Rilke and God

Robert Vilain

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Over the last century Rilke has been seen variously as an exemplary ‘homo religiosus’, as a modern mystic, or as irreligious and anti-Christian. He returned repeatedly to religious themes and imagery in his poetry and prose and most modern commentators see these as playing a merely metaphorical role detached from issues of faith. Looking at correspondence and sections of Malte Laurids Brigge and Der Brief des jungen Arbeiters, this article takes a different view, suggesting that Rilke was in fact always urgently concerned with what ‘God’ might mean and came to see him as a process of work and faith as a matter of ‘Bezug’ rather than ‘Besitz’. Aligned with the theme of ‘intransitive love’, Rilke’s God requires nothing from mankind and does not need to exist to offer mankind coordinates for self-understanding. Christianity is rejected, but there is a powerful nostalgia for a meaningful divinity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)472-493
Number of pages21
JournalOxford German Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2020


  • Religion
  • Malte Laurids Brigge
  • Christianity
  • Rilke
  • Poetry
  • Prose
  • Letters


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