Considered to be the greatest German-language poet of the twentieth century, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) used the Bible regularly as a significant resource for his poetry and drew upon it often in connection with religious art and architectural works that also had been inspired by biblical accounts. Although Rilke’s essays, numerous letters, and diary entries contain theoretical engagement with biblical and theological concepts (see especially Brief des jungen Arbeiters [Letter of the Young Worker], 1922), his lyrical works provide the most extensive examples of his multifaceted, creative, and complex aesthetic, philosophical, and unorthodox theological engagement with a wide variety of biblical stories, motifs, images, and themes from the Judeo-Christian heritage. As Ulrich Fülleborn states: “The Bible was an enormous subject matter reservoir and one of the first inspirational sources for Rilke’s life work” (1999, p. 24).
Rilke’s Use of the Bible.
Reception of Rilke has interpreted his use of the Bible generally in one of two ways: either as existential and/or theological poetic utterances by Rilke as a kind of modern mystical Orpheus who espoused a new secular piety or as religious semiotic constructions that were part of a broad array of other signifiers used by Rilke to explore the creative process itself in his poetry as he sought to move away from nineteenth-century literary tradition and establish his own poetic identity (in particular as a break from aestheticism, naturalism, and eventually the Jugendstil traditions in literature).
Rilke and Confessional Forms of Biblical Religion.
Rilke’s use of the Bible in his oeuvre developed out of both his experiential relationship and theological engagement with institutional forms of biblical religion, namely with Catholicism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, and to a lesser degree with Judaism, although his view of Jewish rituals, life, and culture greatly affected both his poetics and religious worldview. A brief overview of the biographical and intellectual context for his emerging poetics in relation to the Bible is helpful for understanding how Rilke continued to use the Bible in his works throughout his life, especially, as the biographer Patricia Brodsky notes, since Rilke’s poetics can from one angle be best described as the interplay between “daily life and the act of turning it into poetry” (2001, pp. 20–21).
Early home life.
René (his original first name) Maria Rilke was raised in a Catholic home overshadowed by religious hypocrisy and superstitious piety. His mother, Phia Rilke, attended Mass regularly, and René remembers being made to kiss the wounds of the Crucifix (Prater, 1986, p. 5). The overexposure to external Catholic piety coupled with a problematic home life given his parents’ marital difficulties affected Rilke’s view of confessional forms of religious expression and belief. Though apparently having espoused at age 14 while a cadet at the military school in St. Pölten a belief in the existence of God based on cosmological proofs, Rilke seems to have rejected orthodox Christian doctrines by 1893 (at age 18) given statements made in his poem “Glaubensbekenntnis” (Faith Confession; never published during his lifetime). Rilke severed all official confessional ties with Catholicism in 1901.
Influence of Nietzsche and Rilke’s view of Christianity.
In the fall of 1896 Rilke relocated from Prague to Munich to study art history at the University of Munich after one semester as a student in art history, philosophy, and literature at the University of Prague earlier that year. In Munich he also continued reading devoutly the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche that he had begun while in Prague. Nietzsche’s anti-Christian thought manifests itself in both Rilke’s literary and essayist works of the period. In one short story, “Der Apostel” (The Apostle), written in Prague in 1896, Nietzsche appears to serve as the model for the protagonist. The cycle of 11 poems titled “Christus-Visionen (erste Folge)” (Visions of Christ [First Series]), written in Munich between 1896 and 1897 but published 20 years after his death, rejects Christ as an intermediary between humanity and God and depicts him in a variety of unorthodox configurations, projecting him anachronistically into the present as a friend of children, a foolish father, as a caring person who is powerless, as Ahasverus, the eternally wandering Jew, as crucified, yet unredeemed, and as a drunken lover.
Rilke’s view of the Old Testament.
