God, sex and Paris—the life of Rilke

A new book argues the poet is an antidote to our politically sensitive times
June 16, 2022
Rilke: The Last Inward Man
Lesley Chamberlain
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org
Prospect receives commission when you buy a book using this page. Thank you for supporting us.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is possibly more popular than his poetry. Certainly his writing advice is quoted more often on social media, while his intense observations and inward exploration have become less fashionable since his death in 1926. However, in Rilke: The Last Inward Man, Lesley Chamberlain situates that poetry in its historical context, while also defending the artist as aesthete. 

In her earlier study, Nietzsche in Turin, Chamberlain offered a compact introduction for the general reader. But to appreciate this new book, it’s useful to have a grasp of the poetry and biography already. The book’s chronology is scattered, with the work and the life gathered under different subjects: God, sexuality, Paris.

This means she can range across time and place, but also makes it harder to trace the subject’s personal and poetic development. Important incidents—suicidal impulses, serial infidelity—are mentioned in passing, while Rilke’s peripatetic existence—he lived in Prague, Munich, Paris, Ronda, various Swiss villages and a string of castles belonging to wealthy patrons—seems even more unsettled when described out of sequence.

The book convincingly argues for the importance of the early poetry. It also untangles Rilke’s confusing beliefs about God—at once pagan and mystic, devout and disbelieving—and summarises his worldview with brilliant concision: “He was a materialist because the matter of the world is everything of value to us. Human lives are led in the weighty and dazzling presence of things.”

Chamberlain is right that Rilke’s freedom from historical moorings makes him universal, but her efforts to present him as an antidote to our politically sensitive times are less convincing. In the end, the poet resists being recruited to any cause, even his own.