Diaries of a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke, Author, Michael Winkler, Translator, Edward A. Snow, Translator W. W. Norton & Company $27.5 (306p) ISBN 978-0-393-04553-6
Rilke (1875-1926) can seem at once so overrefined, passionate and feminine that one can understand why W.H. Auden jokingly called him ""the greatest lesbian poet since Sappho."" Fluently, if not memorably written, these youthful diaries will best be appreciated by addicts of Rilke's works, such as Letters to a Young Poet, Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies. Rilke was a reluctant journal-keeper and these are by no means major works. They begin in April 1898, when the 22-year-old arrives in Florence where he was instructed to go by his lover and most important muse, Lou Andreas-Salome. In an effort to focus Rilke's talents, she also instructs him to keep diaries, which he does on his trips through Italy, Germany and as far away as Saint Petersburg. The young Rilke intersperses accounts of meetings with German cultural figures like the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, with verse that is far from his best. Indeed, some of the verse is so prosaic that it is almost indistinguishable from the flow of the young aesthete's languid visits to cafes, ogling masterpieces in museums and pooh-poohing German bad taste such as a ""deathbed-postcard"" of Bismarck after the Iron Chancellor's demise in 1898. The translators, two literature professors from Rice University, note that the corrupt Nazi-era edition from which they worked ""makes no claims to being a work of philological scholarship.... We have followed it even where, on occasion, there is reason to doubt its accuracy."" It would have been helpful to know why they were unable to consult the original manuscripts of Rilke's diaries, now in a Jagiellonian Library in Krakow. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 12/01/1997
Release date: 12/01/1997
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