Born in Prague, Rilke was the son of an unsuccessful army officer and a devoted mother whose ambitions centred on her son. As a boy he was sent to a military academy, then to a business school, but both proved uncongenial. In 1895, financed by an uncle, he studied philosophy at the University of Prague but left to go to Munich the following year, allegedly to continue his studies but actually to write. He had written several volumes of verse by 1899, the last few giving hints of a distinctive style. The turning point of his early career occurred on two trips to Russia (1899–1900), accompanied by Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861–1937) – former companion of Nietzsche, later a member of Freud's circle, and the first of many intellectual or aristocratic women who supported Rilke as friends or patrons. During these visits Rilke met Tolstoy and the painter Leonid Pasternak (father of Boris Pasternak) and was stirred by the vastness of Russia and its devoutly religious people. Das Stundenbuch (1899, published 1905, translated as The Book of Hours), written as if by a Russian monk, reflects this deep impression and shows the emergence of Rilke's conception of art as a (quasi-)religious vocation.
After leaving Russia he lived in Worpswede, an artists' community near Bremen. In 1901 he married Clara Westhoff, a sculptor; they had one daughter, Ruth, but separated the following year, when he published Das Buch der Bilder (1902; translated as The Book of Images). From 1903 to 1909 Rilke lived mainly in Paris. He acted briefly as secretary to the sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose committed craftsman-like approach influenced Rilke's attempt to rid his own work of subjectivity. This is seen in the sharply visual prose of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; translated as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1958) and in the completely individual mature style of Neue Gedichte (two vols, 1907–08; translated as New Poems), which focus intensely on tangible things, as in ‘Das Karussell’, ‘Der Panther’, and ‘Archaïscher Torso Apollos’, to cite well-known examples.
In 1911–12 Rilke twice visited Duino castle on the Dalmatian coast as the guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. Here he began a series of elegiac free-verse hymnic poems, but this work was interrupted by World War I. In 1922 a Swiss patron offered him the use of the castle of Muzot (Valais) and in an astonishing three-week burst of creativity Rilke completed the Duineser Elegien (1923; translated as Duino Elegies, 1963) and Die Sonette an Orpheus (1923; translated as Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936). Concerned with the struggle against transience and the journey into death, the Elegies are the culmination of Rilke's career. He died of leukaemia at Val-Mont near Montreux, Switzerland.