In the history of literature there has probably never been a case of subordination of life to work like that of Rilke. Convinced that he was called on to carry out a poetic mission, each step of his life was directed towards fulfilling this destiny.
But before examining the parallels between his life and work, two premises must be discussed: Rilke’s sensitivity and language. The poet’s sensitivity is reflected in the title he gave to some of his poems in prose: Notes on the Melody of Things. The poet allows himself to be filled, invaded by them, and his work speak ex abundantia cordis. One of the poet’s favourite verbs, and which he repeats in many poems is to overflow (überfließen, überlaufen, überfüllen). In regard to his language, it is unique: Rilke pertained to the German-speaking minority in Prague and never wanted to live in a German-speaking country. So he spent his life writing in his native language but not using it. This led to a very original syntaxis and vocabulary, and to a style that cannot be compared to any other German-speaking author, to the point that for the Germans themselves, many of Rilke’s poems are strange and exotic to them.
Four stages can be distinguished in the parellel course of Rilke’s life and work, which are at the same time geographical and literary, and which could be termed sentimental, objective, cosmic and visionary. Despite this evolution, he wrote over a half-a-thousand poems in French as well as poems in Russian.
In order to explain each phase, it must be illustrated –or more precisely demonstrated– using poems. Can Rilke’s poetry be translated? Only prose can be translated, and when it is bad—he himself wrote—; but not even bad poetry can be translated, because poems are things in which each word, the decision to use each word and its tone, is established in a precise and secure manner. Yet it must be remembered that he himself translated, and considerably —the seventh volume of his complete works, added to the previous six in 1997, contains over 1,400 pages—. He translated from French, Danish, Italian and English.