Reassessing the Terrifying Modernist Religion of Rilke's Elegies

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies


The task of interpreting the Duino Elegies is not an easy one. These poems express the experiences and ideas of perhaps the most sensitive and subtle German poet of modern times. Rainer Maria Rilke’s intellectual and spiritual horizon was broad. His life was full of undercurrents, inner tensions and hidden depths. We do not need to read his Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge as autobiography. But Rilke’s “Letter to a Young Girl”[1] and his comments to his French translator show clearly the importance of the Notebook for a proper understanding of his personality. It is a work which conveys some idea at least of the complexity, and also the constant vulnerability of Rilke’s inner life.

This same poet who had things of such importance to say about the end of our own age was also a prophet of things to come. Whereas his Book of Hours can readily be understood from the tradition of the past, other works, notably the Elegies, refer to the prospects and perils of the future. No interpretation of these prophetic utterances can claim to be final and authoritative.

One other feature of the Elegies calls for mention. The experiences which inspired them were not only more profound and subtle than those which generally fall to our lot. To some extent, they were different in kind. Underlying the Eighth Elegy, for instance, there is an experience of life which is bound to be unfamiliar to the majority of readers. Rilke’s “Angels” only take on their full meaning if we can conceive of beings who are “numinous” without being “absolute.” Rilke’s conception of love and death, which he himself regarded as a fundamental part of his message in the Elegies,[2] is quite remote from more normal notions of these things. We must also bear in mind the fact that his picture of life was colored, to a far greater extent than is at first apparent, by his interest in the occult.

Finally, with regard to the content of the Elegies, Rilke confidently claims that they contain a message which is profound, new and metaphysical or, to be more precise, religious. This message requires careful exposition.


Rilke’s work is highly relevant to modern Man. It reflects hopes and fears, experiences of Good and Evil, and inner searchings which are very much with us today. Hence the task of interpreting the Elegies necessarily involves us in another task which cannot be dismissed lightly—that of defining our attitude to their content.

The various attitudes which have already been taken up towards Rilke’s poetry can be shown from a brief glance at the last three decades. The Elegies first appeared in 1922. The response which they evoked at first was one of sympathetic or bewildered reserve. Then a small enthusiastic section of readers began to show an interest in the Elegies which went beyond any merely aesthetic appreciation. Most of Rilke’s German public continued to read chiefly the Lay of Cornet Christoph Rilke, the Book of Hours, or the Life of the Virgin Mary. But the smaller circle of devotees recognized the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus as the work of the real Rilke who also expressed himself in the Later Poems.

This new esteem for Rilke not only grew in proportions. At times it assumed the character of a religious fervor, similar to the enthusiasm aroused by the work of Stefan George or Hölderlin’s later Hymns and fragments. It grew to such an extent that any criticism of Rilke was in danger of being ignored or rejected out of hand.

Then there was another change of mood. Whereas after the Second World War Rilke’s poetry was extolled with almost partisan extravagance, attention was now also directed to the negative features of his work and personality. It may be added that critics of his poetry were never lacking. The followers of Stefan George, for instance, voiced their criticism with a severity which can only be explained in religious or semi-religious terms. They were like the disciples of one master showing their hostility to another. But even within the ranks of those who admired Rilke greatly and who devoted intense study to his works there arose a new critical spirit. Their criticism was not directed only at isolated features of his writing, such as his treatment of words or rhyme, but at his view of existence, his attitude to life and religion, and the whole character of his poetry which was now felt to be ultimately very negative and disturbing.

It is perhaps not surprising that this reaction should have been called forth particularly by the Duino Elegies which sprang from depths of the mind which are apparently remote from anything in rational experience. Indeed the reader of the Elegies must try to imagine the poet being guided by a “spirit” which presented him with images and ideas as he wrote. The Elegies thus differ in their profundity, and certainly in their content, from other poems which are more commonly inspired by personal or historical experiences. Their vision is like that of a dream in revealing hidden associations which we cannot see, perhaps because we do not want to see them, when we are awake. And if it is true that the poet, when he speaks from his heart, says something which concerns us all, then such poems as the Elegies throw some light on the processes and forces which surge up from the dark depths of history.


Evidence that the Duino Elegies are poems of the kind described above is given in the memoirs of the Princess of Thurn and Taxis and also in the letters which Rilke wrote from Muzot.[3] There was something violent and sudden—something almost dangerous as well—about the way in which Rilke wrote the Elegies. The inspiration came to him in a strange fashion while he was living in the castle of Duino on the Adriatic in 1912. Two of the Elegies—the first two of the cycle—were completed at that time.

