Unboxing Rilke’s Nachlass

Ian Ellison looks at Rilke's recently acquired archives.

By Ian EllisonApril 6, 2023

Unboxing Rilke’s Nachlass

WHAT IS IT about Rainer Maria Rilke? The influence of the Bohemian Austrian poet on modern culture reads like a who’s who of the great and the good. W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Edith Sitwell claimed to be directly inspired by him. The first English translations of his work, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, became classics in their own right. He has been set to music (both classical and rock) and proven himself a Hollywood touchstone, most recently providing the concluding epigraph of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Oprah Winfrey has quoted him on television and Lady Gaga has lines from his Letters to a Young Poet (1929) tattooed on her arm.

Maybe he has had such an impact because he is first and foremost a poet of the heart. He expresses those emotions we seldom desire—melancholy, longing, and loneliness above all—with such artistry and feeling that it can seem almost joyful. At the more esoteric end of things, he is regularly co-opted by New Age self-help gurus who take the closing line of his “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—“You must change your life”—as their mantra. Faced with the immensity of his work and its afterlives, you might feel like you know enough about Rilke, but the man himself has for a long time remained something of an enigma. Yet this may well be about to change.

It is rare for a poet to make headlines almost a hundred years after their death, especially for good reasons. But in early December 2022, Rilke was suddenly front-page news across Germany. In what was widely described as the purchase of the century by the German media, the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (DLA) announced it had acquired a collection of Rilke’s manuscripts comprising some 10,000 handwritten pages. These included draft poems and notes for their composition, as well as 2,500 letters written by the poet himself and a further 6,300 addressed to him. One of the most significant literary estates in postwar history, its cultural value is priceless, and it will soon be made available to the general public. A major exhibition at the Literaturmuseum der Moderne (the DLA’s next-door neighbor in Marbach) is planned for 2025 to mark the 150th anniversary of Rilke’s birth, and plans are afoot to digitize the entire collection. After being cataloged, the collection will be made available online without restriction, opening up this treasure trove to academic researchers across the globe, as well as general readers.

Since Rilke’s death from leukemia in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1926, his collection has been stored in the town of Gernsbach in southwest Germany, in the inconspicuous home of Rilke’s great-granddaughters, the sole heirs of this sizable portion of his estate, or Nachlass (literally “what’s left behind” in German). Negotiations began earlier this year and a historic agreement eventually was reached, with the entire collection passing to the DLA. The purchase contract stipulates that the price of the collection not be publicized. With an eye on future acquisitions and potential heavy taxation by the German state, it is a prudent move for the DLA at least to leave the monetary worth of the Rilke archive undisclosed. Many of the acquired documents are also completely unknown, though mercifully well preserved. Their extensive cataloging has already begun and will certainly enrich our understanding of Rilke and, in parts, entirely upend it.

We think of Rilke as a genius, imagining an Orpheus-like singer regularly struck by the inspiration of mysterious forces, or muses, or the angels that haunt the lines of so many of his poems. (He claimed to have heard the first line of his 1923 collection Duino Elegies as a voice on the wind while out walking along the cliffs near Trieste and finished the poems 10 years later in “a savage creative storm.”) Yet this newly acquired archive clearly shows that he was a rigorous redrafter, honing and tempering his lines and stanzas until they rang out true. Far from diminishing the output of this idiosyncratically expressive poet, these new insights reveal more of the man himself as an artist striving for lyrical perfection.

Rilke was a restless soul. He saw himself as a citizen of the world, living in France, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, while also traveling to Russia, Spain, Scandinavia, and Egypt. He wrote poems in German, French, and Russian, and translated the work of Charles Baudelaire, William Shakespeare, and Søren Kierkegaard. His extensive correspondence also shows that, far from being the loner poet he is often taken to be, Rilke was extremely well connected to the literary and art scene of his time. Beyond the 1,300 or so letters Rilke wrote to his mother, and the 741 letters to his wife, the sculptor Clara Rilke-Westhoff, he also corresponded with Paul Klee, André Gide, Robert Musil, Boris Pasternak, Stefan Zweig, and Auguste Rodin, meticulously holding on to every page and envelope, presumably with a view to posterity.

