Letters to a Young Poet
Rainer Maria Rilke
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These two works come from opposite ends of Rilke’s life, and the second is a fictional work rather than a real letter, but still they have a lot in common. In that sense, they elucidate one another, and show us that for all his changes as a poet in the course of his life, Rilke’s chief preoccupations remained constant.
Letters to a Young Poet, originally published by their recipient in 1929, is a sequence of ten letters Rilke wrote to Franz Xaver Kappus, a military cadet and aspiring poet of nineteen who had sent some of his poems to the established poet Rilke then was, asking for advice. All but the last were written in the years 19031904, when Rilke was himself only in his late twenties. Rilke’s response is surprising: he says very little about Kappus’s poems. The kind of advice he does offer is altogether furtherreaching, and touches on life itself. Although the context is initially to do with starting out as a poet, everything that Rilke says even about that can be equally applied to embarking on existenceto, in Nietzsche’s words, becoming what one is. That Rilke has so much of importance to say about the business of living one’s life, about what it is to be human, has something to do with the sympathy he feels for his correspondent, who in various ways reminds him of his younger self. But in the end it has far more to do with the fact that the advice is meant for himself, and that he is discovering its validity as he writes. Rilke expressly warns Kappus against thinking that he in any sense lives up to his words, and knows that if he did he would never have found this articulation of his thoughts and feelings (August 12, 1904). There is an odd contradiction between the manner of the letters, which often seem to give definite instructions on how to live, and what they mainly have to teach, which is that in the end there can be no inherited knowledge and that the responses to everything fundamental must be found in and for oneself. Rilke’s main theme seems to be that it is mistaken to look elsewhere, that the answers are already there, in front of us, and what we need to do is be “solitary and attentive,” to exercise patience and acceptance before the complexity and difficulty of life.
The Letter from the Young Worker was written in extraordinary circumstances, as a kind of interlude or siding in the completion of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, in February 1922. It is a fiercely antiChristian (though not antireligious) plea for the Here and Now, a song to the Earthly and to the life of the senses, to the “happiness of sex.” Christianity is seen as tempting us to overlook how our life is really constituted, as making us impatient for something other than the time and place of our living. What we need to do, as both texts urge, is to fully inhabit our own being. Put like that, it sounds rather abstract, but Rilke’s formulations come across not as cold imperatives (though the grammatical form is indeed often that of the imperative) but as warm words of encouragement, as tender injunctions to see things as they really are, as full of potential.
Rainer Maria Rilke (18751926) studied literature, art history, and philosophy in both Munich and Prague and is considered one of the German language’s greatest twentiethcentury poets.
- How do you explain the tone of authority with which Rilke, himself only twentyeight at the beginning of the correspondence, addresses the “young poet?”
- Rilke’s refusal to separate writing from living, art from life, is evident in all his best work. How does the importance of this emerge in Letters to a Young Poet?
- What does Rilke seem to mean by “solitude” in Letters to a Young Poet?
- We only have one side of this correspondence. What do you imagine to be the main matters addressed in Kappus’s letters, and what kind of questions does he ask Rilke?
- “Sex is difficult, true” (pp. 2425). What does Rilke mean by this?
- On the strength of the Letters to a Young Poet, what can we say about Rilke’s conception of time, and particularly about his understanding of the future?
- Rilke warns Kappus against irony, and his letters are deeply unironic. Is this a failing?
- Rilke continually insists on the importance of inwardness, of relying on one’s own resources, but at the time he wrote the Letters, he was himself learning a great deal, both personally and for his writing, from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Is this a contradiction?
- “Perhaps the sexes are more closely related than we think” (p. 27). What leads to this supposition in the Letters, and why is it an important thing for Rilke to believe?
- What is Rilke’s attitude towards God in the Letters to a Young Poet? Does it correspond to what he says later in The Letter to the Young Worker?
- How according to Rilke in the Letters (and perhaps also in The Letter from the Young Worker) can we escape convention, and why is it important to do so? Is it possible to see conventions in a more favourable light?
- What connections and continuities do you see between Letters to a Young Poet and The Letter from the Young Worker?
- Rilke writes to Kappus that a “work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity” (p. 9). What is it about The Letter from the Young Worker that makes it feel that it has come about in precisely this way?
- What is Rilke’s attitude towards religious experience in The Letter from the Young Worker? How does it connect to his attitude to sexuality?
- “To make the proper use of things, that’s what it comes down to” (p. 75). What does Rilke mean by this?