I have read this book a few times, an exception to the statement I’ve made about not re-reading books. As I read it for the third time I found myself, as always, swept off my feet in its wisdom, in its thoughtfulness and in its sincerity. If one must own a self-help book, I recommend Rilke’s letters to the young Mr. Kappus.
I love poetry. I read poetry and I attempt to write poetry. To those who know me, it might be easy to conclude as to why of all the books I shall first feature this two months of books with letters it is that of a poet. Ironically, however, I discovered Rilke the poet only after reading his letters.
A copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet fell into my lap through my sister. It was a reading requirement for one of her classes. I picked it up randomly—an exercise of opening myself to whatever books I could read in our shelves—and found myself smitten by the first letter. How could I not be?
At that time, I was a teenager, struggling through my juvenile poetry of rhyme and angst while pondering over my future as a writer/poet. Looking back, I realized, back then I was merely inspired by the first letter, by the powerful message contained in it. For Rilke wrote to the young poet:
” Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”
I was drunk with those words. Inspired by them. On my third reading, I realize it was not a mere phrase for a writer. It is, if anything, an advice for life. For what is a great life, but a life that pursues its passion? With the eyes of an adult, Rilke’s Letters to the Young Poet is a discovery. Beyond the first letter is a mine filled with insight and wisdom that one can either agree or disagree with. In this tiny thin book of 10 letters written in a span of 6 years (1903-1908), Rilke discusses with Mr. Kappus, life, love, relationships, writing, God and solitude. Strangely enough, midway to my reading, I wonder how exciting it must be to exchange letters with a famous poet who not only took time to write a response to your letters but candidly discussed with you his thoughts and feelings. How I envy Mr. Kappus.
The Letter to a Young Poet are not mere letters, they are in some way lectures and wisdom passed on by a 27 year old man to an 18 year old aspiring poet. Stephen Mitchell in his introduction tells us the story behind these letters. Franz Xaver Kappus, the young poet, was studying at the Military Academy of Wiener Neustadt. One day he was reading Rilke’s collection of poetry when their school chaplain, Professor Horacek, came to him and said “So our pupil Rene Rilke has become a poet.” It was here that Kappus found the courage to send Rilke his attempts at poetry banking on a shared background.
There is not much to review when it comes to such a book as they are actual letters. They are not meant to tell a story, but to share the mind of a famous poet. If anything, Rilke’s letters read like poetry–emotive, rich, and beautifully composed. If I could give everyone a copy of this book, I would. In the meantime I share a few excerpts from the book.
In his fourth letter (Worpswede near Bremen, July 16, 1903) he wrote:
“I like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…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”
Often I heard those wiser than I tell me that the questions are more important than the answers and that answers come when one is most ready. I used to rebel at the idea. I soon realize that there is truth to this. Sometimes we must learn to love the questions themselves.
In his sixth letter (Rome, December 23, 1903) he writes about God and Kappus’ doubt:
“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?…Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? Or don’t you think that someone who once had him could only be lost by him?”
I quoted this because it was beautifully presented. Rilke’s presentation of the argument just struck me as wonderful way of looking at the idea of losing God or one’s faith.
In the seventh letter (Rome, May 14, 1904) he talks of women and future equality:
“This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it. Someday, someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.”
Amen! Need I say more?
In his eighth letter (Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden, August 12, 1904) he hints on experiences and relationships:
“But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. “
Life is never about exclusion. It is about sucking the marrow out of life. Or isn’t it?
In the same letter he speaks of life’s misery/suffering/pain:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants out love…if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”
We are changed by the things that frighten us. We are changed by the difficulties that we face.
What do these things reveal of the poet? They say wisdom can only come from experience and I believe that Rilke in his late 20s and early 30s lived a life filled with experience. He had, it seems, the luxury of truly experiencing life–its beauty and difficulties. His mind entertained ideas that were in someway revolutionary or philosophical. He spoke of women being equal with men, seeing it as society’s future and he was right. He understood that life’s beauty was in its diversity—in both its joy and difficulty.
Rainer Marie Rilke was a Bohemian-Austrian Poet who wrote in German. It was after these letters, in the years 1910 to 1926 that he wrote his famous works namely the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus. Aside from poetry he also wrote prose. He wrote the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge which is considered semi-autobiographical. He died in December 29, 1926 in Switzerland. It was shortly after his death that he was diagnosed to have Leukemia.