Letters to a Young Poet
You can trust a poet to be wise and beautiful even in his epistolary corpus, and Rainer Maria Rilke is no exception. His Letters to a Young Poet is recommended by nearly every writer on writing because each of the 10 missives—initiated by a fan and would-be poet in 1903 when Rilke was 28, and written over the course of 5 years—speak of the complex inner life of an artist. I came to these letters, like many other writers, by means of these recommendations rather than in search of more by a favorite poet; I have yet to read much of his poetry but am moved to do so by the bittersweet perspective on artistic calling he describes to his correspondent.
One might wonder at the outset how Rilke could have gleaned so much wisdom by his late 20s and early 30s that later generations of writers fled to his comments in their dark nights. A comment by M.D. Herter Norton in his Translator’s Note is a helpful clue:
It is evident that a great artist, whatever the immediate conditions disturbing his own life, may be able to clarify for the benefit of another those fundamental truths the conviction of which lies too deep in his consciousness to be reached by external agitations. Though Rilke expresses himself with a wisdom and a kindness that seem to reflect the calm of self-possession, his spirit may have been speaking out of its own need rather than from the security of ends achieved, so that his words indeed reflect desire rather than fulfillment.
In other words, though Rilke certainly struggled to live as he prescribed, he did believe these things to be true, and many of us resonate with that duality of strong conviction and trembling courage. (For an example, see Madeleine L’Engle, whom I quoted in my review of A Circle of Quiet discussing every artist’s “painful paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity.”)
So what reinforcing beams does Rilke offer to the writer’s uncertain inner structure? Here are some of the gems I am seeking to appropriate.
First, he tells the young poet, ask yourself if you must write, and
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. . . .go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.
If indeed you must create, then you must also trust your instinct:
Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with [aesthetic] criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them. Consider yourself and your feeling right every time with regard to every such argumentation, discussion or introduction; if you are wrong after all, the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and with time to other insights.
Furthermore, he urges his correspondent not to wait until he knows it all to express an opinion (or else he will wait forever), but continue to seek as he goes:
be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
It is despairing to be misunderstood within your own circle, as artists often are, but Rilke warns not to let the necessary aloneness of a contemplative life leave one bitter. Instead:
rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind [those particular areas of your growth], and be sure and calm before them and do not torment them with your doubts and do not frighten them with your confidence or joy… Seek yourself some sort of simple and loyal community with them, which need not necessarily change as you yourself become different and again different… Ask no advice from them and count upon no understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance and trust that in this love there is a strength and a blessing, out beyond which you do not have to step in order to go very far!
He also encourages his young friend to embrace hardships for what they add to experience and, therefore, to art.
Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
And like other losses, doubt, too, must be embraced:
Your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don’t give in, insist on arguments…the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.
I also love the way he describes the communion of two artistic souls, particularly in the most intimate of relationships (he was married to a sculptor, and they spent some time apart while she studied under Rodin). Rather than “fling themselves at each other” and “no longer possess anything of their own selves,” sacrificing autonomy for what they perceive to be love, as he sees many young people do, he seeks an ideal relation “of one individual to a second individual”:
and this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.
Two solitudes protect and border and salute each other! Who but a poet would produce the loveliest definition of true friendship?
As a collection, these occasional letters to his young devotee reveal the ongoing, particular struggles of an impoverished, turn-of-the-20th-century writer pursuing an ontological existence. We may never fully know what effect this epistolary friendship had on the student poet—he seems eventually to have gone on to a different career—but these surviving letters continue to offer much in the way of illumination and encouragement for artistic souls of each successive generation. I plan to revisit these once a year, and I expect that, as my vision sharpens over time, it will continue to be a rewarding practice.