his work is, in Rilke's case, impossible, as both art and personality were conceived as intimately connected imaginative projects. Unquestionably he was a literary master whose lofty ideas and spiritual probing were expressed in the most brilliantly-crafted, lyrical language, but at the same time Rilke was a deeply troubled, flawed individual: an intensely self-absorbed narcissist who embodied the angst-driven artist in both public and private situations. His emotional neediness was matched by a desire to examine and describe his state of mind in great detail, to record in journal entries and daily personal correspondence what it was like to be a poet. Being was scrutinized in every poem and letter he wrote, in every relationship he fostered and in every decision he made. As his friend Rudolf Kassner noted, "Rilke was poet and personality even when simply washing his hands." In today's terms, Rilke the self-made man might be described as an expert at "branding."
Branding is defined as the creation of a distinctive, appealing image aimed at marketing an individual's skills or products. By assuming and maintaining a recognizable presence, the brander differentiates his or her identity, services or products from run-of-the-mill, strengthens credibility, develops a loyal following and secures a network of supportive, career-boosting contacts. The approach taken by image consultants favours a bold mission statement reinforced with authenticity, consistency and clarity in all communication. In short, branding is the art of blatant self-promotion.
Branding Tip #1
Take advantage of good luck and bad.
Rilke Exploits an Unhappy Childhood
Born in Prague in 1875, Rilke was named Rene Maria by a mother who was suffering displaced grief for a daughter who had died a year earlier. She dressed her boy child in girl's clothing for the first nine years of his life, and assumed an over-protective, controlling role that prevented him from associating with other children. Rilke's father was a failed military man who wanted his son to become a soldier. At age ten the boy was sent to a strict military school, a trauma that the poet later described as a "more than life-sized experience of loneliness."
A childhood marked by parents with unrealistic expectations clearly influenced Rilke's assumption of an "outsider" role. He was a misfit, a loner who used his feeling of being a perpetual stranger to distinguish himself from ordinary people and the conventions of society. The poet referred to his upbringing as a flawed foundation that could not possibly support the weight of his maturing genius. His architectural metaphor is at least a solid platform for explaining a dry period when he suffered from writer's block.
"My loving friend, you see my life was never given a foundation, no one was able to imagine what it would want to become. In Venice there stands the so-called Ca del Duca, a princely foundation, on which later the most wretched tenement came to be built. With me, it's the opposite: the beautiful arched elevations of my spirit rest on the most tentative beginning; a wooden scaffolding, a few boards... Is that why I feel inhibited in raising the nave, the tower to which the weight of the great bells is to be hoisted (by the angels, who else could do it?) "- Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to Magda von Hattingberg, February 8, 1914
The scars of a painful childhood were given a positive spin by Rilke as a direct source of inspiration for his poetry.
"As a child when I was being treated poorly by everyone, when I felt so infinitely abandoned, so absolutely lost in the unknown, there might have been a time when I longed to be elsewhere. But then while other human beings continued to be alien to me, I was drawn to things, and from these things there emanated a joy, a joy in being that was always consistently calm and strong and in which there was never any hesitation or doubt." - Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Ellen Key, April 3, 1903
Things became significant subject matter in Rilke's "Book of Images" from 1902 and "New Poems" from 1907. His "Dinggedichte" constitute a body of rhymed and metered verses centred on deep observation, the kind of looking that yields universal truth from ordinary occurrence. Poet W.H. Auden sums up Rilke's attachment to things and childhood with wry humour in these lines:
"And Rilke whom "die Dinge" bless,
The Santa Claus of loneliness,"
- W.H. Auden, from "The New Year Letter," 1940
Branding Tip #2
Adopt an image that reflects who you are and what you stand for.
Rilke refines his style
At the age of 23, Rilke met Lou Andreas-Salome, the woman who was to become his lover, confidante, analyst and image coach. She urged Rilke to change his first name from Rene to Rainer. The name "Rainer" was not only more masculine, but sounded very similar to the German word "reine" meaning "pure." Lou advised Rilke to improve his penmanship if he wished to be an important literary figure. She taught him the Russian language to encourage the practice of reading great literature in the original and also took Rilke on a trip to meet one of the great masters, Leon Tolstoy.
With his handwriting polished to perfection, the young Rilke became a "man of letters." Over a 35 year period, he wrote 11,000 letters ( at least that's how many have survived to this day.) These were not hasty notes - some were as long as major essays, pages carefully copied by hand and saved by Rilke for his own files and for posterity.
Rilke made a fashion statement by wearing only black when he was in Prague, and sporting a traditional peasant blouse when he visited Russia. In later life, while living as a recluse in a tower in Switzerland, Rilke dressed in a dark tailored suit, shirt and tie, a professional poet's work uniform. As a personal logo, he embraced the rose, a floral symbol that encompassed the mysteries of life, love, beauty and death - the themes that inhabited his writing. Roses appeared regularly in a vase set on his writing desk, and were immortalized in the imagery of many of Rilke's poems.
The epitaph Rilke composed for his own gravestone incorporated an image of a rose in a short verse that resembles an enigmatic Japanese haiku.
"Rose, o pure contradiction, joy
to be no man's sleep under so many
A myth generated by Rilke and circulated by his followers attributed his death to a blood infection that developed after he pricked his finger on a rose thorn in the garden. In fact, Rilke died of leukemia at the age of 51 after refusing medical treatment. (Pure contradiction was the poet's forte.)
