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

School and Breeches

Rene was finally breeched in 1882. His preschool world with its dreams and miseries came to an end. Phia put Rene into his "first little trousers" and took him to school. It was a German Catholic school of the Piarist Order--an educational order dating back to the sixteenth century--which suited Phia's tastes for patrician elegance. The building and courtyard of the school were located in the Herrengasse just across the street from his grandparents. The Heilige Kreuzkirche or Holy Cross Church--then functioning as the school chapel--still stands in its pseudo-gothic magnificence. The school was attended by children of some of the first families of Prague, and Rene's parents considered themselves lucky that Rene was granted a stipend. It also provided education for the more affluent children of the middle class, including important future writers (many of them Jewish) like Max Brod and Franz Werfel. The teachers were mostly priests from the surrounding countryside.

As might be expected, illness pursued Rene almost from the start. The first year was tolerable, but in the 2nd year he missed 200 class hours, and in the third, two entire quarter!g. However, except for arithmetic and physical education, he managed to earn high marks. But if he thought he would be less lonely, he was mistaken. He avoided the physical activities his peers valued and was often teased as a mama's boy. Still, in this well-ordered, upper-middle-class atmosphere of a private school, Rene's suffering was muted.

In May 1884, just after starting the 3rd grade at the beginning of school that Easter, Rene wrote a poem to celebrate his parents' wedding anniversary. It was the last such occasion. The relationship between Phia and Josef had lapsed into unending tension. Soon it fell apart, and Rene's parents began to live in two different places. The child stayed with his mother. But Phia left more and more often for Vienna, apparently to be with a male friend, while the boy found himself alone with the maid. Under the pressure of this loneliness, with few playmates outside school, he became more and more absorbed by writing verse. Vacationing with his mother in Italy during the following summer of 1885, the 9-year-old wrote to his father that he was "diligently practicing [his] poetry" and would be "decked with laurels" when they got back to Prague.

Military School

Rather than laurels, what awaited Rene on his return from this holiday was concern about his future, the need to make a decision in view of his impending graduation from the Piarists' school. Without resources or a real home for him since their separation, his parents had to find a boarding school that offered a chance for a full scholarship. The obvious answer was a military school where Uncle Jaroslav could obtain a free place for him. The academy of St. Polten, in lower Austria not far from Vienna, offered both a satisfactory academic education and a training course designed to prepare students for an officer's commission. It seemed ready-made for their needs.

Rene was at first rather intrigued by the prospect of a military boarding school. In his loneliness he welcomed the idea of being with many boys of his own age, and he had colorful and what proved to be unrelaistic visions of military splendor. Rank and title, shining swords and glinting helmets, enlivened his imagination. In a wooded park in Prague he agreed to their choice--"a stupid boy deciding my own fate with a childish word."

A year passed, another summer in the country. Then, in September 1886, at the age of ten, Rene Maria Rilke entered the military school of St. Polten. In retrospect, Rilke's confrontation with the military became a metaphor for hell. Years later, in a long autobiographical letter to a friend, the Swedish author-psychologist Ellen Key, he turned that experience into an accusation against his parents, especially his mother. The man of twenty-seven had not forgiven: "As soon as she left the house, I was put into one of our large educational institutions for officers." The ten-year-old child who had grown up without siblings and with few playmates suddenly found himself locked in with fifty hostile boys. For four years he would endure this institutional life "despite illness and resistance."

Again and again Rilke recounted these years as a time of absolute suffering. From his impetuous letter to Valerie von Rhonfeld at nineteen to his no less agitated remarks to the scholar Hermann Pongs when he was forty-eight, Rilke constantly embellished, rewrote, and retold that almost unimaginable experience. And yet--as with many of his later reflections about his childhood and family--these ex post facto statements take on a different meaning in the context of his actual responses at the t*me. His letters to his mother during these school years--beseeching letters full of affection--suggest a troubled, often even a desperate child in an institution that he alternately loathed and loved. They do not suggest either that he was his mother's relentless enemy or that he was totally a victim of mindless brutality.