Rilke’s relationship to Judaism was more positive than his view of Christianity, however, and many Old Testament accounts, in particular those of Saul, David, and the prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Jeremiah, serve as a treasure trove of poetic inspiration in the New Poems I and II (1907/1908). Whereas the figure of Christ as the mediator between God and humanity was a hindrance for Rilke in his spiritual quest and accompanying poetics, the Jews represented to him, as did Islamic Arabs, a people who have a direct relationship with God. He conceived of the relationship between the Jews and God as one of an exchanged dependence (Windfuhr, 1997, p. 138). Consequently, Rilke held the Old Testament in higher regard than the New Testament. The stories in the Old Testament revealed to Rilke how Judaism was experienced as a daily personal encounter in the realm of suffering (Sievers, 1967, p. 11).
Relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé.
Strongly influenced also by the thought of Lou(ise) Andreas-Salomé (1861–1937), whom he met in Munich in May of 1897 and with whom he began a romantic relationship, Rilke continued to refashion his view of God in relation to his poetics. By 1898 in Mir zu Feier (Celebration of Myself), Rilke’s language reveals a view of God that has shifted from the traditional confessional understanding, which regards the divine presence as an external “Opposite” or “Other” who is demonstrable and demanding, to a view of God as an ever-present, affective entity who is always present internally. Rilke conceived of God as able to be experienced by the heart of the individual especially during creative moments without any loss of the divine, mysterious character as that ever-present entity (Schiwy, 2006, p. 41).
Russian folk piety.
In the spring of 1899 Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé traveled together to Russia. Lou had been raised in St. Petersburg as the daughter of a Russian general of Huguenot descent and a German mother and was well connected socially to members of the Russian elite and literary circles. Arriving just before the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, they were able to witness the Easter Vigil in Moscow—an event that profoundly changed Rilke. He began to see in Russian peasant piety the idea of a new religion without ratio (Fuerst, 1976, p. 27). Inspired by the Russian experience, Rilke returned to Berlin-Schmargendorf and in less than two months had composed Die Gebete (1899) (The Prayers), which became part of the Stunden-Buch (1905) (Book of Hours), Der Cornet (The Cornet) (1899/1904), and Das Buch vom lieben Gott und Anderes (The Book from the Good Lord [God] and Other Things) (1900/1904), in which he deals with the problematic notion of embracing piety without having to believe in God as the church would teach. He became obsessed with Russian culture and literature, began to intensely study the language, and then returned to Russia again with Lou in May 1900. With the completion of the Russian journeys and his encounter with Russian Orthodox Christianity, Rilke’s views of the divine arrived at a foundational form that then served as the point of departure for his future creative works, which draw from and engage with biblical sources. As the biographer Donald Prater comments: “Rilke’s belief was not in God but in his own power to create him” (1986, p. 56).
Rilke’s Personal Copy of the Bible.
The Bible that Rilke read during the course of his lifetime, in addition to the Kautzsch (Old Testament) and Weizäcker (New Testament) translations that Lou Andreas-Salomé had recommended to him in November 1903, was a 1770 Luther version, 11" × 17" format, published by Johann August Enax of Minden with a preface by Johannes Franciscus. It contained not only the Old and New Testaments (with Apocrypha) but also a 1778 copy of the New Songbook of the Evangelical-Lutheran Bremen Cathedral Congregation by Diedrich Meier. It is unclear where he procured this particular copy of the Bible (Sievers, 1967, p. 8).
The richest traces of Rilke’s use of the Bible can be seen in the Psalms, where there are red marginal markings, outlining, and underlining, with most of the marks found in Psalms 22 through 71 (those psalms attributed to King David), although none of the verses marked became part of Rilke’s poetic work except for one meaningful word motif, namely words associated with crying out (Ger heulen) and lament (Ger klagen) (Fülleborn, 1999, p. 21). The markings in the Psalms thematically align with those psalms whose content deals with the concept of humanity wrestling with God. Sievers notes that there were no markings in the New Testament, but that leaves and flowers had been placed in sections whose themes Rilke used as his New Testament biblical motifs (e.g., there is a leaf in the chapter of John’s Gospel that records Jesus’s crucifixion (John 19), a flower in Luke 24 (Resurrection) and in John 11 (Raising of Lazarus) (1967, p. 9).
