Bearing the Passionate Soul: An Astrological Analysis of Rainer Maria Rilke

The window to the soul can have many frames. The soul of a poet already lends itself to rich symbolic interpretation, since it is in symbols and images that the poet expresses his imaginal world. One such symbolic frame to the soul is that of the astrological birth chart, which can provide an archetypal lens into the psyche of the individual. Born with six planets in a tight grand cross, the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed the powerful dynamism of his birth chart through a lifetime of poetic works. A deep exploration of Rilke’s birth chart and transits would fill volumes, so I will just lightly touch the surface in this essay, focusing first on some of the major aspects in his natal chart, and then looking at two pivotal moments in his life which, although seemingly disparate from the outside, symbolically seem to bookend Rilke’s journey in relation to his search for the “unknown beloved,” for the encounter with the divine feminine, the union with the Anima. These two pivotal moments on which I shall focus are the day when Rilke met Lou Andreas Salomé, his first great love, and when he began to write the Duino Elegies, considered by many to be his masterwork.

The description Rilke’s mother gave of the day he was born is saturated with Christian symbolism, from his birth in the cold of winter at midnight, “the very hour at which our Saviour was born,” to his first gift of a tiny gold cross, bestowing upon him the gift of Jesus.[1] Rilke’s birthday is December 4, 1875, although as best we know the exact time was in the last minutes of December 3, at 11:50 pm, in Prague. He is born with a triple conjunction of the Moon, Saturn, and Mars in Aquarius; this stellium forms a grand cross with Uranus in opposition, Pluto in a square to the Moon stellium and Uranus on one side, and a Mercury-Jupiter conjunction in a square to the Moon stellium and Uranus on the other side. Before even delving into the particular archetypal qualities of the planets and their various relationships to each other, I would like to draw attention to the symbol of the grand cross itself.

Rilke's Birth ChartA grand cross is made up of two oppositions and four squares. The quality of an opposition is that of powerful polarity, a tension of opposites in which the archetypal energies of the planets involved come into potent dialectic with each other. The quality of a square is that of dynamic challenge, sometimes with an unexpectedness to it, in which the archetypal energies can be in conflict or tension with one another. As hard aspects, both the opposition and the square can lend themselves to the growth and transformation of the individual through facing the obstacles, challenges, and crises these aspects can bring up. When these aspects come together to form a grand cross those powerful tensions and energies are multiplied and intensified. A grand cross can at times have the feeling of soul crucifixion, of being stretched across the polarities of one’s life, a simultaneous forcing together and pulling apart of oneself. Rilke’s grand cross can symbolically be seen in his dynamic and fraught relationship to Christianity, from his severely religious upbringing, to his unorthodox Visions of Christ, to the Duino Elegies, in which, as Daniel Polikoff writes, “we experience the signal events of the Passion—carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection,”[2] and to Rilke’s own sense of personal martyrdom.

The Moon in the grand cross can be seen as symbolizing Rilke’s soul journey in relation to the archetype of the Anima. The Moon relates to emotion, intuition, feeling, nurturance and care-taking, the psychosomatic aspects of oneself; it is the womb or matrix of one’s being, the mother-child relationship, emotional connection with others, one’s home and one’s past. While the lunar archetype is not solely equal to the “feminine” per se, women, and in particular the cycles of women’s bodies, have a correlative relationship to the Moon. To have this most intimate of personal planets in such dynamic relationship with many of the outer planets—a bridging of the personal to the great powers of the transpersonal archetypes—correlates with the many transformative relationships Rilke had over the course of his life. In Polikoff’s words:

Rilke’s most intimate relationships did not begin or end solely in the personal sphere but catalyzed (and were catalyzed by) his connection with archetypal, impersonal factors, spiritual and imaginal realities that underlie and overlay the human realm, exceeding the bounds of ego consciousness.[3]

