Rainer Maria Rilke: Dwelling in Poetry

Dernière mise à jour : 11 janv. 2021

Rainer Maria Rilke at Muzot, 1923

Extract from :

The Language of Real Life: Self-Possession in the Poetry of Paul Celan, T. S. Eliot,

Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Valéry

by Scott Marentette

"High upon a mountain terrace in the Upper Rhône Valley, the Château de Muzot sits snugly in the surrounding trees girding the property with their roots. Built in the thirteenth century, the château still housed furnishings from the seventeenth century when Rainer Maria Rilke moved into it in 1921. In July of that year, he discovered the château in the town of Sierre while trekking across the Swiss region of Valais in search of a suitable dwelling in which to undertake his next creative venture.

He moved into the château in November in order to begin the most ambitious creative phase of his life. Having gradually loosened the ties of family, friends, and finances, Rilke sought in the remote château the calm and solitude that he needed in order to mobilize all of his energies towards writing.

By January 1922, Rilke would quickly become inspired to write the culminating works of his career, the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus. By going to the château, Rilke performed the decisive task of setting apart his own space for creating. Much like the studio of visual artists such as his mentor, sculptor Auguste Rodin, Rilke’s retreat functioned as a specially designated space in which he could fully devote himself to his art. The trajectory of Rilke’s career is precisely the task of seeking out the space for living the way of the artist.

Just as the artist needs a space in which to work, the artist also opens a space with the work of art. Earlier in his career, Rilke had written a poem entitled “Eingang” (“Entrance”) in which he invites the reader to step out of a room in a house, cross the threshold to the outside, and imagine planting a tree in the air.

Whoever you are: in the evening step out

of your room, where you know everything....

With your eyes, which in their weariness

barely free themselves from the worn-out threshold,

you very slowly lift one black tree

and place it against the sky: slender, alone.

And you have made the world.

The poem is fittingly placed at the beginning of his collection The Book of Images, which invites the reader to enter the space of poetry. As he grafts branches from Charles Baudelaire’s “forêts de symboles” (“forests of symbols”), Rilke establishes for poetry a privileged space apart from the cares of the quotidian. Yet what constitutes the world of verse ? Is the tree that Rilke asks the reader to imagine merely growing in the imagination or does it correspond to concrete reality ?

Likening the tree to “a word which grows ripe in silence”, Rilke’s invitation is a call to enter the realm of poetry – the space that seems to exist apart from the material world. As Rilke’s retreat to Muzot indicates, entering the space of poetry requires an appropriate place for dwelling in it. Muzot was the refuge where he could foster his creativity in an unfettered state of self-possession.

Defined commonly as “equanimity” or “self-composure,” self-possession is the optimal condition for inhabiting the space of creativity. In other words, Rilke’s retreat points to the relationship between place and self-possession. As maps draw the lines of geographical borders, poetry delineates the boundaries of Being.


In 1905, Rilke worked as Rodin’s secretary for nearly a year. In exchange for taking care of the sculptor’s correspondence, Rilke received free room and board, unfettered access to his mentor, as well as afternoons to write poetry at leisure. What struck Rilke in particular as an aesthetic problem was the intangible aspect of words. While walking around Rodin’s sculptures, he could not help but feel the necessity of making words as solid as stone.

Eventually, he would keep working away at a solution and carve sculptures out of air with the genre of the “Ding-Gedichte” (“Thing-poems”), which were popular in the early 1900s. Although he moved beyond the form of the thing-poem, Rilke would not lose his commitment to sculpting language in a concrete manner. What he had learned from his

mentor, he was now able to incorporate into his own verse. His learning from Rodin

amounted to a form of aesthetic and existential appropriation:

“What troubled him was precisely the appearance of that which he considered indispensable,