Q: Tell me about Rilke and his poems about Mary.
A: Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875 – December 29, 1926) is considered one of the German language's greatest twentieth-century poets. His haunting images tend to focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety--themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.
He wrote in both verse and highly lyrical prose. His two most famous verse sequences are the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies; among his two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He also wrote poems in French. Austrian by birth, Rilke spent many years in Sierre (Valais, Switzerland), his homeland of choice. He is buried in Raron (Valais).
Unhappy with the way Mary was presented to him as a youth, Rilke wrote a fifteen-poem cycle on the life of the Virgin Mary which is not well known. Mary comes across as thoroughly pure and holy, with her purity containing within it a great power and reverence. She isn't merely meek and mild.
For example, Jonathan Harvey provided us with the English translation of Rilke's poem on The Annunciation which follows as well as the accompanying image.
Another poem from the aforementioned cycle on The Birth of Mary may be found under September Poetry on our web site. For English versions of all fifteen Marian poems by Rilke, please consult The Life of the Virgin Mary: a cycle of poems, Christine McNeill's translation, done in 2003 for Dedalus Press in Dublin.
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