Letters to a Young Poet is a very short book first published in 1929. The book is comprised of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke, a German speaking Bohemian-Austrian poet who died in 1926 from leukemia at the age of 51. The letters in the book were written from 1903 to 1908, as Rainer reached his 30’s. They were compiled from a series of correspondence between himself and another Austrian named Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old aspiring poet studying as a cadet at a military academy, who had originally wrote to Rainer for advice.
The letters from Rainer were published posthumously by Franz, who did not include his own letters to Rainer, but from Rainer’s written responses you can determine what the correspondence was about. What unfolds in the letters is that Rainer takes on the role of an older brother and offers advice to Franz about poetry, art, love, and life in general. Though Rainer was already a published poet before ever corresponding with Franz, his letters to the young cadet are still some of his most beloved and famous works more than a century later, due to their eloquence and sincerity.
I recently finished reading the M.D. Herter Norton translation of “Letters to a Young Poet.” Nearly two years ago I had heard the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt recommend it in an interview as his favorite book. I bought it in October of 2019 based solely on his recommendation, but was waiting to read it until I had finished my stack of other books first. However, I felt compelled to skip the others and start it early and within the first few pages I just really felt a connection to Rilke in the letters he wrote and I couldn’t stop reading.
After a quick YouTube search looking for more information about him and reading recommendations, and after viewing a short documentary film from the year 2000 about his life, it seems quite apparent to me that Rilke suffered from bipolar disorder, a mood disorder. While I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist and can’t diagnose anyone, I am a behavioral health advocate who has spent many years educating myself, and I’m a former certified peer specialist on mental health conditions and recovery who has assisted others, but most importantly I am someone who lives with bipolar disorder type-two.
I’ve never felt so connected to someone’s words before, each verse like a mirror showing the unfiltered me to myself, like someone flinging open the window curtains in my room and letting in the light to both illuminate and cast shadows upon me as I search for myself through this recent phase of major depression that I’ve been experiencing. Like Rilke, I too become extremely productive when I experience phases of mania, and when I’m going through major depression phases I yearn to return to mania because I feel like that’s when I can do my most extensive work. But also like Rilke, I find inspiration in the heavy cloud of depression that feeds my creative outlets. Recently I’ve been unable to find the words to explain my current experiences and reading Rilke’s letters and learning more about his life and struggles has helped me through.
I have purchased two other collections of his works: “The Poetry of Rilke” by Edward Snow which is a collection of some of Rilke’s most beloved poetry and prose and “The Dark Interval” by Ulrich Baer which is a collection of Rilke’s letters on loss, grief, and transformation. If you know anyone who struggles with mental health issues I encourage you to introduce them to Rainer Maria Rilke if they have never heard of him. Nearly 100 years after his death, he’s still deeply impacting people’s lives. No poet or author could ever want for anything more.
A documentary film was directed by Stan Neumann in 2000, released on DVD by Kultur Video in 2013, about Rilke’s life titled Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet.
Rilke has many other collections of poetry and prose. If you go to YouTube and type his full name into the search you will find book recommendations and some incredibly profound readings from his works by some YouTube users. Here are two of my recommendations:
As one of the greatest of the 20th century mystical poets, Rainer Maria Rilke’s ecstasy can be felt pouring through his peerless poetic searching. In this monologue, Richard creates a sacred space in which Rilke’s beautiful words are given centre stage. It is through his love of aloneness and space that Rilke rises to crescendos of celestial transport that powerfully anticipate a future collective awakening.
“If you trust in Nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: everything will become… more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
February 17, 1903
“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And even if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses – would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention thither. Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away. And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to 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. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself an bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.”
April 23, 1903
“There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”
July 16, 1903
“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 and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance. You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to 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 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.”
“But everything that may some day be possible to many the solitary man can now prepare and build with his hands, that err less. Therefore, dear sir, love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you. For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you. And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars and very large; rejoice in your growth, in which you naturally can take no one with you, and be kind to those who remain behind, 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, which they could not understand.”
