Rilke’s Venice is a matter of faith

Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke is now seen as a transitional figure between traditional and modernist literature, largely on the strength of such fin-de-siècle themes as anxiety, grief and solitude. Rilke explored them abundantly in his poetry, a single novel, some 14 000 private letters – and through frequent travel. Having traversed Russia and the Nile, he kept coming back to Venice which he visited ten times between 1897 and 1920. He was a passionate walker, determined, as he said, to ‘grasp the whole breadth of the city’. This he managed by touring the city’s iconic sights as well as its and back alleys and deserted shipyards.

Travel for Rilke was a vocation and it served a single purpose – to seek inspiration for writing. Venice perpetually enthralled him and his poetry reveals an intimate relationship with the city. In his musings about Venice two main themes prevail: affection and authenticity. “The city floats no longer like a bait / To hook the nimble darting summer days / The glazed and brittle palaces pulsate and radiate,” reads Rilke’s poem Late Autumn in Venice, describing the city affectionately in terms that tempt his readers to go visit the place for themselves. “Poems are not feelings … they are practical experiences,” Rilke writes elsewhere to bring home the message of authenticity.

Rilke is likewise not immune to Venice’s extraordinary ability to supplant reality with fantasy. He pays tribute to it when he writes that “as with mirrors one grasps nothing but is only drawn into the secret of their elusiveness. One is filled with images all day long, but could not substantiate a single one of them. Venice is a matter of faith.” To underscore Venice’s haunting quality as a desert-like mirage, Rilke writes in another poem, Venetian Morning: “Windows pampered like princes always see what on occasion deigns to trouble us: the city that, time and again, where a shimmer of sky strikes a feeling of floodtide”.

But for Rilke, Venice isn’t all about radiating palaces and shimmering skies. He looks past the beauty but still to Venice itself when, of all things, helping others to cope with loss, grief and mortality. Among the poet’s thousands of private letters is this one offering condolences while evoking striking images of Venice: “I am not ashamed to have cried on a recent early Sunday morning in a cold gondola which floated around endless corners through sections of Venice only so vaguely visible that they seemed to branch out into another city far away. The voice of the barcaiolo who called out to be granted passage at the corner of a canal received no answer, like in the face of death.”

All of this is pretty powerful stuff. Whether Rilke paints an affectionate portrait of Venice or seeks out Venice for comfort from grief, the feel-good factor is all over the place. This and Rilke’s suggestion that poems are essentially practical experiences can explain why, many years after his death, his work has been so readily seized by the New Age community and reinterpreted for modern self-help books. Throughout history, Venice has inspired countless writers and artists, but to Rilke grasping the whole breadth of the city, both physically and figuratively, has been integral. Following in his footsteps, Venice feels indispensable to us all.