Others, like the opening twelve lines of the final Elegy, remained fragmentary.[4] Further fragments followed during mike’s travels to Toledo, Ronda and Paris, but then his muse fell silent. Knowing that the completion of the Elegies was of vital importance, he waited for his inspiration to return, but in vain. Then war broke out and overwhelmed him with its fatality. But he continued to feel frustrated by the first promise of inspiration which had not been fulfilled.

Rilke then decided to lead a strictly solitary life which was made possible by the tenure, and later the purchase, of the little castle of Muzot near Sierre on the Rhone. There, in February 1922, his inspiration returned with an almost elemental violence which compelled him to write again. In the space of a few weeks the whole cycle of ten Elegies was completed. Immediately after the last one was written he announced to the Princess of Thurn and Taxis: “All in a few days, it was an indescribable storm, a hurricane of the spirit (as at Duino), every fibre and tissue cracked within me—any thought of food was out of the question, God knows who fed me.”[5]

Almost at the same time another work, the Sonnets to Orpheus, was taking shape in his mind and trying with equal urgency to find expression. He wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé that the first twenty-five Sonnets had already been written as if “in the prelude to a storm.” Thirty others were to follow.

A letter which was written later to Arthur Fischer-Golbrie (December 18, 1925) tells how Rilke bridged the gap often years which had interrupted the writing of the Elegies:

Here, where everything assisted me during my strict seclusion of the Winter 1921/22, the joints of my work, fractured in the year Fourteen, were knitted together again—something which I had almost ceased to hope for. The healing process was so gentle and smooth that a few weeks of devotion were sufficient for the whole cycle of the Elegies to take shape, as if it had never really been broken off, or had simply been benumbed in its separate fragments. For a man who had felt himself divided to his very depths by the dreadful pressure of those years into a Then and a Now which was perishing and irreconcilable with the past—for such a man to experience the grace of perceiving how, in the secret depths beneath this open rupture, the continuity of his work and his mind had been restored . . . this seems to me to have more than personal significance. For this gives a measure of the inexhaustible stratification of our nature. And how many, who for one reason or another believe themselves to be torn within, might not derive a peculiar consolation from this example of continuity.

Rilke’s letters from Muzot show how close was the relation which he felt to exist between the Elegies and the Sonnets. To Witold von Huléwicz he wrote: “the Elegies and the Sonnets constantly support each other—and I count it an infinite grace that I was able to fill both these sails with the same breath: the small rust-colored sail of the Sonnets and the huge white canvas of the Elegies.”[6] Sonnets and Elegies differ in their origin, their form and in the mood or ideas which they express. But each work completes and throws light on the other so that together they form a larger whole.


Rilke attached particular importance to the link between the Elegies and the Sonnets. As is shown by the letters which he wrote soon after their completion he saw himself in the position of a seer or prophet. He was convinced that he was the bearer of a message which had been “dictated” to him from a source which could only be described as “religious.” He wrote to von Huléwicz: “And am I the one who can give the right explanation of the Elegies? They pass infinitely far beyond me.”

He thus claimed more for his poems than the beauty or profundity of great literature. We might say that he claimed “authority” for them. He wrote to Xaver von Moos about the Sonnets:[7]

To me they are perhaps the most mysterious and, in the way they were revealed and imposed on me, the most enigmatic dictation which I ever endured and achieved. The whole of the first part was written down in one breathless submission between February 2nd and 5th, 1922, without any word being in doubt or in need of alteration. And this at a time when I was already prepared for another great work and already occupied with it. How can one help feeling increased reverence and infinite gratitude for such experiences in one’s own life. I myself am just penetrating more and more into the spirit of this missive which the Sonnets are proving themselves to be.

In a letter which he wrote shortly afterwards to Clara Rilke he stated: “Where an obscurity remains it is of the kind that requires, not enlightenment, but submission.”[8]

Rilke thus demands more from his reader than appreciation of the beauty of his verses or comprehension of great thoughts. His work does not require “enlightenment,” but—Rilke emphasizes the distinction—“submission,” in other words “faith.” His own relation to his work is that of a prophet—an inspired vessel filled with the divine voice which speaks through him. He himself had to listen to his own words and “penetrate” them gradually.

This claim which Rilke makes is so far-reaching that the reader is entitled to ask whether or not it is authentic. Usually a claim of this kind is given an aesthetic interpretation as evidence: of the poet’s inspiration and faith in his own work. We respect his claim and acknowledge the significance of his writings; but this would not have satisfied Rilke at all, for his own meaning was utterly different. This is clear both from the way in which the Elegies were composed and from his manner of referring to them. It is especially clear from the deliberate contrast which he drew between the message of the Elegies and Christianity.

