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Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

by Venky

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Franz Xaver Kappus, a budding cadet officer instigated a sporadic string of correspondence with the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, that lasted six years. Over a span of a decade and a bit, ten letters were received by Kappus from an otherwise compulsive letter writing Rilke. Rilke at the time of corresponding with Kappus was nowhere near his apogee. Trying to find his own footing as a writer, while at the same time battling a prolonged bout of ill health, Rilke was gallivanting between France and Italy in trying to either beat the harsh winters or attempting to evade intemperate summers.

Yet the letters reveal in a glorious manner the intellectual depth of a twenty eight year old destined for greatness. Condescending and caring in equal parts, they are at once forthcoming, yet forbidding. Rilke’s method of telling Kappus “please do not bother writing to me repeatedly” seems to lie in dashing off an eight page masterpiece perusing which the reader would be moved to respond, unless his heart was to be constructed out of a carefully selected, indestructible chunk of anthracite.

From channeling the foreboding murkiness of loneliness into veritable opportunities to introspecting the real reason behind putting pen to paper to deciphering the beautiful nuances of sex, Rilke holds forth with a great degree of purpose. Abhorring austerity and flinging aside all notions of authority, Rilke writes with the plain and pure intention of – writing.

When Kappus dispatches a verse seeking Rilke’s opinion regarding the quality of the output, he receives an astonishing piece of wisdom that exhorts him to look within rather than seeking external approbation and accolade. At the cost of brevity, I must seek the apologies of my readers as I am compelled to reproduce the entire passage constituting Rilke’s suggestion.

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. 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. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.

Rilke also prods Kappus not to waste too much time or rather any time on aesthetic criticism. A writer’s opinion, according to Rilke must be subject to their own quiet and undisturbed development. Such a development can only come from deep within and in due course. No pressing and pleading can, and should not, interfere with this inevitable ‘gestation’.

On the topic of love (we know not whether Kappus sought Rilke’s opinion on this universal attribute, for in a highly self-effacing manner, the book leaves out every trace of Kappus’ correspondence – in accordance with his own instruction), Rilke avers that the most difficult task of them all is for one human being to love another. This task, in the words of Rilke is ‘the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation’.

Although panned for some uncalled for, untimely and uncouth anti-Semitic remarks which would be made by him in future, Rilke takes a refreshingly positive outlook on the role and prominence of women. Writing in a strong and convincing vein, Rilke calls for the stripping of all conventions pertaining to mere femininity in the mutation of a woman’s outward status . Only then will ‘this humanity of woman, borne its full time in suffering and humiliation, will come to light.’ For Rilke there would dawn a day when ‘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.’

“Letters to a Young Poet” is an extraordinary primer that provides a power glimpse into an extraordinary life.

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