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This review is taken from PN Review 38, Volume 10 Number 6, May - June 1984.

A LIFE FOR ART'S SAKE J. F. Hendry, The Sacred Threshold: A life of Rilke (Carcanet) £9.95

The difficulties of writing a brief life of Rilke are forbidding. Not only have the successive phases and stages of his working life been recorded in depth and detail, often in conjunction with textual, psychological or philosophical interpretations, but Rilke himself left complements to his imaginative works in the form of letters and diaries, a number of which appeared in his lifetime, becoming primary, not secondary, sources for a biographer. Dieter Basser-mann, for instance, wrote a book some four times the length of J. F. Hendry's about Rilke's later years alone. What is more, Rilke's poetic personae were hardly less various than those of Fernando Pessoa, though he did not resort to heteronyms except in a single instance, and his biographical self has to be abstracted from that diversity. A still greater obstacle is Rilke's refusal or incapacity to be anything other than a poet, to the point of aspiring to have no life at all wholly separable from his writing. The facts of Rilke's life, therefore, are only the raw material he thought it his function to transform in the laboratory of his 'inwardness'. To present those facts without due attention to the end products is to reverse the process to which Rilke's life was dedicated. Not that Rilke deceived himself or others about the place 'where all the ladders start'; but, as Yeats did also, he put up the ladders again and again when they had been kicked away, the circus animals had deserted him, and he ...


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