Donald Prater A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Oxford University Press, 472 pages, $27.50

The circumstances in which Rainer Maria Rilke invented himself were among the least propitious to the art of poetry of any in modern times. To understand fully the nature of Rilke’s achievement, one must therefore understand these circumstances in all their variety. Although Donald Prater gives a lively account of them in his new biography, the book is not without its problems.

At virtually every step of his narration, Prater has chosen to indicate the changeful spiritual condition of Rilke through reference to the poet’s voluminous and energetic correspondence, piecing together his subject like a mosaic or jigsaw puzzle. In theory, this seems an appealing and self-effacing way of presenting a biographical subject, but after reading over four hundred pages of this approach, one is no...

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