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Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke

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Johannes Wich-Schwarz

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), perhaps the most famous European poet of the twentieth century, exemplifies how the «crisis of language» inherent in literary Modernism also constitutes a crisis of religious discourse. In Rilke’s poetry and prose, language replaces God as the focal point of human experience. Yet despite his rejection of Christianity, Rilke crucially draws on Christian imagery to express his Modernist worldview. Transformation of Language and Religion in Rainer Maria Rilke offers new readings of major texts such as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and The Duino Elegies, as well as analyzing some of Rilke’s lesser-known works, Visions of Christ and «The Letter of the Young Worker.»

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Chapter Four: “The Letter of the Young Worker” 102

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Chapter Four “The Letter of the Young Worker” What is God? unknown, Yet filled with traits of him Is the face of heaven. — Friedrich Hölderlin I began by sketching out Rilke’s critique of Christ and Christianity in the Visions of Christ and his attempt, in the poem “Evening Meal,” to transform a traditional Christian ritual—the sacrament of the Eucharist—in order to give expression to his own genuine concerns. Moving on to a discussion of the Malte novel, I demonstrated how Rilke re-imagines the notion of God in accordance with his ideas of “non-possessive love” and at the same time suggests a conflation of religious and linguistic themes; the figure of Christ played virtually no role in this enterprise. Finally, I have shown how the Duino Elegies have overcome almost all reliance on Christian imagery and narratives; their assertion of this-worldly praise seems to offer a solution to both the religious and the linguistic crisis crucial to Rilke’s poetic and my scholarly explorations. Yet this resolutely humanist reading of Rilke’s oeuvre does not completely capture the poet’s appropriation of Christian tropes. A contrary case in point is an astonishing prose text, eventually titled The Letter of the Young Worker, which Rilke wrote as a companion piece to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. It was written between February 12 and 15, 1922, that is, between the completion of the tenth and the composition of the fifth elegy. At this point, the first series of the sonnets had...

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