The school was near the small town of St. Polten, a bishop's seat west of Vienna with provincial, leisurely ways, yet easily accessible from the metropolis. The single elongated structure with two gabled wings was strictly institutional; its many open windows, however, filled it with light rather than the dank atmosphere of military barracks. Yet two photographs Phia preserved bear angry captions: "The prison of my poor sick child" and "The Institution, the precious home of my dearest, my most beloved child. "

When he first arrived at the school, like any new student, Rene found himself in a completely alien situation. Instead of well-meaning priests from the countryside, his teachers were now military officers and noncoms. There was no home to go back to at the end of the school day, and while he was no longer alone, his schoolmates presented new problems. His peers were bound to be put off by a boy of their own age acting like a miniature adult. He seemed vulnerable, ill at ease with everything they took for granted--easy comradeship and a comfortable relationship with the body. Still, Rene's almost daily letters to his mother, though surely unusual for an aspiring cadet, project an ordinary child's pleasures and concerns. He looked forward to a visit from his uncle, Hugo, soon after he got there. Hugo, his father's younger brother, was himself an army officer, so his appearance in the school may have been particularly welcome to Rene. He was also sure to bring some special delicacy as a gift. Many of these letters from school contained similar bits of information as well as thanks for food packages, a request for skates, expressions of hope for a visit--in short, they were notes any child might send home from boarding school. But two discordant themes appeared almost at once: illness and inordinate discomfort with his peers.

Practically from the time he entered school, reports on a recurring pattern of illness, recovery, and relapse began to form part of Rene's correspondence with his mother. On the one hand, these repetitive tales about his indispositions simply continue the pattern of his earlier childhood that had brought him and Phia closer together. The often poor state of his health would therefore be a natural topic. But there was a new aspect to the illnesses as they became part of his school life. Rene was soon using his headaches and fevers to win brief respites from pressure; anxiety about his health also brought his mother rushing to aid him in his distress. She appeared to him as an angel: "Ach komm als rettender Engel, hilf!"--"oh come as my saving angel, help!" Or he would cry out: "Now I must bear this another week! God have mercy on me. Oh my Mammatscherl!" When she announced a visit, he felt rasende Freude--mad joy.

During his 4 years at St. Polten, despondency alternated with elation, fevers with more lighthearted and optimistic reports. On one occasion he cheerfully instructed his mother about French history while looking forward to an early meeting in Prague. On another occasion his migraine headaches were so severe that he got special permission from the regimental surgeon for his mother to stay with him at the hospital. Phia would come and go on many more such missions: he needed her and looked forward to their talks; he begged her to bring food; he was ill again and looked for comfort. His dependence on his mother was probably greater in St. Polten than at the time they shared a home. The intensity of this closeness while Phia was trying to lead her own life in Vienna may well account for Rene's violent anger later on. However often Phia rushed to her child's bedside, however strongly she supported him in his resistance to the military, it could never be enough because she had to leave again. He had to feel abandoned.

If his relations with his mother fluctuated with his states of mind, so did his perceptions of fellow students and teachers. Some of his classmates were indeed hostile and aggressive, but others could be helpful and friendly. On his 14th birthday, on December 4, 1889, he was congratulated by both students and officers and given special delicacies as well as time off for the occasion. He took great pleasure the following month when his German teacher, Captain Casar von Sedlakowitz, with whom he was to have a sharp exchange 30 years later, invited him to take part in an evening lecture at the German club. Von Sedlakowitz even encouraged him to read some of his poems to the class, and--probably to Rene's own surprise--they were respectfully received by the other students.

And yet there was an inferno. All his life Rilke would sound this theme with utter conviction to innumerable correspondents. In two works of fiction, the novella Pierre Dumont and the short story "Die Turnstunde" ["The Gym Class"] of 1899, he attacked the brutality and insensitivity of the military school with venom. To his fiancee he said in 1894: "What I suffered in those days can only be compared to the world's most violent anguish, though I was a child and perhaps because I was a child." He endured his schoolmates' blows without returning them or even talking back because he actually believed that "the will of an infinite, unchangeable fate" demanded of him a posture of heroic patience. He took pride in the way he bore his tortures. Martyrdom, too, was a game he had learned from his mother.

Following the example of Phia's impetuous religiosity, the child believed that his capacity for patient suffering resembled Christ's, a notion he articulated to his torturers. When a classmate hit him in the face so violently that his knees buckled, he responded in a quiet voice: "I suffer as Christ suffered, quietly and without complaint, and as you hit me I pray to our dear Lord that He will forgive you." Struck dumb by surprise, the boy stood still for a moment before bursting into loud, derisive laughter. And when he yelled to his friends at the other end of the schoolyard, telling them of this strange declaration, they all joined in a scornful howl. Rene fled to a remote window recess of a nearby building and swallowed his tears, which burst forth at night while the large dormitory resounded with the regular breathing of the sleeping boys.