Select Overview of Biblical Themes and Motifs in Rilke’s Poetic Works.
In addition to the aforementioned biblical and religious references from Rilke’s early phase of his poetic and theological development (e.g., “Faith Confession,” “The Apostle,” “Visions of Christ,” “Celebration of Myself,” and “The Stories from the Good Lord [God]”), biblical themes as well as motifs from religious works of art are found across Rilke’s entire oeuvre.
Book of Hours.
Biblical language harking back to the Psalms is infused throughout the entire Stunden-Buch (1905; Book of Hours), and the title of the collection suggests a book of private devotion for worship as books of hours were the most popular Christian devotional book for nearly 300 years from the Middle Ages to the Early Renaissance (Hutchinson, 2008, p. xi). In Rilke’s Book of Hours the prayers to a transcendent God are replaced with prayers to a God who is here and now in a monistic world (Fülleborn, 1999, p. 31).
The Book of Images.
Das Buch der Bilder (1902/1906/1913; The Book of Images [Pictures]) reveals a transitional phase for Rilke between the poetics of The Book of Hours and the creation of the New Poems (1907/1908). It contains a number of poems based on themes from the Bible and/or religious art: for example, “Die Engel” (The Angels; angels were used extensively as a figure by Rilke in many of his works); “Die Heilige” (The Saint; probably based on a mural of the life of St. Geneviève found in the Pantheon in Paris); “Abendmahl” (The Last Supper) (based on Leonardo’s famous fresco of the same name); “Die Verkündigung” (The Annunciation); “Die Heiligen Drei Könige” (The Holy Three Kings); and “Das Jüngste Gericht” (The Judgment Day) (perhaps inspired by Michelangelo’s wall painting in the Sistine Chapel).
The New Poems I and II.
There are two major sections of biblical poems in both the Neue Gedichte (1907; New Poems I) and Der Neuen Gedichte anderer Teil (1908; Of the New Poems the Other Part; or simply called New Poems II). The New Poems I and II as a whole represent a marked aesthetic shift in Rilke’s poetic development from his earlier works. Inspired by his observation of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, for whom Rilke worked as his private secretary from September 1905 to May 1906 in Meudon, France, Rilke began experimenting with the creation of object-oriented poems referred to as Dinggedichte (thing-poems) in which things are portrayed in such a factual and precise manner through language so as to evoke or reveal their own dynamic existence. As Judith Ryan points out, Rilke claimed that the New Poems focused on objects in three-dimensional reality, thus removing them from time and space (1999, p. 50).
The Neue Gedichte (1907) contains eight poems with content directly related to either biblical texts or religious art inspired by biblical material: “Abisag I–II” (Abishag/1 Kgs 1:1–4); “David singt vor Saul I–III” (David sings before Saul/1 Sam 16:23); “Josuas Landtag” (Joshua’s Parliament/Josh 24 and Josh 10:12–13); “Der Auszug des Verlorenen Sohnes” (The Exodus of the Lost Son/inspired by a fourteenth-century tapestry in the Marburg Cathedral and Luke 15:11–32); and “Der Ölbaum-Garten” (The Olive Tree Garden/Luke 22:39–46 and also based possibly on El Greco’s Christ on the Mount of Olives) and one poem, “Pietà,” that deals with the legend of Mary Magdalene at the Cross not found in the New Testament. The model for the poem may be Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar, Botticelli’s Lamentation of Christ, or Rodin’s sculpture Christ and Magdalena.
