by Rainer Maria Rilke
Random House 1984
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet are arguably the most famous and beloved letters of the twentieth century. Written when the poet was himself still a young man with most of his greatest work before him, they were addressed to a student who had sent Rilke some of his poems, asking for advice about becoming a writer. The two never met, but over a period of several years Rilke wrote him these ten letters, which have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of readers for what Stephen Mitchell calls the “vibrant and deeply felt experience of life” that informs them.
With his translation of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and of Letters to a Young Poet, Mr. Mitchell has now made available distinguished contemporary renderings of Rilke’s best-known prose.
These extraordinary letters were my introduction to Rilke. I remember first opening the small, light-green cover of the French translation, given to me in Paris by a girl I was in love with when I was nineteen: when both love and the German language were more alien to me than the moon. The book was a revelation. I had never heard a voice speaking out of such deep understanding, with such authority. I felt, as many readers have felt, that the letters were written for me. From the very first pages, where solitude is considered as a positive experience (I had thought of it as a kind of disease), my life seemed to acquire a new clarity and sanction. So, even before I read a line of Rilke’s poetry, I regarded him as a spiritual teacher and came to treat him, in that small, light-green-covered book, with the greatest respect, the way some people keep their copy of the I Ching wrapped in silk.
The “young poet” of the title was also nineteen, a military student named Franz Xaver Kappus. In his introduction to the original edition, he tells how the correspondence began. He was sitting under the ancient chestnut trees in the park of the Military Academy of Wiener Neustadt one day in the autumn of 1902, reading an early collection of Rilke’s poems, when the school’s chaplain, Professor Horaček, came up to him, took the book from his hands, looked at the cover, thumbed through the pages, and finally said, “So our pupil René Rilke has become a poet.” It turned out that Horaček had been chaplain to the Lower Military School at Sankt-Pölten fifteen years before, when Rilke was a student there. And he told Kappus about the “quiet, serious, highly-endowed boy” whom he had known and had since lost track of. “After this talk,” Kappus writes, “it is easy to understand how I immediately decided to send my attempts at poetry to Rainer Maria Rilke and to ask him for his judgment. Not yet twenty years old, and just on the threshold of a profession which I felt to be entirely opposed to my inclinations, I hoped to find understanding, if in anyone, in the poet who had written Mir zur Feier [To Celebrate Myself]. And without any conscious intention on my part, a covering letter took shape, in which I unreservedly revealed myself as never before and not ever since to a second human being. Many weeks passed before an answer came. The blue-sealed letter had a postmark from Paris, was heavy in the hand, and showed on its envelope the same clear, beautiful, and confident pen-strokes that the text was set down in, from the first line to the last. With it began my regular correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke.”
It is true that a correspondence of this sort was not unique for Rilke. Throughout his career unknown young admirers wrote to him, hoping for advice, approval, or simply the undivided attention they had discovered in his poems. Rilke always responded kindly, and often with great generosity. But because Kappus was associated, through Professor Horaček, with the military school where Rilke had spent the most painful years of his life — a period he was later to call “one long terrifying damnation” — there must have been a special poignance for him in the young man’s confusion and request for help. And one does sometimes have the strange feeling that Rilke is writing, across time, directly to his younger self, that desperate, miserable boy. This may explain the urgency and intimacy with which the future great poet (only twenty-seven when the first letter was written) was able to address his almost anonymous correspondent, and may temper the occasional tone of exhortation or preachiness: that he felt he had to use.
Rilke’s life was studded with turning-points; but the turning-point during which these letters were written was a particularly acute one. He had already composed the first two sections of The Book of Hours and a large part of The Book of Pictures — lovely poems, many of them, yet with something too easy, too harmonious and self-indulgent, at their core. Early in 1903 “The Panther” burst into existence, and a year later the great “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” These were poems of a different order, astonishing in their power and maturity, the first experiences of that awesome voice which can speak through Rilke as it has spoken through the greatest poets of all ages. In realizing what had happened, he must have known both intense exhilaration and the difficulty of having to begin all over again, with a sense of how little he had achieved and a vastly enlarged sense of what was possible.
Then there was his marriage, which had begun in 1901. The two or three years afterward were the closest Rilke ever came to the normal experience of domesticity. Yet both he and Clara must have realized early on that it wouldn’t work as a real marriage, and each of them must have been trying to work out a livable, amicable compromise. I have known people who were bitterly hostile to Rilke for, as they put it, abandoning his wife and child. But he was dealing with an existential problem opposite from the one that most of us need to resolve: whereas we find a thick, if translucent, barrier between self and other, he was often without even the thinnest differentiating membrane. And unlike more grounded people who have passed through the initial terror and experienced this openness as freedom, Rilke often found himself being swallowed up by a lover or a neighbor or a man with Saint Vitus’ dance walking down a Paris boulevard. You can see it in his eyes: the powerful intuition of the state of being that is called God, the huge, oppressive longing for it, and the desolation. So, as a matter of self-preservation, he required an enormous amount of space around himself; how much, he only began to understand after he was married. He both loved and feared solitude, he often wanted to escape from it, but it was the necessary condition for his poetry. The monk and the lover inside him, each a powerful and conflicting presence, were never able to merge. But throughout his correspondence, and especially in these letters of 1903-1904, he was constantly thinking about sexual love and the relationship between a man and a woman; and he did see what had to evolve, even if he himself couldn’t achieve it. We need only consider some of the other great poets of our century — Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Valéry — to realize how unusually filled with the idea of relationship Rilke’s solitude was.
