Book review

Letters To A Young Poet. Rainer Maria Rilke (1903-1908), trs Herter Norton (1934)

Written during Rilke’s formative years, his advice in Letters To A Young Poet is a guide not just to artists, but to anyone who wants to live well. Ranging over topics as diverse as vocation and art, sex and solitude, nature and literary criticism, Letters is a lyrical and spiritual guide to living, reading, feeling, and loving. Quick to read, this tiny book will stay with you long afterwards, and hold up to frequent rereadings. Like a holy book, it is best read often and briefly: peep at one passage, savour it, and turn it over on your tongue.

I don’t read poetry; I read Letters To A Young Poet on the recommendation of a fellow writer who’s primarily a poet. I sped through the book, then went back to reread it – apt, given that Rilke’s central message is to slow down. This tiny collection of ten letters from Rilke, prefaced by a chronicle of the years during which he wrote it – the chronicle peppered with excerpts from Rilke’s letters to other correspondents – is endlessly quotable. Though written in Rilke’s thirties, every thought reads like the outcome of prolonged deliberation and a mature outlook on life, expressed succinctly and lyrically. I tend to speed through things in general – one reason I can’t read poetry – and I expect that periodical rereading of Letters will have the same effect on me as a brief session of meditation does, when I remember to do it. Letters has a salutarily sedative effect.

In 1902, a student at an Austrian military academy discovered that the emerging poet Rilke, whose work he admired, was an alumnus of the same academy. Struggling with doubts about his military career, and longing for critiques of his worn work, he wrote to Rilke. They exchanged letters for the next several years, a period eventful in both Kappus’s life and Rilke’s. Letters contains only Rilke’s poets to Kappus’s, but from these we can infer enough about the ongoing difficulties on which Kappus sought advice. Besides, Rilke refused from beginning to end to offer anything like a concrete solution – offering, instead, sensitive but general spiritual guidance.

During this period, Rilke was himself undergoing enormous changes. He had already published several volumes of writing, travelled widely, befriended other artists and patrons, and was engaged in works of translation and biography. The Letters and the accompanying chronicle suggest frequent changes of location, illness and malaise, interest in a range of projects, some unfinished, and trouble settling into a routine. But with Kappus he maintained the stance of a mentor, glossing over his own struggles (which the Chronicle narrates), and conveying always the same amiable, wise equanimity.

“Nobody can help you,” Rilke tells Kappus. “There is only one single way. Go into yourself.” This he says in response to Kappus evidently wondering whether he ought to pursue poetry. He has sent Rilke some of his work to criticise; Rilke begins his first letter by declining to provide any specific critique, observing both here and in another letter that “by nothing can one approach a work of art so little as by aesthetic criticism.” He advises Kappus, in his own reading, to rely on his own feelings, and on love, the only way to understand any artwork – and, by implication, anything. On the question of whether Kappus should keep writing, Rilke advises Kappus neither to seek external validation, nor to decide his vocation based on material success in it: “This above all ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life 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… A work of art is good if it has sprung from [this] necessity.”

Repeatedly he counsels Kappus to be patient with himself, not to rush his own development, not to hasten towards answers but to enjoy the questions: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious… that alone is living the artist’s life.” It is interesting to note the gradual change in Rilke’s attitude to work in this period. He counsels Kappus, basically, not to force things before he’s ready. But the Chronicle shows he’s simultaneously feeling a growing dissatisfaction about his own pace of work, and confronting the necessity of a regular routine. No doubt Rilke’s advice was tailored to Kappus’s situation: perhaps Kappus wanted to write without having yet anything worth saying.

Kappus appears to be struggling chronically with solitude, and with doubts. Rilke advises perseverance: “Almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious” and a wholehearted embrace of solitude as the fit condition of the poet, and of the human being: “love your solitude and bear with sweetsounding lamentation the suffering it causes you.” He also counsels Kappus to seek solace in nature, and in things; to befriend the small and the humble and “to win its confidence.” “If there is nothing in common between you and other people, try being close to things, they will not desert you; there are the nights still and the winds…”

Rilke suggests that sadness is a valuable emotion, as long as one recognises that it signals something new and important in the soul, rather than turning away from the emotion: “Only those sadnesses are dangerous and bad which one carries about among people in order to drown them out …Our sadnesses… are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown.”

Rilke expresses his views on sex and on love. Of the former, he laments that we’re caught between prudery and prurience. Love he calls “the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation…” Naturally, then, he considers young people unfit for love: they’ve not yet finished their own development, and nothing good comes of two incomplete souls “flinging themselves at one another.” For Rilke, every question in life, but especially questions of love and sex, require the painstaking effort of finding an intensely personal answer. He explains why, instead, we almost inevitably seek recourse, to our own doom, in ossified convention: “It is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed; it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.”

Repeatedly over these ten letters, written over the course of six years – in response to what appear to be Kappus’s much longer and more emotional letters – Rilke counsels Kappus to look into his own soul, to wait for his own wisdom to mature, and to meet life with both love and reason. When Kappus complains about the constrains of his job as an army officer, Rilke asks him to consider whether all occupations are not similarly constrained. But he advises Kappus not to fear any challenge life might throw with him, founding this optimism on the idea that this life is our natural home, our mother almost, from whom we need fear nothing, for nothing in her is alien to us: “No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond… [such that we are] scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.”

Letters is a hard book to review – it is a book of spiritual advice – and this is not a review. It is a collection of snippets intended to encourage you to read this tiny, deep book for yourself.


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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