Rene (Rainer) Maria Rilke (1875-1926): Childhood

Relationship with his mother

The poet entered a world without moorings that allowed him no place to rest. Rene (Rainer) Karl Wilhelm Johann Joseph Maria Rilke, born prematurely on December 4, 1875, was at first so weak that his parents had to wait a fortnight before they dared take him to the Church of St. Heinrich down the street for his christening. The previous year a daughter had died a week after her birth, and Phia now watched over this newborn with excessive care. Contemporary biographers are prone to psycholanalisis. One insists that during Rilke's early years she acted as if she sought to recover the lost girl through the boy. Two of his names--Rene and Maria--make plain the mother's attempt to lend him a female identity. This may be true, but Fainer's treatment may not have been greatly disimilar to many mothers of the day who outfitted their sons in dresses and curled their hair, often at ages far beyond the age that Rainer was so outfitted..

Rene's mother, for 5 years, until he went to school, dressed her son like a girl--against his father's ineffectual opposition. "I had to wear beautiful long dresses," Rilke recalled many years later, "and until I started school I went about like a little girl. I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll."

Notably the Rainer's assessment is as an adult looking back. He remenbers the events as an older boy. It is less certain how he viewed it at the time as a young boy.

At his 19th birthday Rene's indignation emerges clearly in a letter to his fiancee, Valerie von David-Rhonfeld, in which he blamed his mother for a childhood of which he had only the darkest memories. Phia appeared to have been perpetually absent, leaving him "in the care of a conscienceless, immoral maidservant." She who should have regarded him as her primary duty loved him only when she could parade him "in front of some astonished friends" in a new little dress. Phia, by contrast, insisted that as a small child he liked his female role, playing with dolls and wanting a doll bed and kitchen as a present. He spent hours combing his doll's hair.

One biorgrapher charges that, "Phia's fondness for seeing Rene in delicate long dresses cannot be seen merely as the fashion in those days. There seems to have been a playful conspiracy between mother and son with deeper psychological tensions." Rene and his mother, whom he strikingly resembled, surely shared pleasure in disguise, in "dressing up"; the girls' clothes and games must also have confirmed the strong bond that held mother and son together, especially when he felt threatened. According to a family anecdote, on one occasion when he was expecting to be punished the 7-year-old boy made himself into a girl to placate his mother. His long hair done up in braids, his sleeves rolled up to bare his thin, girlish arms, he appeared in his mother's room. "Ismene is staying with dear Mama," he is quoted as saying. "Rene is a no-good. I sent him away. Girls are after all so much nicer." Decades later Rilke used the same anecdote in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, but instead of calling himself "Ismene," Malte used "Sophie"--Phia's full name.

For the growing child, this feminine posture was soon associated with a gift for writing verse. Phia urged poetry upon him before he was even able to read. At seven he started to copy poems, and he knew many of Schiller's lengthy ballads by heart before the usual German schoolboy would have been able to recite them. Her teaching insisted on refinement. Very early in life Rene had to learn French, which Phia encouraged him to use wherever feasible in place of "vulgar" Czech. Her instinctive support of her child's literary talents was thus combined with snobbery. Moreover, through Phia the young poet-to-be was administered a powerful potion of romantic religiosity, an adoration of saints and saints' lives, holy relics, and fervent devotions, which enriched his repertoire of images for the rest of his life.

Relationship with his father

But there was a countercurrent. Rene's father may not have been able to stand up to his wife, who hurt his sensibilities by parading their son in female dress, but he managed to supply him with toy soldiers and dumbbells for exercise. Josef was not without success; Rene developed genuine feelings for chivalry and military glory. Many of his childhood drawings were of soldiers, knights in armor, horsemen bearing banners with crosses. He saw himself as a brave commander of troops. At the age when he started copying poems to please his mother, he wrote his father from a summer holiday that he was now "a major in the second cavalry squadron" and had a "saber hammered with gold." He was also a knight with a "tin decoration" and was "eating like a wolf, sleeping like a sack." He was even climbing trees.

For all his attachment to his mother, the child also sought to please his father, and it was more than a superficial connection. Later, his daughter and family liked to think of him as "his father's child through and a judgment obviously informed by the desire to show him as acceptable male rather than as his mother's pet. And it is true that as an adult Rilke found nicer things to say about his father, who died when the poet was thirty, than about his mother, who survived him by five years. Even as at nineteen he reviled Phia as "a pleasure-loving, miserable being," he found good words to say about his father: "Whenever he was home, only my papa bestowed upon me love combined with care and solicitude." As a mature man he glossed over his father's failures, pretending that Josef had actually become an officer "following a family tradition" and describing his later career as occupying a rather high position" as a civilian working for a private railroad. In the descriptive poem composed at the time of his father's death in 1906, "Portrait of My Father as a Young Man," he depicted Josef In full military regalia, thus dressing him up as well: "In front of the full ornamental braiding of the slim aristocratic uniform, the saber's basket hilt. . . ."

