Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Extracts to live by.

These letters of the celebrated Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1825 – 1926), to a 19 year-old military student, named Franz Kappus encouraged the young man to pursue inner inqury, art, solitude and passion as a vehicle for inner transformation.

Rilke says a work of art is good ‘if it is written out of necessity.’ He then goes on to tell Kappus to “wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to lives an artist.”

In response to the questions concerning Franz, Rilke wrote that he should  love the questions themselves. “The point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”

Rilke writes one of the most memorable and powerful statements about authenticity in human relationships which all lovers, friends and family members can take to heart. ‘The love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.’ In other words, true love also protects the solitude of the other.

It is as if within the human being, there is the potential for the endless exploration of the lover and the monk within – enjoying the passion and intimacy of togetherness while recognising  the passion for aloneness, for experiencing silence, for a solitary intimacy.

With its discomfort around sensuality/sexuality, much of the religious/Buddhist world, incidentally, could learn much from Rilke.

In a simple, thoughtful and nourishing way, Rilke’s advice to the young man reaches across the generations, so that we feel the value of his message in our lives.  To read any biography of Rilke, to dwell on his poems, you realise he never allows his  vulnerability around love to inhibit his passion for sensual intimacy.

Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943), a remarkable Jewish woman, also in the spiritual tradition of the solitary/lover,  expressed her gratitude to Rilke for his published letters and poems, especially The Hours.

Letters to a Young Poet serves as a source for inner nourishment so that we treat life as an adventure, an inquiry and a challenge to consciousness. You can pick up this short book and open any page and find an invaluable truth revealed in the words. It is a masterpiece of insightful writing on the significance of passion.

In the 1980’s, a friend handed me Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet. I loved Rilke’s  exploration of the sensual; his willingness to explore intimacy and aloneness through breaking the bounds of social conventions.

The wondrous voice of Rainer Maria Rilke whispers and shouts through these pages – an invitation to stay with the solitude and sometimes sadness when exposed to an impregnable mystery – both minor and awesome simultaneously.

Rilke tells us that enquiry demands an enduring patience and a willingness to live without answers. For deep inner forces call upon us to question. Perhaps we may find answers in unexpected ways, and sometime the answers remain deeply hidden in the question.

I have read Rilke’s letters to Kappus many times, and also read his passionate letters to Merline with his reflections on love, art and life. I have given talks on Rilke and quoted him regularly. In the local coffee shop, one customer came up to me and thanked me for introducing Rilke to her through my occasional references to him on retreats.

Letters to a Young Poet serves as a mirror to know love in the field of existence with all of its chaos, forms, strangeness, beauty and unfathomable fusion. Can we afford to neglect the spiritual insights of Rilke?

Can we also rely upon our inner voice with all that it reveals in its wisdom and darkness? Is our voice  the voice of Rilke and is the voice of Rilke our voice? Perhaps there is a shared intimacy with him –so that he is not an external authority, nor are we second hand people through referring to his experiences and observations.

Quotes from Letters to a Young Poet

(To readers: read slowly and if not clear read again; a truth may then register).

Page 18. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. .

Page 20. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.

Page 20. Go into yourself and test the deep in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. 

Page 28. ... to be always more grateful, and somehow better and simpler in one’s contemplating, deeper in one’s belief in life, and in living happier and bigger. 

Page 29. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life.

Page  34. If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you.

Page 35.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given 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.

Page 36. Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great, unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world.

Page 37.  Love your solitude.

Page 45. There is but one solitude, and that is great, and not easy to bear, and to almost everybody come hours when they would gladly exchange it for any sort of intercourse, however banal and cheap, for the semblance of some slight accord.

Page 50. With the trivial even, with the insignificant (if it but happens out of love), we make a start, with work and with rest after it, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, 

Page 53.  It is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition.

Page 54. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work from which all other work is but preparation.

Page 59. Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

Page 59. Some day there will be girls and women, whose name will no longer signify merely an opposite of the masculine, but something in itself, something that makes one think, not of any complement and limit, but only of life and existence: the feminine human being. 

Page 64. 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.

Page 70. Do not observe yourself too much. Do not draw too hasty conclusions from what happens to you; let it simply happen to you. 

Page 75.  Don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time.

Page 78. Art too is only a way of living, and, however one lives, one can, unwittingly, prepare oneself for it; in all that is real, one is closer to it .

Rilke acts at times as a beloved companion. We also can experience the seamless art of existence which shakes up the inner life so we stay awake.

“Even between the closest people infinite distances exist, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other.”

Letter to a Young Poet
Translation by  M.D. HERTER NORTON (1934)
Also translated by Stephen Mitchell, a Buddhist practitioner
Published by W.W. Norton and Company

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