In 1897, while roaming the busy streets of Munich, Rainer Maria Rilke met and fell in love with the widely traveled, intellectual woman of letters Lou Andreas-Salomé. His relationship with this married woman, with whom he undertook two extensive trips to Russia, lasted until 1900. But even after their separation, Lou continued to be Rilke’s most important confidante until the end of his life.
Lou touched almost every aspect of Rainer’s life. He even changed his first name from “René” to the more masculine Rainer at Lou’s urging. After they ended their sexual affair for the second time, Lou wrote one of my favorite good-byes of all time to him. It is a good-bye that does not make demands on the future yet assures a reverence for what came to pass between them. It is a good-bye in which the “good” is honored and treasured. Her words:
“I am faithful to memories forever; to people I shall never be faithful”.
Lou Andreas-Salome to Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer and Lou with friends
During the course of his brief life, Rilke wrote a number of poems directly or indirectly inspired by his love of Lou. Though she was more than a decade older than Rilke, Lou freed his pen and loosened his pantaloons in the magnificent manner of the muse. Here is one of the fruits of their union.
To Lou Andreas-Salome
I held myself too open, I forgot
that outside not just things exist and animals
fully at ease in themselves, whose eyes
reach from their lives’ roundedness no differently
than portraits do from frames; forgot that I
with all I did incessantly crammed
looks into myself; looks, opinion, curiosity.
Who knows: perhaps eyes form in space
and look on everywhere. Ah, only plunged toward you
does my face cease being on display, grows
into you and twines on darkly, endlessly,
into your sheltered heart.
As one puts a handkerchief before pent-in-breath-
no: as one presses it against a wound
out of which the whole of life, in a single gush,
wants to stream, I held you to me: I saw you
turn red from me. How could anyone express
what took place between us? We made up for everything
there was never time for. I matured strangely
in every impulse of unperformed youth,
and you, love, had wildest childhood over my heart.
Memory won’t suffice here: from those moments
there must be layers of pure existence
on my being’s floor, a precipitate
from that immensely overfilled solution.
For I don’t think back; all that I am
stirs me because of you. I don’t invent you
at sadly cooled-off places from which
you’ve gone away; even your not being there
is warm with you and more real and more
than a privation. Longing leads out too often
into vagueness. Why should I cast myself, when,
for all I know, your influence falls on me,
gently, like moonlight on a window seat.
To learn more about Rainer and Lou, pick up a copy of Rilke and Andreas-Salome: A Love Story in Letters. Or explore a few of the following free online resources…
Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910 (Full text)
Lou Salome and Rilke (Philo Agora)
She wrote to Rilke, “You alone are real to me…” (Neale Lundgren)
Book review of Lou’s illustrated memoirs (New York Times)
Illustrated timeline of Rilke’s life (Picture Poems)
The Death of Lou Andreas-Salome (On This Deity)
Rainer Maria Rilke (Sonnets To Orpheus)