In view of the far-reaching claims which the poet makes for his work we are not merely justified—we are obliged to examine how far they can be substantiated. Such an examination might be made by direct application of the yardstick of religion. We might ask what relation Rilke’s message has to man’s quest for salvation, what new prospects it opens up to humanity, or how this message stands in relation to human experience as a whole, particularly in Western Europe, and so forth. The present investigation can only follow this course a short distance, for our criteria are primarily philosophical. The question to be answered here is not whether Rilke’s message commands respect, but whether his pronouncements are true in themselves: whether his impressive account of life and death, of humanity and personal relations really corresponds to the truth.

An undertaking of this kind may be difficult to understand today. The author has already provoked a certain amount of criticism whenever he left the path of historical or aesthetic appreciation in order to make a philosophical assessment of poetic works—in other words whenever he was concerned with the question of their objective truth. The relativistic spirit of our age is not very tolerant of this approach to poetry. It tries to restrict our inquiry to such questions as what the poet really meant, how he expressed himself, which currents of thought influenced him—but not whether what he said was true. In other words it allows us to scrutinize the subjective truth of a literary work—to discover whether or not it is genuine in feeling and pure in expression—but not whether it is objectively true in reflecting the nature of Being.

This neglect of the truth which a work contains may be permissible in the case of poetry which is subjective in character, but not when the poet in question seeks to present a coherent picture of the world, and least of all when he has a message to proclaim. If the critical method we have adopted compels us to leave out of account the question of truth, we must not imagine that this is a virtue of the scientific approach. Paradoxically, it arises from a specifically modern sense of insecurity which makes us shrink from dealing with truth in the objective sense and restricts us to subjective experience and interpretation. And this is to misunderstand not only the nature of truth but also the very mission of the poet. For there can be no doubt that a poet’s work expresses much more than subjective experience, unless of course he is by nature incapable of progressing beyond his subjectivity. But in that case his very deficiency will affect the character of his work, and this again is a proper subject for philosophical examination.

The problem may be put as follows. A poetic work is more than mere “expression”—it is a declaration and the truth of a declaration is necessarily verifiable. This means that it must not only be sincere, and authentic but must also grasp the nature of Being. If a poet says “It is so,” he has committed himself to a declaration and he is entitled to demand our serious attention. But he is also answerable for the truth of his declaration and the reader may test it by this standard.

In former times there was no uncertainty about the proper relation between poetry and reader. The idea would never have occurred to a cultured Greek that it was not permissible to question the truth of a poet’s statement about human life or the gods. This is after all the established procedure in philosophical, if not in literary, criticism. The view of the Middle Ages was no different. And we can probably say with some confidence that no one today reading a poem naturally and spontaneously would assess its merit according to its aesthetic value alone or by its dependence on sources. The reader is bound to decide for himself that “this is true” or “this is false.” The so-called scientific approach, which deals solely with the form or the content of a poetic utterance as a phenomenon, is itself historically determined and open to criticism.

It is necessary to remind ourselves of the fundamental fact that the language of man is a vehicle not merely of subjective expression, but also, and primarily, of objective truth. It involves first and foremost the assertion that “this is so,” and only secondarily the expression “I feel it to be so.” This holds good wherever human language is uttered—and particularly where it assumes the power and fervor of poetry.


Editorial Note: This essay is an excerpt of the Introduction from Romano Guardini's Rilke’s Duino Elegies: An Interpretation, courtesy of Cluny Media.

 [1] See Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902–1926, p. 323ff.

[2] See Rilke’s letter to Witold von Huléwicz of November 13, 1925.

[3] See Selected Letters, p. 352ff.

[4] See ibid., p. 353.

[5] Letter of February 11, 1922. Compare Selected Letters, p. 352.

[6] Letter of November 13, 1925.

[7] Letter of April 20, 1923.

[8] Letter of April 23, 1923.

Featured Image: Viktor Vasnetsov, Rejoice in the Lord, O ye Righteous (Panel 2 of the Triptych), 1896; Source: Voices from Russia, PD-Old-100.


Romano Guardini

Romano Guardini (1885–1968) was a Catholic priest, professor, and author. He taught theology and philosophy at the University of Berlin, University of Tübingen, and University of Munich. Included among his intellectual disciples are Josef Pieper, Luigi Giussani, and Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

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