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 own writing, asking for advice on becoming a writer. The two never met, but over a period of several years Rilke wrote him these ten letters, cherished by readers for what translator Mitchell calls in his Foreword the "vibrant and deeply felt experience of life" that informs them. Eloquent and personal, Rilke's meditations on the creative process, the nature of love, the wisdom of children, and the importance of solitude offer a wealth of spiritual and practical guidance for anyone.--From publisher description.
In 1903, by choosing to answer a letter and few poems sent him by the nineteen-year-old Mr. Kappus, Rilke, then twenty-seven, initiated a five-year intermittent exchange of letters that became one of the most famous in the literature of the world. The two men started off by acknowledging solitude as both a burden and a gift, but even more as the sole foundation without which no genuine poetic work could even emerge -- this solitude seen as the center around which their letters, and their lives, revolved and to which their discussions returned again and again.
Both men wrote out of that particular reality each was facing and dealing with at the time: Kappus, revealing himself to another as never before, out of his confusion and need for help; and Rilke, now with wife and child, starting to see for the first time how terribly great that distance was both within and around him because of who and what at core he was. He feared it greatly and longed to be freed of the suffering it brought; he even touched on it in these letters, but though he finally came to see the kind of relating that would transcend it, he could not manage to arrive there.
The powerful themes of creativity and love arise, and insights are found here regarding both of these as profound as any to be found anywhere. As Pascal once observed: the ones we love the most are not those who give us something we did not have before, but those who show us the richness of what we already possess. That is a way of saying what Rilke was doing for Kappus: showing him the richness -- as well as the cost -- of acquiring what he already possessed. And in doing this, Rilke was also speaking to himself as well.
What the two found is seen in what they wrote. Their efforts were rewarded. Will yours be in reading of theirs? What you will find, depends on whether you bring to the reading of their words that same fullness of living from your life that they brought to the writing of theirs. But there is, perhaps, a way of getting at least an inkling of whether reading the book would be worth your time. Try reading this:
"And if it frightens and torments you to think of childhood and of the simplicity and silence that accompanies it, because you can no longer believe in God, who appears in it everywhere, then ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you have really lost God. Isn't it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? For when could that have been? Do you think that a child can hold him, him whom grown men bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the old? Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? . . . But if you realize that he did not exist in your childhood, and did not exist previously, if you suspect that Christ was deluded by his yearning and Muhammad deceived by his pride -- and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist, even at this moment when we are talking about him -- what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?
"Why don't you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive . . . What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don't you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning, and couldn't it be His beginning, since, in itself, starting is always so beautiful?"
Remember, that is only his prose. We've yet to get to the poetry that critics of every kind admit extended the range of the German language, bringing forth melodies and a use of imagery that wasn't found in it before. But if you find no such promise in this, then I recommend you pass this book by and go on to other things that strike and stir you instead.
Of the numerous translations of Rilke's book into English, Stephen Mitchell's is the one I most prefer. For me, his comes closest to the common tongue, and has such a natural elegance to it that it lets Rilke's own shine through. Rilke's book speaks for itself, and Mitchell has the humility to let it. Enough said.
Here are some snippets:
“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.
There is only one way: Go within.”
“…read as little as possible of aesthetic critiques. They are either prejudiced views that have become petrified and senseless in their hardened lifeless state, or they are clever word games. … listen to your inner self and to your feelings every time.”
“I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.”
On coping with sadness:
“You must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, when a sadness arises within you of such magnitude as you have never experienced, or when a restlessness overshadows all you do, like light and the shadow of clouds gliding over you hand. You must believe that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand. It shall not let you fall.”
Lastly this one on love:
“To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people – who are beginners in everything – cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it.”
"This, above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve deep into yourself. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question witha strong and simple 'I must' then build your lfie according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it."
The book can be read in a day, and should be read by every aspiring writer in a very quiet place, in solitude. Very German.
I don’t think that kind of relationship would tend to be repeated in today’s time but one can only hope. It’s a quick moving read. It’s not something that I would go out of my way to read again, but I am glad that I read it once
"Just as people for a long time had a wrong idea about the sun's motion, they are even now wrong about the motion of what is to come. The future stands still, Dear Mr. Kappus, but we move in infinite space."
Morton’s translation of Rilke letters is all at once succinct, plain, and gorgeous. Rilke needs few words to impart to Kappus the importance of poetry and how one should go about writing it. “Nobody can advise you and help you,” he says, “nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” Rilke decries the professional critic, the editor, and even the friend who seeks to help the poet. All poetry must come from a place free of outside judgment. Rilke also helps Kappus through a series of crises, including ones of sexuality, intimacy, and professionalism. Rilke takes a little longer to respond to each letter, almost trying to wean Kappus off using him as a critical crutch. In ten simple letters, Rilke gives a very good master class in poetry. If you’re a writer or a lover of poetry, this one will make for a grand and quick read.
Being a writer or a poet is a task of intense devotion, and Rilke gives it proper reverence. Rilke's focus is on the benefits of solitude and meditation, but also the steady work involved in this task, and how the writer must keep working so as to refine their craft.
This is a (dare I say?) very spiritual book. Recommended to all.
Rilke's poems are considered quite difficult to translate from the German, and frankly, I even have trouble understanding them in English. His letters, on the other hand, are quite comprehensible and even inspirational.
This little volume is the latest of one of many translations of Rilke’s famous set of ten letters he wrote between 1902 and 1908 to a “fan” – an aspiring poet. The young man, Franz Kappus, 19, sent Rilke some poems and asked him if he would evaluate them, and whether he, Kappus, should risk all by becoming a poet full-time. Rilke, then only 28, answered generously, at length, and in great detail about what constitutes creativity and poetry, and how to channel the former into the latter. (What a dream-come-true for a “fan” of an author!)
