Rainer Maria Rilke's Love Letters

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The Austrian poet's epic quest for love in the face of rejection

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As a lover of famous correspondence, especially extraordinary love letters, and of Rainer Maria Rilke, I was instantly enamored with Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library)—a magnificent collection of letters exchanged between Rilke and the Russian-born writer, intellectual, psychoanalyst, and "muse of Europe's fin-de-siècle thinkers and artists" Lou Andreas-Salomé, 15 years his senior.

The relationship, which began when 21-year-old Rilke met the 36-year-old and married Salomé, commenced with the all-too-familiar pattern of one besotted lover, Rilke, flooding the resistant object of his desire with romantic revelations, only to be faced with repeated, composed rejection as Salomé claimed to wish she could make him "go completely away." But Rilke's love didn't flinch and the two eventually developed a passionate bond which, over the 35-year course of their correspondence that followed, we see change shape and morph from friends to mentor and protégé to lovers to literary allies—a kaleidoscope of love that irradiates across the romantic, the platonic, the creative, the spiritual, the intellectual, and just about everything in between.


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Rilke with Lou Andreas-Salomé (1897) On the balcony of the summer house of the family Andreas near Munich. Left to right: Professor Andreas, August Endell, Rilke, and Lou Andreas-Salomé.


In a letter dated May 13, 1897, at the very onset of the relationship, Rilke writes:

You see, gracious lady, through the unsparing severity, through the uncompromising strength of your words, I felt that my own work was receiving a blessing, a sanction. I was like someone for whom great dreams, with all their good and evil, were coming true; for your essay was to my poems as reality is to a dream, as fulfillment is to a desire.

[...]

I always feel: when one person is indebted to another for something very special, that indebtedness should remain a secret between just the two of them.

On May 31 and June 1, 1897, Rilke and Salomé took a two-day trip to a small village south of Munich and it was during that trip that the two first became lovers. In a letter dated June 3rd, Rilke writes:

Songs of longing!

And they will resound in my letters, just as they always have, sometimes loudly and sometimes secretly so that you alone can hear them... But they will also be different -- different from how they used to be, these songs. For I have turned and found longing at my side, and I have looked into her eyes, and now she leads me with a steady hand.

In a lengthy letter dated July 6, 1898:

Now I come to you full of future. And from habit we begin to live our past.

Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters is remarkably rich and dimensional in its entirety, each of the 200 letters revealing a different facet of Rilke's exceptional heart and mind, and of the universal commonalities of love itself.

Thanks, Michael

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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