Der Neuen Gedichte anderer Teil contains the largest number of poems (15 total) that deal with biblical figures and themes, some of which were also directly inspired by religious art: “Klage um Jonathan” (Lament for Jonathan/2 Sam 1:17–27), “Tröstung des Elia” (Comforting of Elijah/1 Kgs 19), “Saul unter den Propheten” (Saul among the Prophets/1 Sam 19:8–24 and 10:1–16), “Samuels Erscheinung vor Saul” (Samuel’s Appearance before Saul/1 Sam 28:8–25), “Ein Prophet” (probably Ezekiel), “Jeremia,” “Absaloms Abfall” (Absalom’s Apostasy/2 Sam 15–19), “Esther,” “Der Aussätzige König” (The Leprous King/2 Chron 26:16–21), “Das Jüngste Gericht” (The Last Judgment/probably inspired by Michelangelo’s wall painting in the Sistine Chapel), “Kreuzigung” (Crucifixion/Gospels of Matthew and Mark), “Der Auferstandene” (The Resurrected One/John 20:1–18), “Magnificat” (Luke 1:39–56), “Adam,” and “Eva” (inspired by carved reliefs on the exterior of Notre Dame Cathedral).
Use of Kontrafraktur.
In a number of the poems based on biblical texts (especially in the New Poems), Rilke used a variant of the technique known in German as Kontrafraktur (from Latin: “contra”- “facere” meaning “against production”), which was a means by which the composer of a song text could rework the content of a well-known song into either a parody (for worldly entertainment or political purposes) or a Christian hymn (especially during the Reformation) using the song’s same melody (Brunkhorst, 2004, p. 41). With this technique Rilke appropriated the biblical text for his own poetic purposes, which in some poems is intended to undermine the more traditional theological interpretation of the biblical text serving as the model for the poem (e.g., “Der Ölbaum-Garten” [The Olive Tree Garden/Luke 22:39–46] and “Klage um Jonathan” [Lament for Jonathan/2 Sam 1:17–27]). The question of the relationship between the biblical poems in the New Poems as Dinggedichte versus their role as expressions of Rilke’s life and/or religious worldview remains a topic of scholarly debate.
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
After finishing the New Poems Rilke entered into a crisis of creativity phase in his poetic development from which many interpreters believe he did not fully emerge until the completion of the Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies) in 1922 (begun in 1912) and the Sonette an Orpheus (1923; Sonnets to Orpheus), which were written during a period of only three weeks in February of 1922. During this latter period of Rilke’s life, his work continued to engage biblical themes. At the beginning of this period the focus on his major prose work, Die Aufzeichnung des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), served as a kind of therapeutic project for Rilke (Prater, 1986, p. 173). In the final section of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke retells the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 15:11–32), changing it into a story about destitute love.
The Life of the Virgin Mary.
Das Marien-Leben (1913; The Life of the Virgin Mary), collected and completed as a cycle between 15 and 22 January 1912 in Duino (although the dates of individual poems are not known), is based on Gospel accounts and Christian legends portrayed in Italian art (namely Titian’s works found in Venice and Tintoretto’s paintings in Santa Madonna dell Orto), Byzantine paintings (The Painters’ Book [Manual/Guide] from Mount Athos), and Russian artwork (the Kiewski Paterik) that Rilke had viewed during his many travels.
Several of Rilke’s poems in the latter half of his life deal also with biblical figures or themes: “Der Tod Moses” (1918; The Death of Moses/inspired by the painting by Karl Caspar titled Moses); “Emmaus” (1914) (Luke 24:13–35); “Christi Höllenfahrt” (1913/1914) (Christ’s Descent into Hades) (Matthew 12:40; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:9; 1 Peter 3:19; Revelation 1:18 and the Painters’ Book from Mount Athos), and “Auferweckung des Lazarus” (The Raising of Lazarus) (John 11:1–45).
The angel figures in the Duineser Elegien (1923) (Duino Elegies), while drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition, cannot be interpreted primarily in terms of their relationship to the Bible but were conceived by Rilke as the highest order of a number of objects in the metaphysical realm arrayed cyclically in stages of consciousness.