Loneliness and introspection under these pressures heightened the tendency toward excessive piety that Phia had nurtured in him. He later called his endurance of torturing comrades and cruel superiors a false martyrdom, "a constant excitation of an almost ecstatic pleasure in torture." The image of suffering sainthood became a heraldic emblem. Rilke's need for myth, which he would perpetuate in his work for the rest of his life, allowed the child to create an image of himself that he could live with. He was neither weak nor cowardly but heroic and Christ-like. Mbr>

From this agony and imagined sainthood, Rene derived yet another theme: that of longed-for, liberating death, which occupied him morbidly. As years later, in 1920, he made clear to his erstwhile German teacher, by then a major general, his own imprisonment at the school was reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Memoirs of the House of the Dead.

This theme is dramatized with particular pungency in "The Gym Class," where the atmosphere is developed with minute realism. The teacher is a hard, tanned lieutenant with steely eyes. The noncommissioned officers who assist him are frightened and tyrannical. After a heroic effort to climb to the top of a pole, the young hero, Gruber, suffers a heart attack. He dies, and his body is removed. The lieutenant announces to the class that their comrade has just died of heart failure and marches them off in neat columns. One of the students whispers to his friend with an embarrassed giggle as they march off: "I've seen him. . . . He's all naked and caved in and elongated with sealed-up feet. " Akin to his reference to himself as the suffering Christ in the schoolyard, Rilke's description of the dead boy's naked body, with its caved-in shape, alludes to visual representations of Christ on the Cross.

Beneath the myth of Rilke's school years, reality consisted of two contrary levels of experience. One level was the uneventful everyday, in which he was recognized as odd but was appreciated for his talent. The other was the "inferno," not an uncommon feature of boarding schools yet exacerbated by the military scene. The balance between them lay not midway between the two but in an amalgam of both. The child felt what the adult poet ultimately knew: that there were two truths, equally valid, equally unassailable. They were the poetic feminine and the military masculine. They were life and death.


Rene's adolescence repeated the tensions of his childhood, but now his state of mind was an issue between his parents more clearly than it had been in the past. Josef, too, sought to comfort him, but Rene seems to have been afraid of revealing his inadequacy at school. He begged his Mother, for example, not to "tell Papa" that he had failed to win a special braid on his uniform denoting excellence because of his poor showing in gymnastics and sports. He knew his father's enthusiasm for the school was shared by Uncle Jaroslav, to whom he owed the stipend. On his, part, Josef blamed Phia for their son's unhappiness, singling out her effusive letters in which she assured her child of her support. Especially he urged his estranged wife to dissuade the boy from writing poetry, which he considered subversive, although Phia's support of his writing was Rene's salvation. By his third year at school, when he was twelve, he had accumulated a large number of poems in his school copybook, and many of them were about soldiering.

Instead of actively seeking death, as he sometimes daydreamed he might, Rene embarked on the next best thing during his last year at St. Polten: a manuscript intended as his "History of the Thirty Years War," which allowed him to glorify military exploits in his imagination when he found them unendurable on the drill field. This subject might have come to mind naturally to a boy reared in Prague, for that seventeenth-century Armageddon between Catholics and Protestants began there. But with his choice of subject the schoolboy also made a revealing statement for an aspiring poet because Friedrich Schiller, a poet par excellence for any German child, had distinguished himself with a history of that war.

As time went on, the young Rilke's desire to be a poet became increasingly powerful and uncompromising, but he still sought to reconcile this commitment with his career as an officer. Still imbued with this hope, he completed his course of study at St. Polten in the spring of 1890 and returned home for the summer.

Secondary School

Rilke next went to an advanced military school in the Moravian town of Weisskirchen, where he was expected to spend the concluding years of his secondary education. He was determined to turn over a new leaf.

The summer spent at Uncle Jaroslav's "Villa Excelsior" outside Prague with Aunt Gabriele and her daughters had turned out to be harrowing. Rene had to prepare himself for the entrance examinations, which required tutoring, especially in geometry and physics. Then came the trip to Vienna in early August to sit for the exams, and several agonizing weeks of waiting for the results. Finally, on September 4, Rene was able to report to his mother that he had passed. It was a modest pass--at the bottom of the upper third of the applicants--but it enabled him to enter the final segment of his preparation to become an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

Weisskirchen began as a completely new experience. The academy sat on a wooded hill above an expansive river valley, more like a castle than a military barracks. A wide moat separated the place from the rest of the world. The main building was three stories high with wide portals. An elegant vestibule was bedecked with weapons and coats of arms; beyond it, a short hallway led to the huge lecture halls. In his seventh-row seat, Rene faced blackboards at one end and an imposing array of glass bookcases with precious volumes at the other. With awe he heard that it contained six hundred volumes, including not only great classics like the works of Goethe and Schiller but also products of lesser German and Austrian lights up to the most recent past. Long corridors connected the lecture rooms with the dining halls, the theater, and other public places.