Packed up in shoeboxes, yet well-ordered for the most part by his descendants, Rilke’s manuscripts are many and varied. Rilke, too, was a protean figure, a shape-shifter. Among other things, the draft poems and tightly scrawled revisions of later masterpieces show how he changed his handwriting under the influence of his lover and patron Lou Andreas-Salomé. Early images released by the DLA show sheaves of flowing penmanship, as well as notebooks small enough to nestle in the palm of your hand, their thin pages filled to the very edge with cramped scribbles in ink and pencil, not a scrap of paper wasted. A particularly beautiful example is covered with notes in German, French, and English: Rilke clearly read Tolstoy in French, copying out a quotation, along with lines from Lord Alfred Douglas’s 1907 poem “Sonnets to Olive” (“The years are very long, but love is longer […] The world is very strong, but love is stronger”). The same double-page spread opens to reveal (appropriately enough, given the flower’s recurrence in Rilke’s work) a pair of perfectly preserved rose leaves pressed between its pages.

The collection includes over 130 previously unknown drawings, some of which date from Rilke’s childhood. These cast the poet in an entirely new artistic light. There are also around 360 photographs from all stages of his life. Particularly striking are the images of the child Rilke dressed as a little girl: his mother, grief-stricken after the earlier death of a daughter who lived only a week, christened her son René and treated him, as Rilke himself admitted, “like a big doll.” Other invaluable items in the collection range from Rilke’s schoolbooks to the 86 notebooks that he filled as an adult, the contents of which have remained almost entirely unknown until now. The DLA’s holdings also include more than 400 books from Rilke’s own personal library. Their pages often bear the traces of his reading, with underlinings and jottings in the margin showing just how he approached new writing. His annotations in books like Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918–22), for example, may promise insights into how Rilke confronted the new ideas of his time and what traces they left in his own work. So far, at least one completely unknown poem has also been discovered.

This comprehensive collection of documents also includes preparatory drafts and fair copies of his best-known prose work The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and poetry cycles such as the Duino Elegies, the New Poems (1907–08), and the Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). But plenty of the compositions in the recently acquired collection were discarded by Rilke and never published. Is it worth bringing them to light? On balance, yes. Throughout his itinerant life, Rilke saw fit to keep this material. If he had thought it insignificant, he could have disposed of it. Yet he chose not to. There is, however, always the chance that this acquisition could reveal some uncomfortable truths. We already know that Rilke expressed sympathies in his latter days with the fascist revolution in Italy in his correspondence with Duchess Aurelia Gallarati-Scotti between 1923 and 1926. From the seclusion of a Swiss sanatorium, he praised Mussolini, describing fascism as a healing agent. The comprehensive cataloging of an author’s estate inevitably risks airing dirty laundry.

Digitally bringing together the materials now held at Marbach with those kept by other institutions around the world, such as the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern and the library’s collection at Harvard University, means that it will soon be possible to construct a never-before-seen composite library onscreen that is physically dispersed. Digital technologies and partnerships among research and cultural institutions will open up the vast resource of Rilke’s Nachlass, allowing communities of scholars and readers in many countries with different histories and political boundaries to access the same material. While something of the enigma will always remain, unboxing Rilke’s archive will perhaps allow us all to know this most elusive of poets a little better.


Ian Ellison is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Kent and the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. He was short-listed for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize and his book Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium (2022) is out now.


Featured image: Rainer Maria Rilke, “Pocketbook 13” (1909–11), including notes for The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Photo: DLA Marbach.

LARB Contributor

Ian Ellison is the postdoctoral research associate on the “Kafka’s Transformative Communities” project at the University of Oxford and a visiting fellow of Wadham College. He was short-listed for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, and his first book, Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, appeared in 2022.


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