Suggestions for Further Research.
Recent German scholarship on Rilke and the Bible has pointed to the paucity of more extensive current research (in particular monographs) that deals with Rilke’s relationship to Christianity (Schiwy, 2006) and Rilke’s use of biblical themes in general (Brunkhorst, 2004). Other specific areas in need of further scholarly research include Rilke’s view and portrayal of the role of the prophet (both biblical and otherwise) in his works; the relationship between religious art and Rilke’s appropriation of the biblical sources in his poetry; Rilke’s perceptions of eroticism and spirituality in his focus on certain relationships in the Bible (e.g., Jonathan and David; Christ and Mary Magdalene); and the connection between Rilke’s use of biblical themes and motifs related to his shift in poetic tradition as part of a modernist aesthetics.
[See also MODERN LITERATURE.]
- Brodsky, Patricia Pollock. “Colored Glass and Mirrors: Life with Rilke.” In A Companion to the Works of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Erika A. Metzger and Michael M. Metzger, pp. 19–39. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001. A brief, helpful introduction to Rilke’s life and work and the reoccuring patterns that characterized his artistic development.
- Brunkhorst, Katja. “Bibel.” In Rilke-Handbuch: Leben, Werk, Wirkung, edited by Manfred Engel, with Dorothea Lauterbach, pp. 37–43. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004. A concise and detailed synopsis of Rilke’s creative relationship to the Bible. Contains extensive bibliography.
- Fuerst, Norbert. Rilke in seiner Zeit [Rilke in His Time]. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1976. Situates Rilke’s artistic production contextually as a product of his dialogue with the aesthetic and ideological movements of the period.
- Fülleborn, Ulrich. “Rilkes Gebrauch der Bibel” [Rilke’s Use of the Bible]. In Rilke und die Weltliteratur, edited by Manfred Engel and Dieter Lamping, pp. 19–38. Düsseldorf: Artemis & Winkler, 1999. Interprets Rilke’s use of the Bible from a poetic and aesthetic perspective within the context of modernism.
- Hutchinson, Ben. “Introduction.” In The Book of Hours: A New Translation with Commentary, translated by Susan Ranson, edited by Ben Hutchinson, pp. xi–xxxiv. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2008. An informative Introduction to a very good new English translation with commentary of Rilke’s Book of Hours.
- Prater, Donald. A Ringing Glass: the Life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986. A throughly researched and very readable biography in English that emphasizes primarily the events of Rilke’s life in connection to his works.
- Ryan, Judith. Rilke, Modernism and Poetic Tradition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An in-depth exploration of Rilke’s poetic development and its struggle to emerge from influences of nineteenth-century literary and artistic traditions into modernism.
- Schiwy, Günter. Rilke und die Religion [Rilke and Religion]. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 2006. Traces Rilke’s religious views from the perspective of both his primary works and his essays.
- Sievers, Marianne. Die biblischen Motive in der Dichtung Rainer Maria Rilkes [The Biblical Motifs in the Poetic Work of Rainer Maria Rilke]. Edited by Emil Ebering. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1967. The first full monograph that examines Rilke’s use of biblical material across his oeuvre. Though somewhat dated in its conclusions in relation to current scholarship, Siever’s work is a significant and important study of Rilke’s use of biblical motifs.
- Windfuhr, Manfred. “ ‘Religiöse Produktivität’—die biblischen-jüdischen Motive in Rilkes Neue Gedichte” [Religious Productivity—the biblical-Jewish Motifs in Rilke’s New Poems]. In Traditionen der Lyrik: Festschrift für Hans-Henrik Krummacher, edited by Wolfgang Düsing, pp. 137–155. Tübingen, Germany: Niemeyer, 1997. Focuses on Rilke’s use of the Bible in the New Poems I and II and his fascination with the role of the prophet.