Branding Tip #3
Develop a network of supportive contacts, loyal followers and "friends."
Rilke makes connections
Although Rilke demanded solitude as a condition for his work as a writer, he had the ability to connect with and charm the right people, the influential ones who might help to advance his career. An interest in alternative communities prompted him to visit Worpswede, Germany in 1900, where he met and became involved with a group of visual artists and intellectuals who had established a colony. The Worpswede "family" had been students together in Dusseldorf and chose to settle in the small village near Bremen to share a counter-culture lifestyle beyond the influence of the art academy. Rilke read his poetry at their Sunday evening salon-style gatherings and attracted the admiration of painter Paula Becker and her friend the sculptress Clara Westhoff. In her diary, Paula described Rilke as,
"a refined, lyrical talent, gentle and sensitive, with small, touching hands. He read his poems to us, tender and full of presentiment. He is sweet and pale." - Paula Modersohn-Becker, journal entry September 2,1900
Rilke was initially attracted to Paula Becker, but on learning that she was already engaged to Otto Modersohn, the poet redirected his attention to the pursuit of Clara Westhoff. In 1901 Clara became pregnant with Rilke's child and the couple married. For a while it looked as if domesticity was going to modify Rilke's free-wheeling style as he set up housekeeping with Clara and daughter Ruth in Westerwede. The arrangement did not last more than a year. Rilke later explained his departure for Paris by stating that he simply was not destined to be a devoted husband and father.
"The exclusive call to the inner realizations of my life was so great that work on the external ones, after a brief attempt, had to be abandoned." - Rainer Maria Rilke, from a letter to Carl Sieber, 1921
Rilke's break from married life and familial responsibility was the beginning of a vagabond existence in hotel rooms and temporary accommodation. He seemed to like living out of a suitcase and no doubt the restlessness of his lifestyle had several advantages for a man who aspired to be a leading literary figure. Travelling from one city to the next kept him in touch with the vanguard; intellectuals, wealthy patrons, publishers and artists throughout Europe who were able to provide Rilke with opportunities for sharing his work.
Rilke's relationship with Clara may have been lacklustre, but her list of contacts served to advance the poet's career. Clara was a former student of the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin and this connection helped Rilke gain entry into the studio of the French master. He secured a commission to write a monograph about Rodin and spent a year working as personal secretary to the artist.
Living in the orbit of Rodin taught Rilke many career-building techniques, including a solid work ethic that demanded persistent, daily effort rather than waiting for the muse to inspire. He latched on to the sculptor's motto "Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. Et il faut avoir patience." Translation: "One must work, there is nothing but work. And one must have patience."
Other individuals who helped to advance Rilke's career included:
- Richard von Muther, art historian and editor of Viennese weekly "Zeit" who commissioned Rilke to write a number of articles about visual artists.
- Anton Kippenberg, the publisher of Rilke's work from 1906 until his death. He offered financial support to the poet, who always seemed to be always living on the edge of poverty.
- Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, who owned the Duino castle near Trieste. Rilke stayed at the castle as a guest in 1910, and started work on the "Duino Elegies."
- Frau Hertha Koenig, art collector, poet and patroness. She owned the Picasso painting entitled "Family of Saltimbanques" from 1905, a work that Rilke admired and paid tribute to in the "Fifth Elegy." In 1915 Rilke asked if he might stay in the Koenig home in Munich to experience living beside "the great Picasso." His wish was granted.
- Norbert von Hellingrath, a German literary scholar whose academic research on the poet Holderlin impressed Rilke. The two writers became friends and shared ideas in their correspondence.
- Baladine Klossowska, a Russian painter who was his lover and devoted fan during the last years of his life. She left him a postcard depicting Orpheus with his lyre singing to the animals, and this image inspired Rilke to write 55 "Sonnets to Orpheus" in a burst of creativity during the month of February in 1922.
- Werner Reinhart, a patron who purchased Chateau de Muzot, the 13th-century house in Sierre Switzerland that Rilke was infatuated with, but could not afford to rent. Reinhart allowed Rilke to live there rent-free for the remainder of his life.
Rilke and the importance of branding
Branding experts often warn that if you don't bother to brand an on-line persona and nail down a niche, others will inevitably decide on an image and a place for you. It's all of matter of control, as Rilke fully understood. He dared to pursue greatness and fashioned a self-image to match that aspiration. In these lines of poetry, he dares the reader to overcome obstacles by taking action to transform one's self.
"Silent friend of such great distances, feel
your breath and how it expands the room.
Let yourself ring out among rafters hidden
inside the dark belfries. What depletes you
will turn into strength through this nourishing.
Go forth in this transforming; entering and leaving.
What is your greatest experience of suffering?
If what you drink is bitter, make wine of it.
On this night be magical power in great excess."
- Sonnet II, XXIX from "The Sonnets to Orpheus" by Rainer Maria Rilke
Baer, Ulrich, The poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, Modern Library, New York, 2005.
Dowrick, Stephanie, In the Company of Rilke, Penguin, New York, 2011
Holthusen, Hans Egon, Rainer Maria Rilke: A study of his later poetry, translated by J.P. Stern, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1952
Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems/ Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by J.B. Leishman, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996