Life of a Poet

Ralph Freedman, Author, Helen Sword, Translator
Ralph Freedman, Author, Helen Sword, Translator Farrar Straus Giroux $35 (0p) ISBN 978-0-374-18690-6
Reviewed on: 03/04/1996
Release date: 03/01/1996
Paperback - 640 pages - 978-0-8101-1543-9
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Freedman, emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton and author of a biography of Hermann Hesse, notes in this thorough and thoughtful study of Rilke that he will follow ``this tortured man'' as he evolves from ``a versifier consumed by ambition to one of the great poets of our time.'' He delivers on half that promise, by bringing to life the ambitious versifier far more successfully than he does the great poet. Rilke was born into a German-speaking family in Prague in 1875 and soon developed a pattern of illness-real and imagined-that persisted for the rest of his life. Other defining traits include a fawning pursuit of aristocrats (usually female), infatuations with Russia and Italy, intense love affairs (usually preceded by letter-writing campaigns) that ended in six months and a fondness for the company of artists rather than writers. He was, briefly, Rodin's secretary in Paris, and his wife-whom he soon abandoned, along with their daughter-was also a sculptor. Other familiar figures who appear are Andre Gide, Eleanora Duse and Franz Werfel. Readers will probably find Rilke unappealing, but Freedman skillfully reveals the various myths and personas the poet created about himself and perhaps even believed, and shows how in his masterpiece, The Duino Elegies, he shaped them into a new aesthetic ``vision.'' Photos not seen by PW. (Mar.)
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