The letters start from one central topic: an evaluation of solitude as both burden and gift, and as the foundation for all genuine work. Around this center they gravitate, and to it they return again and again from their meditations on the two great subjects that naturally concern any gifted young person: creativity and love. His specific advice to young poets is, as Blake might have written in the margin, pure gold. But Rilke has a great deal to teach every young woman or man, and I have known more than one who loved this small book as a personal confirmation. We may not assent to everything he has to say, and we may be justifiably suspicious about how he put some of his insights into practice. But that these letters are informed by a vibrant and deeply felt experience of life is beyond a doubt, for anyone who has ears to hear.
The issue is just as urgent and unresolved now as it was in 1903. How many among us have come to a balanced integration of society and solitude? How many couples have achieved the mature and equal relationship that Rilke, in his stunning clarity, foresaw? We can all use most of this advice, and recognize that it is given out of a deep spiritual understanding, given with the sense of devotion that is natural to a true poet.
All through the letters there are insights of a very high order. This is a book that has some of the qualities of a great poem — the density, the richness, the seemingly inexhaustible nourishment. And like a poem, it can mirror back to us our condition, changing as we change, clarifying as our vision becomes more clear, until its insights become as familiar and obvious as our own face.
[from the letter of July 16, 1903]
Here, where I am surrounded by an enormous landscape, which the winds move across as they come from the seas, here I feel that there is no one anywhere who can answer for you those questions and feelings which, in their depths, have a life of their own; for even the most articulate people are unable to help, since what words point to is so very delicate, is almost unsayable. But even so, I think that you will not have to remain without a solution if you trust in Things that are like the ones my eyes are now resting upon. If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that — but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything. Sex is difficult; yes. But those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious. If you just recognize this and manage, out of yourself, out of your own talent and nature, out of your own experience and childhood and strength, to achieve a wholly individual relation to sex (one that is not influenced by convention and custom), then you will no longer have to be afraid of losing yourself and becoming unworthy of your dearest possession.
Bodily delight is a sensory experience, not any different from pure looking or the pure feeling with which a beautiful fruit fills the tongue; it is a great, an infinite learning that is given to us, a knowledge of the world, the fullness and the splendor of all knowledge. And it is not our acceptance of it that is bad; what is bad is that most people misuse this learning and squander it and apply it as a stimulant on the tired places of their lives and as a distraction rather than as a way of gathering themselves for their highest moments. People have even made eating into something else: necessity on the one hand, excess on the other; have muddied the clarity of this need, and all the deep, simple needs in which life renews itself have become just as muddy. But the individual can make them clear for himself and live them clearly (not the individual who is dependent, but the solitary man). He can remember that all beauty in animals and plants is a silent, enduring form of love and yearning, and he can see the animal, as he sees plants, patiently and willingly uniting and multiplying and growing, not out of physical pleasure, not out of physical pain, but bowing to necessities that are greater than pleasure and pain, and more powerful than will and withstanding. If only human beings could more humbly receive this mystery — which the world is filled with, even in its smallest Things — , could bear it, endure it, more solemnly, feel how terribly heavy it is, instead of taking it lightly. If only they could be more reverent toward their own fruitfulness, which is essentially one, whether it is manifested as mental or physical; for mental creation too arises from the physical, is of one nature with it and only like a softer, more enraptured and more eternal repetition of bodily delight.
“The thought of being a creator, of engendering, of shaping” is nothing without its continuous great confirmation and embodiment in the world, nothing without the thousandfold assent from Things and animals — and our enjoyment of it is so indescribably beautiful and rich only because. it is full of inherited memories of the engendering and birthing of millions. In one creative thought a thousand forgotten nights of love come to life again and fill it with majesty and exaltation. And those who come together in the nights and are entwined in rocking delight perform a solemn task and gather sweetness, depth, and strength for the song of some future poet, who will appear in order to say ecstasies that are unsayable. And they call forth the future; and even if they have made a mistake and embrace blindly, the future comes anyway, a new human being arises, and on the foundation of the accident that seems to be accomplished here, there awakens the law by which a strong, determined seed forces its way through to the egg cell that openly advances to meet it. Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law. And those who live the mystery falsely and badly (and they are very many) lose it only for themselves and nevertheless pass it on like a sealed letter, without knowing it. And don’t be puzzled by how many names there are and how complex each life seems. Perhaps above them all there is a great motherhood, in the form of a communal yearning. The beauty of the girl, a being who (as you so beautifully say) “has not yet achieved anything,” is motherhood that has a presentiment of itself and begins to prepare, becomes anxious, yearns. And the mother’s beauty is motherhood that serves, and in the old woman there is a great remembering. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and mental; his engendering is also a kind of birthing, and it is birthing when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than people think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in one phenomenon: that man and woman, freed from all mistaken feelings and aversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings, in order to bear in common, simply, earnestly, and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.
The common reader will be delighted by Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of that slim and beloved volume by Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. It seems to be the best yet.
—Los Angeles Times
Rilke’s Letters have become classic statements of creative process and spiritual development…. They help us to know ourselves.
Rilke’s finely wrought advice about art, personal fulfillment, and love… This book is a very important addition to those who love Rilke.