by Birgitta Hjalmarson
Rilke, Summer of 1904
Rainer Maria Rilke was in his late twenties when he wrote Ellen Key from Rome, complaining about the “galloping spring.” Two years earlier, in 1901, he had married Clara Westhoff, a sculptress, with whom he now had a daughter. He longed for the north, for distances and wind – for solitude.
Born in Sweden, Key had long fought on the barricades for women’s rights. Stirring up all of Europe, men and women both, she believed that marriage should be based on love, not be a means of support. Because of her veneration of motherhood, she also drew the wrath of many for not going far enough. For years she herself had been in love with Urban Von Feilitzen, a reformer and essayist, whose ideas on women as mothers and nurturers echoed hers (perhaps it was the other way around). Their relationship, sustained through letters alone, had ended in 1889, her hopes that he would divorce his wife long since dashed.
By the time Rilke wrote to Key, he was in a bad way. “You cannot imagine what I am suffering and what I have suffered all these last months; I know I am not exhausted; but the little and continual thoughts of every day and its most unimportant things confuse me so that I can no longer recollect my own.” With her usual vigor, Key set about to introduce him in Denmark and Sweden. When she sent him a questionnaire, in preparation for a lecture and an essay, he balked. “If any man stood in need of secrecy, that man is I,” he wrote to Lou Salomé, a former lover, now friend. Still, he needed Key and her connections, so he complied.
He was born in Prague in 1875. Although he claimed to be the descendant of an old aristocratic family, the details may or may not have been true. His childhood had been hard. His father wished him to pursue a military career for which his sensitive nature was all wrong. Trying to console herself for the death of an infant daughter, his mother had dressed him in skirts until he as almost seven. His schooling had been a disaster, five years at a military boarding school, where he spent most of his time “in the sickroom, more spiritually exhausted than physically ill.” Key’s question about his books may well have been the one that plagued him the most, even though he had published quite a few. Again he wrote to Salomé: “I am watching her undertaking (confidentially speaking) with terror, for in reality and to less charitable eyes, nothing has actually been done.”
In July 1904, thanks to Key, Rilke boarded a steamer to Sweden. Rain whipped his face as he stood alone on the deck, the cries of seagulls like voices from Hades. Ernst Norlind, a young artist, met him in Malmö as the waves crashed against the rocks. Where he really wanted to be was in Denmark – he revered Jens Peter Jacobsen and carried a copy of Niels Lyhne wherever he went — but Sweden was close enough.
He spent that summer at Borgeby, an ancient castle in southern Sweden. Slight and stooped, alone in his thoughts, he walked barefoot in the park, the red brick walls of the castle rising behind him. Black and white cows grazed on the other side of the river. Above him rooks shot in and out among the trees (in a letter to Clara, he called them ravens). On his “white” days, he fasted and took himself to the sea, where he lay in the sand reading Thomas a Kempis, only to return in the evening, sated with wind and sun. Years later he would recall how people from other estates used to send their carriages, “as one sends for a doctor,” to hear him recite a poem by Richard Beer-Hoffman, the rage of Vienna. Perhaps he read some of his own verses too, like the ones about Prague — blonde maidens moving amid grey ruins or lost in reverie in dusky gardens – lovely images but none very original.
In the midst of this arrived Ellen Key, now in her fifties, her hair white, her body stout. Norlind, also a guest at the castle, found himself clasped to Key’s bosom, which, I can only assume, Rilke did too. In his diary, Norlind notes how she disappeared into the castle to study the paintings, only to emerge again, dressed in a robe and heading for the river, “skipping through the park with the lightness of a girl.” She dove into the river and “swam about like one of Böcklin’s sea monsters,” while the castle inhabitants watched. Later, her energy far from spent, she informed them “about the spiritual crisis of the times, about Nietzsche, about Heine, about Goethe and about God, but more than anything about Berlin, where so many splendid and wonderful people lived” and where “the erotic problems were being resolved.”
That summer, for all his apparent joie de vivre, Norlind was recovering from troubles with his nerves. He professed fondness for Key, but after one of her hours-long monologues, he found himself “seized by angst.” Rilke also found Key overwhelming, not least because of her tendency to expropriate his poems rather than letting them speak for themselves. Even now, in hindsight, it’s not difficult to find faults with this woman whom Norlind chose to mock. Her emphasis on women’s roles as mothers and wives still grates. Her advocacy of free love at a time when contraceptives were illegal seems naïve. And she came dangerously close to eugenics, when she lost herself in musings on race. Could she not see where such ideas would lead? Still, is there not something to be said about her fierce engagement in the world, even after Urban von Feilitzen let her down? When everyone else appeared to look inward, she looked out.
Rilke himself wrote long letters to Clara but didn’t seem to want her near (she did come to Borgeby but left very soon). In spite of his assurances to Key, he took little interest in his daughter, who grew up with her maternal grandparents, so that both Rilke and Clara could devote themselves to their art. In a letter to Salomé, Rilke openly regretted having tied himself to family and home. “What was my house, then, except a foreign thing for which I had to work, what more my family than visitors who refused to leave?” His whole life would be one of seeking refuge from the clamor of everyday life. “Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain,” he wrote to Franz Kappus, a young poet who sought his advice. “And if what is near you is far away, then your vastness is already among the stars and is very great; be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind.”
The price of genius? Perhaps. Are we not prepared to forgive almost anything in exchange for art? By the time he died from leukemia in 1926, Rilke had written poems whose vision and beauty would astonish the world. Estranged from Clara but not divorced, he had found other castles where he could put up for free, his need for solitude respected and met. He was good at that. Even without Ellen Key.
Photograph shows Rilke with Clara Westhoff, his wife (1901).
Ernst Norlind’s diary published in Rilke på Borgeby (Ellerströms förlag, 2004). I’m also quoting from his memoir (Gleerups förlag, 1947).
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