Yet Josef Rilke never understood his son's insistence on becoming a poet, a decision he correctly associated with Phia. Poetry seemed to him always frivolous compared with a "real" job like a bank clerk's. But he also supported his son with an allowance whenever he could, even after Rene's marriage. His father, Rene told a correspondent, was of "unspeakable goodness," making the son's life, which Josef could not understand, an object of touching daily concern." When Rilke wrote his autobiographical novella, Ewald Tragy, in 1899--which was so close to the facts that he never published it in his lifetime--he treated Josef with real understanding despite their conflict.

Rene tries to establish his idenity

As a child Rene was assailed by two opposite pressures. Inchoately at first, he seems to have sensed that he provided the arena in which his parents' battles were fought out. But as Josef's military "manliness" and Phia's poetry became part of Rilke's psyche, the combination bore fruit in his work. Many of Rilke's stories and poems, early and late, are filled with both tender maidens and knights and soldiers, most notably his famous lyrical tale about a heroic death in combat after a night of tender love, his Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke. At the height of his powers, Rilke's childhood conflict infiltrated Malte Laurids Brigge, where the qualities represented by his parents are distilled into archetypal figures to whom he attached varying judgments at different points of his life: a young, beautiful, and loving maman and her delicate sister Abelone on one side; a stern, distant, soldierly father bedecked with decorations on the other.

In an almost classical way, the child Rene anticipated the adult poet Rainer by balancing Phia's "poetic spirit" against Josef's "soldierly virtues," which he identified with all masculine pursuits in business and commerce as well. Yet the poet's style was that of his mother. Like Phia, he pretended to greater affluence than he actually commanded; like her, he dreamed of titles and surpassed her dreams by often living with the highborn and wealthy. Like her, he sought disguises, which became part of his poetry. At the beginning of his life, as at the end, his interior world absorbed contrasting forces with their conflicting demands and out of them created a new reality: "We transform all this; / it is not here," Rilke wrote decades later in the very different context of his "Requiem to a Friend." "We mirror it within / from out of our being." It was a cosmic game of dressing up.


Illness--actual illness, fear of illness, illness of body and illness of mind--formed a powerful dimension in Rene Rilke's young life. It brought him close to his mother, since it was the one occasion when she dared not leave his side. Again and again, as he suffered from the headaches that were to plague him all his life and as he fought off sudden, unexplained fevers, his mother would be drawn to his bedside, holding his hand and soothing him in his pain. They lived in constant fear of coughs, sore throats, swollen glands. Anxiety and illness were almost synonymous in Rene's childhood. But his anxiety and illness also fashioned in him an awareness of his own functioning, which was a strong index of his later ability as a poet. Through them, he learned to "see into the life of things."

A passage in Malte Laurids Brigge describes Rilke's childhood memory well:

Fear that a small woolen thread sticking out of the seam of my blanket may be hard--hard and sharp like a needle; fear that this tiny button on my night shirt may be bigger than my head, huge and heavy;fear that this little bread crumb that now falls off my bed might splinter below like glass, and the oppressive dread that with it everything may be smashed, all of it, forever . . .

And Malte adds: "I pleaded for my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel it's still as hard as it was then, and growing older has been of no use at all." This was not just Malte's condition, for to Rilke as well childhood illnesses were distressing memories. "Far back in my childhood," he recollected in 1903, "within the great fevers of those illnesses, dwelt those great, indescribable fears . . . those deep, unspeakable fears that I now recall.

The pressures even in the preschooler's life were often suffocating. He longed for change, and for one brief moment in 1881 it seemed possible. The occasion was a job that interested his father, as manager of the large Bohemian estate of a Count Spork. Rilke described this episode to his daughter as late as 1924; the vivid details after more than 40 years suggest the depth of the 5-year-old's wish for change. The baroque castle that would have been the manager's residence fitted in well with Phia's and Rene's fantasies. They built up Josef's practically nonexistent credentials: a brief time spent working on an aunt's estate when he was a young man. Rene entertained daydreams of carriage and sleigh rides, high-ceilinged rooms and long white corridors--and none of the dissension and misery he knew in Prague! The letdown following the scheme's inevitable collapse must have been devastating.


Nor were his grandparents in the nearby Herrengasse any help, for the very awe of her parents' home, which Phia had instilled in him, made Rene feel constrained. He thought of his grandfather Entz as forbidding, and dinner in the mansion was an agony. As he told his wife many years later, he felt as though each spoonful of soup in that house were shoved into his mouth like something foreign. Actually, he felt easier with his grandmother, who was handsome and more approachable than her husband. Rilke remained on friendly terms with her, even when as an old woman she lived with his mother, from whom he had become estranged. But when Rilke was a child, the atmosphere in her house was no less burdensome than the frosty silences in his own home.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: August 21, 1999
Last updated: August 21, 1999