Much of Rilke’s emotional character can be seen in his Moon-Saturn conjunction, as well as its opposition to Uranus. The archetype of Saturn restricts, constrains, distances, and severs, while Uranus is the archetype of freedom, spontaneity, youth, and rebellion. Rilke’s Moon-Saturn can be recognized in his need for emotional distance and his lifelong sense of homelessness, but with the restlessness of Uranus in the aspect he also had a strong need for emotional freedom, and lived a life of nomadic wandering. In a letter ending a relationship with one of his lovers Rilke wrote: “Never forget that solitude is my lot, that I must not have a need for anyone, that all my strength in fact comes from my detachment . . . I implore those who love me to love my solitude.”[4] With Pluto, which impels, drives, empowers, and deepens, squaring each of these planets as part of the grand cross, the need for emotional distance and freedom is intensified into a powerful force, in many ways driving the energies of Rilke’s life and relationships. His Moon square Pluto can also be seen in his many relationships with powerful women, women who not only had social power but great power of mind and personality as well.

To complete the grand cross, Mercury and Jupiter are in a broad conjunction squaring Uranus. Mercury relates to all forms of communication, from thinking and speaking, to writing and, of course, to the art of poetry. Jupiter elevates and grants success upon that which it touches, and archetypally relates to abundance and magnitude. The generosity of words which flowed through Rilke over the course of his poetic career clearly relate to this archetypal combination, and Uranus can be seen in the ingenuity and brilliance with which Rilke executed his writing, as well as in the breakthrough success his works have been granted. Yet in order to bring these works of poetic genius into being, Rilke entered into many dark periods of suffering and despair, which is carried by the square of Saturn to Pluto in his grand cross. He had a “lifelong preoccupation with death”[5] and was often held in the depths of depression, which relate to the tremendously powerful constraining force Saturn-Pluto can have upon one’s psyche. Yet instead of denying what these feelings were asking of him, Rilke was able to bring them forth and come into objective relationship with them, a desire particularly characteristic of the Moon-Saturn aspect. As Polikoff writes, “Rilke . . . craved, not to leave feelings behind, but to realize their mode of objective existence; to make, as the poet said, ‘things out of feelings,’ to lend ever more concrete existence to the soul’s innate longings.”[6] It was just this which he achieved in his poetry, particularly his Dingedichte, which not only made ‘things out of feelings,’ but gave soul feeling to things.

One final aspect I would like to touch on before moving into Rilke’s transits is his natal Venus trine Neptune. The archetype of Venus relates to love and romance, beauty, art, and aesthetics, while Neptune is the archetype of the transcendent, of both soul and spirit, of image and imagination, of the ideal as well as the illusory. The aspect of the trine is considered to be a harmonious or soft aspect, and the archetypal energies tend to flow in confluence and harmony with one another. Rilke’s Venus-Neptune can be seen in the exquisite beauty of his poetic art, and its expression of his “soul-based spirituality.”[7] Yet this aspect also manifested in Rilke’s search for an ideal love who could never be actualized, for the humanness of his many lovers would always shatter the ideal image which he had projected onto them:

“You, beloved, lost in advance, you
who never arrive . . .”[8]

The day that Rilke met Lou Salomé, May 12, 1897, when he was only twenty-two years old, a powerful transformation was set into motion in Rilke’s soul. On that day there was a Venus-Mars square in the sky—the archetypal configuration related to romance in which Mars is the passion and fire that attract the Venusian lovers to one another—that was aligned right on Rilke’s natal Neptune. As his lover, Lou introduced Rilke to new ways of engaging with spirituality and religion as a means to attend to his own soul development, all of which are symbolized by the Neptune archetype.First Meeting with Lou Salome

Also on that day the Sun happened to be aligned with Rilke’s natal Pluto opposite Mercury. He also had a longer transit of Saturn-Uranus, which were exactly conjunct in the sky at the time, conjoining his Mercury. The Saturn-Uranus complex relates to the Puer-Senex dialectic—Lou was fourteen years his elder—as well as the revolutionizing of traditional structures, rebellion against authority, and that which is old or constraining. But Saturn-Uranus is also the maturation of youth, the careful revision of that which has come before and the refinement of that which is yet to come. Rilke had already been experiencing this transit on his Mercury-Pluto—the part of his chart which correlates to the tremendous depth and transformative power of his poetry—for some time before he met Lou, but with the Sun highlighting the transit on the day they met one can see that moment as a symbol of the impact their relationship would have upon him and his work, transforming and revolutionizing the vision that he would spend his life learning to articulate. Furthermore, Rilke was also in the heart of a long transit of Pluto opposite his Sun, which would have been a long period of powerful and intense transformation of his sense of self. Lou clearly played a strong role in that metamorphosis.

