Das Stunden-Buch (The Book of Hours) was written between 1899 and 1903 in three parts, and first published in Leipzig by Insel Verlag in April 1905. With its dreamy, melodic expression and neo-Romantic mood, it stands, along with ‘The Lay of the Love and Death of Christoph Cornet’, as the most important of Rainer Maria Rilke‘s early works.
The work, dedicated to Lou Andreas-Salome, is his first through-composed cycle, which established his reputation as a religious poet, culminating in the poet’s Duino Elegies.
In arresting language, using a turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau aesthetic, Rilke displayed a wide range of his poetic apparatus. The suggestive musicality of his verses developed into the hallmark of his later lyric poetry, to mixed criticism.
It consists of three sections with common themes relating to St. Francis and the Christian search for God.
The sections are:
*The Book of Monastic Life (Das Buch vom mönchischen Leben)
*The Book of Pilgrimage (Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft)
*The Book of Poverty and Death (Das Buch von der Armut und vom Tode)
The collective title comes from the book of hours, a type of illuminated breviary popular in France in the later Middle Ages. These prayer and worship books were often decorated with illumination and so combined religious edification with art. They contained prayers for different times of the day and were designed to structure the day through regular devotion to God.
The work is influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and contemporaneous philosophical ideas, and shows Rilke’s search for a meaningful basis for living, which he identifies as a pantheistic God.
Rilke’s journeys to Russia in the summer of 1899 and 1900 form the biographical background to the work. He undertook these with Lou Andreas-Salome, and began work on the cycle after their conclusion. The vastness of Russia, the fervent devotion of its peasantry to their Orthodox religion, and its culture little touched by Western civilization – all formed a backdrop which, deepened by personal encounters with Leonid Pasternak and the renowned Leo Tolstoy, developed over time into a spiritual home. As he wrote retrospectively twenty years later, the country had revealed to him “the brotherhood and the darkness of God”.