I was in my twenties and living in Philadelphia when browsing in a Center City bookstore I happened upon Letters to a Young Poet. Later I bought the Duino Elegies-which I read on vacation camping at Acadia National Park-and collected poems in several translations.
|The Burghers of Calais by Rodin|
Corbett's book follows the lives of both poet and artist, concentrating on their friendship and how Rodin influenced Rilke's view of the artistic life and appreciation of art, in context of their contemporary society and artist communities.
As a young man Rilke traveled to visit his idols but it was Rodin who took him into his home and confidence.
The poet served as Rodin's personal secretary, living with him at Meudon. In a writing slump, Rodin directed Rilke to the zoo to observe the animals, altering the trajectory of his work culminating in his famous poem The Panther.
Rilke took to heart Rodin's admonition that the artist must dedicate their life to their art; seeking solitude Rilke abandoned his wife and child to fend for themselves.
Rilke wrote a monograph on Rodin in which he wrote, "and he labors incessantly. His life is like a single workday" in which "therein lay a kind of renunciation of life." Rilke stressed Rodin as "solitary": "Rodin was solitary before his fame"; he lived "in the country solitude of his dwelling"; he learned his craft "alone within itself" until "Finally, after years of solitary labor, he attempted to come out with one of his works." That work was rejected and he "locked himself away again for thirteen years."
Rilke's perception of the artist influenced his own artistic philosophy, evident in the letters he wrote to a young student, Franz Xaver Kappus, who published them in 1929 as Letters To A Young Poet. In the letters Rilke advises the aspiring poet that no outsider can affirm one's own artistic worth, that it must come from within. He tells Kappus to "look to Nature," the "little things that hardly anyone sees." Rilke praises solitude, "it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it."
Neither man was a paragon. Rodin lived with a commonlaw wife who had to tolerate his series of mistresses, including his art student Camille Claudel. He was sensitive and irascible and after nine months he threw Rilke out over a perceived breech of trust: in Rodin's absence Rilke had written a letter to a friend he'd introduced to Rodin, and Rodin had not approved his writing the letter.
The world in the early 20th c. was rapidly changing. Rodin's art became repetitive and was considered too representational. Rilke's work was in keeping with the new movements of Existentialism, Abstract Art, and Depth Psychology. Rilke's poetry continued to show growth during his brief 51 years, but Rodin, over twenty years older, in old age realized how serialized his work had become and felt the irony that only as he neared the end of his life did he realize the pupose of his work.
Toward the end of Rodin's life Rilke realized Rodin had failed to live up to his own advice, which Rilke had taken to heart: work, only work.
"You must change your life" is the last line in Rilke's poem Archaic Torso of Apollo which I first read translated by Stephen Mitchell. Rilke responds to a sculpture of the god Apollo, sans head, arms, and legs, but which still holds a transformative power so that "you must change your life" upon encountering it.
Read about a newly published translation of Rilke by Ruth Spiers here
Read about Rilke's influence on me here
I received an ARC from W. W. Norton in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
You Must Change Your Life
W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Sept. 2016
$26.95 hard cover