To finish this analysis I would like to leap from Rilke’s early years and relationships to his later life, to the time when he composed the Duino Elegies, his “greatest, life-defining task.”[9] As Polikoff writes, “The Elegies unfold a further stage of the intimate yet deeply fraught intercourse between the soul and the transcendent spirit of love that underlies the whole of the poet’s oeuvre.”[10] In this statement can be seen the dialectic between two of the major components in Rilke’s chart: the ‘transcendent spirit of love’ as embodied by his Venus-Neptune, and the ‘deeply fraught intercourse’ of soul as can be seen in his grand cross, particularly in relation to the Moon and its connection to the Anima. Polikoff goes on to say “The Elegies transparently carry forward the meditation on the mysteries of death, (impossible) love, and poetic vocation so central to Rilke’s previous work.”[11]

Rilke wrote the Elegies over a ten year period beginning in 1912, but left a long gap between late 1914 and 1922 when he finished the series. For this essay I will focus in particular on the transits to Rilke’s natal chart on the day he wrote The First Elegy, January 21, 1912, and glance briefly at some of the outer planet transits he experienced over the following three years as he wrote the next three Elegies.

First Duino ElegyLeading up to the time when Rilke wrote the first Elegies he was undergoing a rare transit of the planet Uranus squaring his natal Neptune, at the same time that Uranus was beginning to oppose Neptune in the sky as a world transit. One can see how Rilke, along with others of his generation who also experienced the world transit of Uranus opposite Neptune coming into a t-square alignment with their natal Neptune (such as C.G. Jung who was born the same year as Rilke) became a personal vessel of the archetypal energies that were affecting the whole world at that time. The Uranus-Neptune combination relates to a revitalization of the spiritual, as well as a rejuvenation and upwelling of the ingenuity of the creative imagination. Not long before he began writing the Duino Elegies, Rilke went on a journey to North Africa that “refreshed and invigorated his religious imagination” through his encounter with Islam, a religious tradition previously unknown to him.[12] The Uranus-Neptune motifs awakened during this journey were carried into the Elegies as a revisioning of the Christian mythos with which he had been engaging throughout his poetic career. Polikoff writes,

Rilke’s Duino Elegies effectively restyle Christ’s Passion as a work of human soul-consciousness. In reading the Duino Elegies, we experience the signal events of the Passion—carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection—as they are reenacted in transformed form in the inner space of the speaker’s decidedly human subjectivity—a self-consciousness archetypally psychological and poetic at one and the same time.[13]

In this passage one can recognize the Promeathean-Uranean themes in restyling and revitalizing the Christian symbolism, but in such a way that draws on other Neptunian qualities such as soul-consciousness in relation to the archetypal, psychological, and the poetic.

Another powerful, long-term transit Rilke was experiencing when he wrote the first four Elegies was the planet Pluto opposing his natal Venus. Furthermore, on the very day when Rilke wrote The First Elegy, the planet Mercury was forming an opposition to Pluto in the sky, therefore also conjoining Rilke’s Venus. This transit can be seen in the force and power of the voice carried in the Elegies, right from the first line: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’/ hierarchies?”[14] Over this time period as Pluto opposed Rilke’s Venus, it was also in a sextile to his natal Neptune, thus highlighting in different aspects his Venus-Neptune trine. The Elegies convey a powerful spiritual vision that plumbs the depths of the human soul, and burns with a passionate fire of love throughout. Pluto empowers and deepens the spiritual vision and soul expressive of Neptune, while Venus is reflected not only in the themes of love and the beloved throughout, but also the artistic medium of poetry itself.

