The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke

In 1902 Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old aspiring poet, mailed some poems to German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (then 27 years old), who was a complete stranger to him, hoping that Rilke would critique his work. Rather than critiquing the young man’s poems, Rilke proceeded to write some of the most famous and cherished letters in literary history. In ten short letters, written during a period of 6 years (1902-1908), Rilke bared his soul and shared profound insights about creativity, solitude, reflection, relationships, sexuality, the soul, love, and life. The book is an absolute masterpiece. Each letter deeply touches the reader’s soul; after reading a letter, one is left with the impression of having had a deep conversation with a caring friend or mentor.

Like any great literary work, the author’s wisdom is reaped from the seeds of life experience that have landed on fertile soil and barren rock. “Do not assume that he who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good,” explains Rilke in an early letter. “His life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, he would never have been able to find these words.” Indeed these eloquent words, so full of insight and compassion (not to mention, kindness to a stranger), are timeless — connecting with and inspiring new generations of readers.

Kappus published the ten letters in 1929, three years after Rilke died, in a short book entitled, “Letters to a Young Poet.” In the book’s introduction, Kappus shares the details of his correspondence with Rilke. Kappus understood that he was simply the steward for these letters — the letters really belong to the world. “Important alone are the ten letters… important also for the many who are growing and evolving now and shall in the future. When a truly great and unique spirit speaks, the lesser ones must be silent.” We are indebted to Kappus generous and beautiful gift to the world (particularly in a modern world where correspondence has been reduced to frivolous textese banter); but now, we must be humbly silent and allow Rilke’s inspirational words to soar:

“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 our love.”

“Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other. ”

“Love is something difficult and it is more difficult than other things because in other conflicts nature herself enjoins men to collect themselves, to take themselves firmly in the hand with all their strength, while in the heightening of love the impulse is to give oneself wholly away.”

“To love is good, too: love being difficult. 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 for which all other work is but preparation.”

“Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over and uniting with another… it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake. It is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.”

“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.”

“Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

“A person isn’t who they are during the last conversation you had with them — they’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship.”

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now 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.”

“No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”

“Most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth.”

“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.”

“No experience has been too unimportant, and the smallest event unfolds like a fate, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide fabric in which every thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another thread and is held and supported by a hundred others.”

“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: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling… in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.”

“Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind.”

“The necessary thing is after all but this; solitude, great inner solitude. Going into oneself for hours meeting no one – this one must be able to attain.”

“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

“Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame… at your past, which naturally has a share with everything that now meets you.”

“Sex is difficult; yes. But those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious. If you just recognize this and manage, out of yourself, out of your own talent and nature, out of your own experience and childhood and strength, to achieve a wholly individual relation to sex (one that is not influenced by convention and custom), then you will no longer have to be afraid of losing yourself and becoming unworthy of your dearest possession.”

“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, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as distraction instead of a rallying toward exalted moments.”

“Perhaps the great renewal of the world will consist of this, that man and woman, freed of all confused feelings and desires, shall no longer seek each other as opposites, but simply as members of a family and neighbors, and will unite as human beings, in order to simply, earnestly, patiently, and jointly bear the heavy responsibility of sexuality that has been entrusted to them.”

For further reading: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke Translated by Joan Burnham, New World Library (1992). There is also a translation by Stephen Mitchell (Modern Library, 2001) and Mark Harman (Harvard Press, 2011).
Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke by Ralph Freedman, FSG (1996).

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One response to “The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke

  • Mira

    Thank you so much for these excerpts. 🙂 I didn’t truly appreciate Rilke the first time around. You inspired me to read him again.

    Here’s a poem of his from poemhunter:

    Before Summer Rain

    Suddenly, from all the green around you,
    something-you don’t know what-has disappeared;
    you feel it creeping closer to the window,
    in total silence. From the nearby wood

    you hear the urgent whistling of a plover,
    reminding you of someone’s Saint Jerome:
    so much solitude and passion come
    from that one voice, whose fierce request the downpour

    will grant. The walls, with their ancient portraits, glide
    away from us, cautiously, as though
    they weren’t supposed to hear what we are saying.

    And reflected on the faded tapestries now;
    the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long
    childhood hours when you were so afraid.

    Rainer Maria Rilke

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