August 12, 1904
“I believe that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more – is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered. We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens. And this is why it is so important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad: because the apparently uneventful and stark moment at which our future sets foot in us is so much closer to life than that other noisy and fortuitous point of time at which it happens to us as if from outside. The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it.”
“We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
“Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.”
November 4, 1904
“And 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 and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and 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.”
February 14, 1920
“Once I stood on a bridge in Paris and glimpsed from afar on a brick road leading down to the river a suicide victim, wrapped in an oilcloth, who had just been pulled from the Seine. Suddenly I hear someone next to me say something. It was a young blond carriage driver in a blue jacket, very young indeed, strawberry-blond, with an intelligent, cleverly pointed face. He had a wart on his chin sprouting a stiff bunch of red hairs almost cheekily, like a paintbrush. When I turned toward him, he gestured with his head toward the object that held both of our attention and said with a wink: “So, tell me, this one, if he could do that, he could have done anything else.” I watched him, a bit astonished, as he was already walking back to his enormous cart heaped with rocks, for truly: what shouldn’t a person be able to achieve with precisely the kind of force that is needed to dissolve the powerful, tremendous attachments of life! From that moment on I have known with certainty that the worst things, and even despair, are only a kind of abundance and an onslaught of existence that one decision of the heart could turn into its opposite. Where things become truly difficult and unbearable, we find ourselves in a place already very close to its transformation.”
January 4, 1923
“This is, basically, the secret thesis of these pages, and it is perhaps even the innate belief that brought them into existence – this conviction that what is greatest about our existence and renders it precious and ineffable also makes very careful use of our painful experiences to enter into our soul. It is true that sometimes also happiness may serve as a pretext to initiate us into that which, by its very nature, surpasses us. But in such cases it is much easier to understand right away that it wants only the best for us, although it is surely no less difficult to make use of this good we receive in the midst of happiness than it is to acknowledge that there is something positive at the bottom of the absences inflicted on us by pain.”
January 6, 1923
“Time itself does not “console,” as people say superficially; at best it assigns things to their proper place and creates an order. And even this works only because later we pay so little mind and hardly give any consideration to that order to which time so quietly contributes, that instead of admiring everything that now softened and reconciled comes to rest in the great Whole, we treat it as the forgetfulness and weakness of our heart just because our pain is no longer as acute. Alas, how little the heart forgets and how strong it would be if we did not stop it from completing its tasks before they have been fully and truly accomplished! Not wanting to be consoled for such a loss: that should be our instinct. Instead we should make it our deep and searing curiosity to explore such loss completely and to experience the particular and singular nature of this loss and its impact within our life. Indeed, we ought to muster the noble greed to enrich our inner world precisely with this loss and its significance and weight. The more deeply we are impacted by such loss and the more violently it shakes us, the more it is our task to reclaim as our possession in new, different, and definitive ways that which, by virtue of being lost, is now so hopelessly emphasized. This would then amount to the infinite achievement of overcoming on the spot all the negative, sluggish, and indulgent dimensions that are found in every experience of pain. This is active pain that works on the inside, the only kind that has any meaning and is worthy of us. I do not love the Christian ideas of a beyond, and I increasingly distance myself from them without, of course, thinking of attacking them. They may have their value and purpose, like so many other hypotheses about the divine periphery. But for me the danger is not only that they render those who have passed away less concrete and at least for the moment less reachable for us. But even we ourselves, in our longing for a beyond away from here, become in that process less concrete and less earthbound, while it is our obligation – as long as we are here and related to tree, flower, and soil – to remain earthbound in the purest sense, and even yet to become so! In my case what had died for me, so to speak, had died into my own heart. When I looked for the person who had passed away, he gathered inside of me in peculiar and such surprising ways, and it was deeply