Rainer Maria Rilke’s inspirational prose and poetry is read aloud in Western yoga classes as teachers urge their students to find better ways of being not only on the mat but also in their day-to-day life. Who is the man behind the verse? What made him someone worthy of doling out advise such as, “trust uncertainty” and “make solitude your home”? Some people might argue that the man behind the art does not matter, but others find that understanding the artist allows a deeper understanding of the art, which seems to be the case with You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett.
Some of Rilke’s passages are so compelling, and he’s become so well renowned as a literary figure, it becomes almost blasphemous to question his authority.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
This is an excerpt from the compilation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Corbett examines this period of Rilke’s life. While he was writing letters of life advice to a high school student, he was working as a secretary for Auguste Rodin, a famous Parisian sculptor well known for The Thinker and other works by that point. As Rilke studied under Rodin to understand how to live as an artist, he forwarded his instruction to his own pupil. At first, Rilke naively took Rodin’s words at face value, but he gradually learned to question his authority. Still, Rodin continued to influence Rilke and his work.
“One can almost hear Rodin’s voice speaking through the stone, like the oracle to which Rilke had once asked that mighty question, ‘How should I live?’”
Corbett’s well-researched biography will doubtlessly appeal to anyone who’s interested in learning more about Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, or the Belle Époque de Paris. It also serves as a reminder that artists should study under other artists and be influenced by them. Their art is a gift that often speaks to something deep inside its fans. However, advice should not be accepted blindly even if it’s spoken by an authoritative figure. They, too, are susceptible to the same human failings as everyone else.
Sarah Hutchins is an English Instructor and freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She earned a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University and a Bachelors of Arts in English from Portland State University. Her sagging bookshelves suffer from a peculiar fate: for each book read and removed, three or four magically appear in its stead. The books that find a permanent home on these same shelves are typically classics, French literature, philosophical novels and essays, and magic realism.
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