23 pages 46 minutes read

Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

Nonfiction | Collection of Letters | Adult | Published in 1929

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Summary: “Letters to a Young Poet”

Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of 10 letters written by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, from February 1903 to December 1908. In an introduction to the book, Kappus describes how he came to begin his correspondence with Rilke. At the time, Kappus was a 19-year-old student at an Austrian military school. Though Kappus was set to become a military officer, he held aspirations of instead becoming a poet. After discovering that Rilke, then 27-years-old and already renowned as a poet, had also attended the military school, Kappus began a correspondence with Rilke that lasted several years. Kappus kept the 10 letters and published the collection in 1929, several years after Rilke’s death, as he felt the letters gave insight into Rilke’s worldview. This guide follows the Norton paperback edition, published in 2004.

In Kappus’s initial letter to Rilke, he sent Rilke examples of his own poetry, hoping that Rilke would provide feedback on the poems and advise Kappus on whether he should pursue a career as a poet. Rilke’s response begins that “critical intention is too far from me,” and that he feels that critical discussion of poetry is ultimately impossible (15). In Rilke’s view, the experience of artistic works such as poems is ultimately ineffable, as they are “mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures” (15). While still offering Kappus some initial judgments on his poetry, Rilke advises Kappus to stop seeking outside affirmation of his poetry, instead looking inward and asking himself whether he feels an intense urge to write. Rilke closes the letter by suggesting that Kappus focus on exploring his everyday life and experiences, especially his childhood, as material for his poetry, and that he will know whether he is meant to be a poet after doing “this descent into yourself and into your inner solitude” (17).

In the second letter, Rilke offers Kappus some more advice for his development as a poet. Rilke tells Kappus that while irony can sometimes be a powerful poetic tool, he should not allow himself to “be governed by it” (19). Instead, Rilke advises Kappus that he should “seek the depth of things” and only use irony if it authentically comes out of his inner soul (20). The third letter finds Rilke continuing his prior assertion that any critical discussion of poetry is ultimately meaningless, and he advises Kappus not to consult any literary criticism. Instead, Rilke notes that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism” (23). A young poet therefore must turn completely inward to achieve their artistic development, “let[ting] each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself” (23). Poets cannot rush their artistic development, but instead must patiently allow their inner being to slowly develop until it achieves “a new clarity,” allowing the poet to create great works of art (24).

Rilke’s letters to Kappus begin to shift focus in his fourth letter: While still advising Kappus on his poetic development, Rilke also begins to advise Kappus on larger questions Kappus has about life in general. Rather than offering answers to Kappus’s questions, Rilke tells Kappus to instead embrace the fact that he is young and only at the beginning of his development: “[T]ry to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue” (27). According to Rilke, the result will be that Kappus will authentically grow into his personality and attitude toward life out of his own desires and convictions, rather than being “influenced by convention and custom” (27). Rilke also discusses love and sex, arguing that “physical pleasure” is as important to artistic creation as any other experience (29). Responding to Kappus’s seeming anxiety over not having experienced love, Rilke tells Kappus to embrace his solitude now, as well as his relationships with family and his elders, in preparation for a future love “that is being stored up for you like an inheritance” (30).

The fifth letter briefly describes Rilke’s current life in Rome, where he has recently moved to, before promising a longer letter to Kappus. In the longer sixth letter, Rilke addresses a number of topics, from loneliness to work to religion. Rilke begins by offering consolation to Kappus, who apparently has expressed difficulty with feeling lonely in his prior letter. Rilke acknowledges that loneliness is often “not easy to bear” (35). However, he argues that such difficulty is necessary for growth, and tells Kappus that he must try “to be solitary, the way one was solitary as a child” (35). This childhood loneliness allows one to see a defamiliarized world and investigate one’s own inner depths, which will allow one to discover a purely unique and individual way of living. Rilke then discusses Kappus’s career anxieties. Though Rilke acknowledges that Kappus’s military job is “hard and full of contradiction of yourself,” he also tells Kappus that all professions will be similar, “full of demands, full of enmity against the individual” (36). At the end of the letter, Rilke discusses God, arguing that humans may have yet to even experience God: “Why do you not think of [God] as the coming one, imminent from all eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree whose leaves we are?” (38).

In the seventh letter, Rilke elaborates on his previous discussions of solitude and love. Though Kappus continues to struggle with lonesomeness, Rilke tells Kappus that solitude is an important experience for Kappus precisely because of its difficulty. Though Kappus may want to leave his solitude and experience love, Rilke tells Kappus that loving another human being “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks” (41). Youths often try to experience love too early in life, before they have fully become capable of truly loving another. Instead of experiencing authentic love, many young people “fling themselves at each other” to avoid the difficulty of solitude (42). As a result, they seek “rescue in one of the many conventions that have been put up in great number like public refuges along this most dangerous road,” such as marriage (42). Rilke argues that instead one must approach love in full view of its difficulty, finding one’s own way of loving rather than relying on the societal notions of how love should work.

Rilke discusses at length the importance of sadness in his eighth letter. In the same vein as his remarks on solitude, sadness is a terrible but necessary difficulty in life. One must endure and allow oneself to experience sadness, rather than repressing the negative emotion and carrying it around within oneself. He writes “[O]ur sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living” (49). Sadness is thus just the individual’s initial response to new knowledge or a new experience that has the capacity of utterly transforming the individual’s perspective. Most individuals respond to this experience of transformation by backing away, seeking to avoid rather than learn from it. Instead, one must “hold to the difficult, [so that] then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful” (52). Rilke describes sadness as akin to the kind of sickness that an individual must endure to heal and be renewed. The letter closes by advising Kappus not to overthink his sadnesses, difficulties, or mistakes, but rather embrace them as merely part of his overall growth as a person.

The ninth letter is brief, and finds Rilke offering Kappus some more general advice in response to his questions. Rilke tells Kappus that he must stop doubting so much, and instead “find patience enough in yourself to endure, and simplicity enough to believe” (55). Instead, trust that everything in life happens correctly, and that it steadily leads to one’s true fulfillment, whether those events are joyful or painful. Rilke also discusses that doubt, in a certain respect, can be a critical tool for examining the world. However, doubt can also become overbearing, insisting on the ugliness of everything in the world and always seeking “to spoil something for you” (56).

The 10th and final letter is dated December 1908—some four years after the last letter to Kappus. Rilke indicates that he is responding to a letter Kappus has sent him that provided Rilke with an update on Kappus’s life in the intervening years since their last correspondence. Rilke tells Kappus that he has often thought of him, and tells Kappus that he hopes he is “confidently and patiently letting that lofty solitude work upon you,” echoing his advice from his prior letters (57). Rilke concludes by telling Kappus that art “is only a way of living,” and that his life as a military officer can prepare him for a future career as an artist just as well as any other career (58).