Part of Rilke’s soul journey that led to the writing of the Elegies was a transformation in his relationship to love, and his eternal search for the unknown and unattainable beloved so expressive of his Venus-Neptune trine. With the transformative power of Pluto transiting this natal aspect, Rilke was finally able to own this desire in himself, turning the search for the beloved—which again and again ended in loss and isolation so characteristic of Moon-Saturn opposite Uranus—away from the outside world and into the heart of his soul instead. Polikoff writes that Rilke had the “sense that the way forward lay, not in abandoning the work of love, but, on the contrary, in withdrawing the centrifugal force of his outward projection of it, better interiorizing and so truly realizing it for the first time.”[15] One such example of this can be seen in a few lines from The First Elegy, in which Rilke declares:

Isn’t it time that we lovingly
freed ourselves from the beloved and, quivering, endured:
as the arrow endures the bowstring’s tension, so that
gathered in the snap of release it can be more than

Over the course of this transit from Pluto, Rilke’s relationship to the beloved is being transformed, and the possibility of him encountering the beloved in his own soul, as the Anima, is now awakened.

Over the course of the years during which the first four Elegies were written, from 1912 until 1914, the planet Saturn moved from first squaring Rilke’s Moon, to next conjoining his Pluto, to opposing his Sun, and finally to exactly conjoining Pluto in the sky opposite his Venus in November 1914 when he wrote the Fourth Elegy. The archetype of Saturn constrains and pressurizes, like the repeated and seemingly unending contractions of the birth process, all in service of forging something with strength and maturity, of bringing to birth that which has been compressed and sculpted until it has the quality of a diamond. Each of these major transits of Saturn to four of Rilke’s natal planets can be seen symbolically as year-long contractions slowly bringing to birth Rilke’s masterwork, the Duino Elegies. The archetypal qualities of Saturn can be seen coming through the Elegies both at the intimate and personal level, as when Saturn transits Rilke’s Moon and later his Sun, and also at the transpersonal level when Saturn transits Rilke’s Pluto, and later Saturn-Pluto in the sky oppose his Venus. As Polikoff writes,

The great subject of the Elegies is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity, the contours of modern consciousness per se as these appear silhouetted against the abyss; the existential core of human being that begins to reveal hidden features even as its accustomed faces are torn away in the apocalyptic storm of the soul’s dark night.[17]

Much of the imagery in this quote is Saturnian, from the contours and silhouettes against the abyss, to the destiny and existential core of humanity; furthermore the transits with Pluto empower and deepen Saturn’s relentless challenge to truly bring about the ‘apocalyptic storm of the soul’s dark night.’

Much more could be said about Rilke’s process of writing the Duino Elegies and the corresponding transits that unfolded over the course of the decade in which he wrote them. The archetypal symbols carried by an individual person take a lifetime to unfold, and still they could not be exhausted. Rilke came into his life bearing an immensely complex chart, one that must have indeed been challenging to carry, the weight of the grand cross in particular not unlike a soul crucifix to be born through the dark valleys of depression. Yet it is the most challenging aspects that can forge us into who we are meant to be, and in this Rilke responded superbly—for not only did he continue on his dark journey, he returned to the world a gift of poetic beauty that could only have been newly forged in the burning fires of the underworld.

Works Cited

Polikoff, Daniel. In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke: A Soul History. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2011.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York, NY: Vintage International, 1989.

[1] Sophia Rilke, qtd. in Daniel Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus: Rilke: A Soul History (Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications, 2011), 6.

[2] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 498.

[3] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 239.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, qtd. in Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 447.

[5] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 16.

[6] Ibid, 337.

[7] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, xvii.

[8] Rainer Maria Rilke, qtd. in Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 479.

[9] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 446.

[10] Ibid, 447.

[11] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 477.

[12] Ibid, 449.

[13] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 489-90.

[14] Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1989), 151.

[15] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 482.

[16] Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 153.

[17] Polikoff, In the Image of Orpheus, 486.

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