I recently came across George Schoolfield’s lecture in 1966 titled Rilke’s Last Year. It was a revelation as I discovered that Kansas University had a collection of 1,600 items that had been given by Dr Henry Sagan.
“He was one of the most devoted and best informed of Rilke’s collectors,” said Schoolfield who gave a masterful and amusing account of the items ranging from 1927 to 1946 including the two former lovers, Loulou Albert-Lasard and Magda von Hattingberg, woke up suddenly in the middle of the night the moment Rilke died! Yet his greatest supporter Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis did not experience such a dramatic awakening – she received a telegram four days after his death after returning from a walk.
“Among them is a collection of the essays, addresses, and poetry which were written and published in response to Rilke’s death. Some
material of this sort, by more or less famous hands, has long been familiar to Rilke scholars.” Names like Robert Musil, Edmond Jaloux, Stefan Zweig and Robert Faesi (he paid homage twice – to students at Zurich University and then at the Landestheater in Stuttgart.) are mentioned in the obituary eulogies.
“And there is the noble tribute of Paul Valery, which, because it
contains personal recollections, is so much more moving than certain of the German threnodies with their splendid abstractions—” But what is not mentioned is the special relationship between Rilke, Boris Pasternak (the same who wrote Dr Zhivago) and Marina Tsvetayeva who wrote the New Year Letter in 1927 to come to terms with his death.
For the rest, Schoolfield provides a fascinating summary of Rilke’s last year, 1926. He delves into the legend that he was poisoned by the thorns of a rose, his dehumanisation, fatal illness and sexual encounters of which Princess Marie of Thurn und Taxis once said that Don Juan was an orphan boy compared to Rilke. Schoolfield’s last word is to recommend future biographers to discover and to value the human Rilke through consulting the Kansas University’s archive.