The dormitories were located across the way in a separate building. Unlike St. Polten's huge sleeping halls, each large room at Weisskirchen was shared by only twelve student cadets. Beyond the dormitories were a large courtyard for relaxation and games, the school's chapel, sports fields, and a pleasant park with a rich display of flowers in flamboyant colors as well as a small "pupils' cemetery."

Initially Rilke enjoyed the larger size and relatively greater freedom of this new place. In the early fall he happily reported a boat excursion to the nearby town of Teplitz to which he had been invited by one of his teachers, Captain Schwarzloithner. Later in October he announced to his mother that he had found a new friend by the name of Rudolf Fried.

But the happy phase lasted barely 6 weeks; then Rene's violent mood swings, his physical ailments, anxieties, and depressions, flared up again. Late in November, Josef Rilke received an urgent appeal from Oskar Slamezka, one of Rene's classmates, who had spent two weeks with him at the school's infirmary. Shocked, Oskar at first thought Rene's ailments were imagined, but after uninterrupted observation he had to conclude that they were real. Rene had dropped by Oskar's room the day after he was released from the infirmary. He looked dreadful, complaining of headaches, trembling all over, and finding it nearly impossible to stand on his feet. His ailment was finally diagnosed as pneumonia aggravated by severe nervous strain. He was sent to a sanatorium near Salzburg for a 6-week cure, after which he was returned to the school.

For a time during that winter and spring, Rene continued in his pattern, alternating between an adjustment that allowed him to work and terrifying illnesses that prevented it. His parents attributed his condition to different causes. Phia, again enveloping him with affection,'sympathized with his suffering in the "brutal atmosphere" of the institution. Josef (and Jaroslav as well) saw it as a result of the child's "overheated imagination," fanned by his mother.

In the 5th year of his military education, Rene Rilke finally forced his exit. How it happened is unclear and controversial. Some accounts suggest that he was dismissed, others that he was removed for pneumonia not long after his lengthy stay in the spa near Salzburg, while others, including Rilke himself, held that he finally managed to quit on his own. Yet in the letter he wrote several years later to his fiancee Valerie von Rhonfeld, he strongly suggested that his relationship with Rudolf Fried may have had something to do with his departure. During that autumn in Weisskirchen, he confided, his heart had not remained "empty." Mutual sympathy and "fraternal liking" bound him to his new friend. They sought, so he told her, to establish a "union for life," "sealed by a handshake and kiss." For a while, Rene literally lived in the other boy's presence, seeing his own experiences reflected in "the harmonizing soul" of his friend.

Rudolf admired Rene's poems, and Rene in turn urged his friend to write as well. But when Rudolf returned from a few days' leave to attend his grandmother's funeral, he had changed radically. He had become distant and unapproachable. Rene soon discovered that fellow students had "spattered their pure friendship with mud" and that Fried had been warned by higher authorities to avoid having so much traffic with that "fool." After this episode, Rene remained politely distant from his faithless friend and rejected his overtures when he wanted to make up. As a jilted lover Valerie would later sharply criticise this episode and claim she knew that its discovery was the actual cause of Rene's sudden departure.

Whatever the reason, on June 3, 1891, Rene Rilke was free of the military. But as soon as his father had signed the release papers from Weisskirchen--and Rene felt better at once--he began to view the emperor's uniform in a more favorable light. Still, despite this adolescent ambivalence, the mature poet would retain an image of only one reality: the pain of five excruciating years from age 10 to 15.

As he wrote to General von Sedlakowitz, he would not have been able to lead a productive life if he had not for decades repressed all memories of his military education. And four years later, explaining his dislike of his juvenilia to Hermann Pongs, he explained that those early writings had been produced at a time that followed years so traumatic he still could not comprehend how he had survived them. The anguish remained inexpressible: "Even later when . . . I felt more protected, that powerful affliction of my childhood appeared incomprehensible to me, and I was as little able to understand its impenetrable fate as the miracle which finally--at the last moment--released me from that undeserved distress."

Christopher Wagner

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