In 1902, the Austrian poet was working in Paris as secretary to the sculptor Rodin. A story is told that Rilke commented to Rodin that he was struggling to find inspiration for his writing. Rodin suggested that Rilke should go to the Jardin des Plantes and look at the animals.
The legend says that Rilke spent nine hours staring at a panther, padding around its cage, before he wrote his poem ThePanther. The legend does not seem to say what mood Rodin was in when he dispatched his secretary to the zoological gardens, nor what mood he was in when his secretary returned after being absent for an entire day.
Could it have been that the august sculptor had felt a sense of frustration at Rilke? Could it have been that the suggestion was more one intended to give himself peace than one thought likely to have provided Rilke with inspiration?
Perhaps there is reassurance in the tale. For even if Rodin was being sincere, it is clear that Rilke was having an off day to feel it was necessary just to go to sit in the gardens.
A Rodin might be a useful guide through a time of lockdown: if what one does not have what one wants; then look at what one does have.
Oddly, it was a visit to Tanzania in 1998 that was recalled in the story of Rilke, and a meeting with a Czech called Charles who seemed to have become a master of making the most of what he had.
Charles had escaped from Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union had invaded in 1968 and had made a new life in exile. Thirty years on from the invasion, he was running a tropical fish project in a remote village on the shore of Lake Malawi.
The project was the only commercial enterprise in the village that provided paid employment. Local men would catch the fish which would be carefully stored in tanks. An aircraft came to the village’s dirt airstrip once a month and collected the fish, then they would be transported to dealers in Europe.
Charles could have been a man entirely lacking in inspiration. Yet his concrete-walled, corrugated iron-roofed bungalow was a place of cheer. He had a short wave radio on which he listened to programmes each evening. He had a shelf of books which would be replenished regularly. He would meet on a Sunday with two German doctors who worked in a local hospital.
Charles could have given Rainer Maria Rilke ideas for inspiration. His capacity for irrepressible cheer within the constraints on his life in that remote village is a lesson for lockdown.