moving to feel that he now existed only there. My enthusiasm for serving, deepening, and honoring his existence there gained the upper hand almost at the same moment when the pain would otherwise have invaded and devastated the entire landscape of my mind. When I remember how – often with the most extreme difficulties in understanding and accepting each other – I loved my father! During my childhood, my thoughts often became confused and my heart froze at the mere thought that at some point he might cease to be; my existence seemed to me so entirely determined by him (my existence which from the beginning was aimed in such a different direction!) that to my innermost self his departure was synonymous with my own demise. But death is so deeply rooted in the nature of love (if we only become cognizant of death without being misled by the ugliness and suspicions attached to it) that it nowhere contradicts love. Where to, finally, can death drive a person we have unspeakably borne in our heart but into that very heart, where would the idea of this beloved being and his unceasing influence (for how could his influence cease, which, while he was still alive among us, had already become more and more independent of his tangible presence), where would this always secret influence be more secure than within us? Where can we get closer to this influence, celebrate it more purely, and submit to it better than when it appears in concert with our own voices as if our heart had learned a new language, a new song, a new strength! I reproach all modern religions for providing their believers with consolations and embellishments of death instead of giving their soul the means to reconcile and communicate with it. With death, with its complete and unmasked cruelty: a cruelty so horrific that it completes the circle by reaching all the way back to an extreme mildness which is as great, pure, and utterly clear (all consolation is murky!) as we never imagined the sweetest spring day to be! But mankind has never even taken a first step to experience this deepest gentleness, which, if even only a few of us truly received it, could perhaps gradually permeate and make transparent all conditions of life. Nothing has been done to experience this most abundant and soothing gentleness – except perhaps during the most ancient and guileless periods of the past whose secrets we have nearly lost. I am certain that the content of all of the “initiations” anyone ever experienced was nothing but a “key” that allowed us to read the word “death” without negating it. Just like the moon, life surely has a side that is permanently turned away from us, and which is not its opposite but its complement to attain perfection, consummation, and the truly complete and round sphere and orb of being. There should be no fear that we are not strong enough to endure any and even the closest and most horrible experience of death. Death is not beyond our strength, it is the highest mark etched at the vessel’s rim: we are full whenever we reach it, and being full means (for us) a feeling of heaviness, that something is difficult… that is all. I do not mean to say that one should love death. But one should love life so generously and without calculating and selecting that one automatically always includes it (the half turned away from life) in one’s love, too. This is what actually happens each time in the vast movements of love, which cannot be arrested or contained! Only because we exclude death in a sudden fit of reflection has it become increasingly strange for us and, since we kept it at such a distance, something hostile. It is conceivable that it is infinitely closer to us than life itself. What do we know of it? Our efforts (this has become increasingly clear to me over the years, and my work has perhaps only this one meaning and mission, to bear witness to this realization, which so often unexpectedly overwhelms me ever more impartially and independently, perhaps more visionarily, if that does not sound too proud), our efforts, I believe, can aim only at assuming the unity of life and death so that it may gradually prove itself to us. Since we are so prejudiced against death we do not succeed in releasing it from its disfigurations… I urge you to believe that death is a friend, our most profound and perhaps the only friend who is never, ever misled by our actions and vacillations… and I do not mean this, of course, in that sentimental, romantic sense of renouncing or opposing life, but it is our friend especially then when we most passionately and profoundly consent to being here, to change, to nature and to love. Life always says at once: yes and no. Death (I implore you to believe it!) is the true yes-sayer. It says only: Yes. Before eternity.”
October 22, 1923
“Once you have been granted access to the Whole and thus been initiated, you solemnly celebrate your own true independence. You become more protective and more capable of granting protection exactly to the extent that you have lost and now lack protection. The solitude into which you were cast so violently makes you capable of balancing out the loneliness of others to exactly the same degree. And as your own sense of difficulty is concerned, you will soon realize that it has posited a new measure for your existence and a new standard for your suffering and endurance.”