The letters give you a sense of Rilke’s great facility with words, and provide an interior portrait of an artist (himself) that is revelatory and moving.
Don’t stop at the first letter; in it Rilke claims no one can help another with writing. But thereafter, Rilke goes on to advise Kappus about how and where to find the creative thoughts within himself. (Not only within: he does go on a bit about how “creativity of the spirit has its origin in the physical kind, is of one nature with it and only a more delicate, more rapt and less fleeting version of the carnal sort of sex.”)
Poetry and sex. Who knew?
But here, perhaps, is a better example of the beauty of his writing, when he explains to Kappus how Rome has helped his equanimity:
"No, there is not more beauty here than elsewhere, and all these objects which generation after generation have continued to admire, which inexpert hands have mended and restored, they mean nothing, are nothing, and have no heart and no value; but there is a great deal of beauty here, because there is beauty everywhere.
Infinitely lively waters go over the old aqueducts into the city and on the many squares dance over bowls of white stone and fill broad capacious basins and murmur all day and raise their murmur into the night, which is vast and starry and soft with winds. And there are gardens here, unforgettable avenues and flights of steps, steps conceived by Michelangelo, steps built to resemble cascades of flowing water – giving birth to step after broad step like wave after wave as they descend the incline. With the help of such impressions you regain your composure, win your way back out of the demands of the talking and chattering multitude (how voluble it is!), and you slowly learn to recognize the very few things in which something everlasting can be felt, something you can love, something solitary in which you can take part in silence.”
Discussion: Can the prowess of Rilke be evinced through this (or any) translation? I have no idea. Rilke himself said in a letter to his long-time friend/lover Lou Andreas- Salomé that when he wrote on the same subject in French as well as German, the content “developed very differently in the two languages: which argues strongly against the naturalness of translation.”
I cannot read Rilke in German, and thus I don’t feel able to say how good this particular translation is, although it is easy enough to find and compare others. Take, for example, the passage cited above about Rome. In this version, the translator has Rilke saying that “inexpert hands” have mended the beautiful objects of Rome. Another version I checked uses “workmen.” My impression is that restoring objets d'art is an extremely painstaking process requiring great skill, so I don’t find those concepts fungible. But, I have no idea what the passage says in the original German, so I have no knowledge about which construction is closer to Rilke’s intent. And in any event, otherwise I thought that this beautiful passage comes forth much clearer in this translation than the other. Generally, however, among translations, I think there is more variation in the associated matter (intro, notes, and the like) than in the text itself.
What I can say that I found Rilke’s thoughts riveting. In the course of talking about creativity, he also muses on power relationships, love, gender roles, sickness and health, cowardice and fortitude, and how to think about what happens in life generally. I especially like this passage:
"… imagining an individual’s existence as a larger or smaller room reveals to us that most people are only acquainted with one corner of their particular room … That way, they have a certain security. And yet … perilous uncertainty … is so much more human. …
How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginning of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.”
These letters will give you a very good sense of Rilke’s genius, his quixoticism, and lots of ideas to think about as well. And I particularly enjoyed being able to read something by Rilke that I actually understood….
Note: This edition was translated and edited by Charlie Louth, and contains an introduction by Lewis Hyde.
I would very much like to read more from this man. Many, many things that he said (though not all) were deeply-profound and affecting, one quote by him in particular was relevant and moving in my life right now, and so I am thankful to have been able to read such words as his. His perspective, even where mine differed, engaged me in deep and interesting thought.
"To express yourself, use the things that surround you, the pictures of your dreams and the objects of your recollections. When your daily life seems barren, do not blame it; blame yourself rather and tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the creative worker knows no barrenness and no poor indifferent place."
"And when from this turning inwards, from this retreat into your own world, verses come into being, then you will not think of asking anyone, whether they are good verses."
"You cannot disturb [your course of development] more drastically than if you direct your thoughts outwards and expect from without the answer to questions which probably only your innermost feeling in the quietest hour of your life can answer."
"Attach yourself to Nature, to the simple and small in her, which hardly anyone sees, but which can so unexpectedly turn into the great and the immeasurable."
"Ripen like a tree which does not force its sap, but in the storms of spring stands confident without being afraid that afterwards no summer may come."
It makes me long for such meaningful correspondence with another, and I think that all artists should glimpse upon these words, for the book is short, but will last beyond the pages.
"And for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me, life is right in every case."
Life-changing they are not.
From this incredibly sensitive and thoughtful man one can receive a lifetime's worth of advice on nearly all the topics pertinent to being human; namely, love, but also work, work/life balance, forgiveness, childhood difficulties, youthful exuberances, sex and poetry. Rilke was so remarkably giving of his wisdom, his thoughts, his deeply personal inner life. What a fortunate man, was Mr. Kappus, to have such a pen pal.
As a mature reader, one can easily see and understand the tension between Rilke's demands that one find comfort in their own solitude and the command to love unconventionally, at any chance one gets. When I was younger, I understood the necessity of solitude as a buffering oneself from the vicissitudes of life--of exploring your own desires and passions at all costs, of allowing yourself a certain kind of selfishness in such a pursuit. I didn't understand how one could both allow their own loneliness and also be open to the possibility of connection.
In my 20s this bothered me: the idea of "two solitudes greeting each other." Now I realize that it is simply an ontological reality he describes. Rilke is telling the young poet: "Listen, loneliness is a fact of life. Better to get acquainted with it, comfortable with it. The better you know yourself, the more okay with yourself you are, and the better you can love."