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Journey from `lament to praise'. New biography traces difficult life of poet Rainer Maria Rilke

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A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Donald Prater. New York: Oxford University Press. $27.50 Rainer Maria Rilke, the purest of pure poets, the aesthete vegetarian Orphic poet. Rainer Maria Rilke has, oddly, become popular. Translations of his poetry can be found in most bookstores; there are many to choose from. And there is now a shrewd and authoritative biography by Donald Prater. Prater wisely avoids literary criticism, but gives us ``a portrait of the man,'' quoting extensively from Rilke's letters in doing so.

Rilke's life began unpromisingly enough in Prague in 1875. Rilke's mother wanted a girl and dressed her son as if he were one for the first couple of years. Later, he spent several unhappy years in military academies, and then went to business school in Linz.

He rejected this life with a vengeance.

Rilke's adult life was one of constant movement, one long attempt to avoid entangling relationships. His life with sculptress Clara Westhoff (they were married in Bremen in 1901) lasted as long as Clara, herself an artist and initially in favor of living separately, could stand being married to someone for whom human attachments caused deep anxiety; they had one child, a daughter named Ruth.

Continuously in need of money and a place to stay, Rilke depended on a vast network of friends (chiefly women who found his poetic wooing irresistable). His principal labor was keeping up with a voluminous correspondence. Unreadable today, his early poetry was popular; his autobiographical prose -- ``The Lay of the Love and Death of the Cornet Christoph Rilke'' (1904) and ``The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge'' (1910) -- went before him, opening doors and hearts.

Rilke was a confirmed ``narcissist,'' but a critical one, one bent on writing great poetry.

And out of this unhappy existence came a poetry whose power to console is perhaps unmatched.

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