Letters to a Young Poet
Letters to a Young Poet—Rainer Maria Rilke
Read In: 2021 + 2018
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All of us who labor in the arts know that it can be a lonely existence. We often find ourselves living a life of solitary dreams, disconnected from others, and driven by a vision that no one else seems to value or share. On some days, this can become overwhelming. We then thirst for a single voice of understanding that will reach into our solitary lives and reassure us that the path we have chosen is worthy, and that the rewards it offers are worth the loneliness it entails.
Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded. Even more inexpressible are works of art; mysterious entities they are, whose lives, compared to our fleeting ones, endure.
You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.
Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.
Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your everyday life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory. If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past. You will gain assuredness. Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass it by from afar.
A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.
I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.
I wanted only to advise you to progress quietly and seriously in your evolvement. You could greatly interfere with that process if you look outward and expect to obtain answers from the outside—answers which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can perhaps give you.
A whole world will envelop you—the joy, the wealth, the incomprehensible greatness of a world! Live awhile within these books. Learn of them, whatever seems worth the learning, but above all, love them. For this love you shall be requited a thousand and a thousand times over, no matter what turn your life will take. This love, I am sure of it, will weave itself through the tapestry of your evolving being as one of the most important threads of your experiences, your disappointments, and your joys.
No experience was too insignificant—the smallest happening unfolds like destiny. Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by an unspeakably tender hand, placed beside another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others.
Works of art can be described as having an essence of eternal solitude and an understanding is attainable least of all by critique. Only love can grasp and hold them and can judge them fairly. When considering analysis, discussion, or presentation, listen to your inner self and to your feelings every time. Should you be mistaken, after all, the natural growth of your inner life will guide you slowly and in good time to other conclusions. Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which, as with all progress, must come from deep within and can in no way be forced or hastened. All things consist of carrying to term and then giving birth. To allow the completion of every impression, every germ of a feeling deep within, in darkness, beyond words, in the realm of instinct unattainable by logic, to await humbly and patiently the hour of the descent of a new clarity: that alone is to live one’s art, in the realm of understanding as in that of creativity. In this there is no measuring with time. A year doesn’t matter; ten years are nothing. To be an artist means not to compute or count; it means to ripen as the tree, which does not force its sap, but stands unshaken in the storms of spring with no fear that summer might not follow. It will come regardless. But it comes only to those who live as though eternity stretches before them, carefree, silent, and endless. I learn it daily, learn it with many pains, for which I am grateful: Patience is all!
Actually the creative experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual, close to its pain and its pleasure, that both phenomena are only different forms of the same longing and bliss.
His poetic talent is great and as strong as the primeval urge; it has an impetuous rhythm that breaks forth out of him as water out of the rocks. But it seems that this power of his is not always entirely genuine and not without assuming a pose. (After all, this is indeed one of the most difficult tests for the true artist: he must always remain innocently unaware of his best virtues if he does not wish to rob them of their spontaneity and their unaffectedness.) And when Dehmel’s creative power, rushing through his being, meets the sexual, then it finds the man not quite so pure as he needs to be. For him there exists no totally mature and pure world of sex, none that is simply human and not masculine only. For him there exist lust, intoxication, and restlessness, beleaguered with the old prejudices and pride, with which the male has disfigured and burdened love. He loves only as male, not simply as a human being. Consequently there is in his perception something confining, something spiteful, seemingly wild, something temporal, not eternal. There is something that detracts from his art, and makes it suggestive and questionable. His art is not without blemish; it has been imprinted with passion and transience. Little of it will continue and endure. (But this is true of most art.)
Even the best writers can err in their expressions when they are asked to interpret the faintest of impulses and that which is beyond words.
If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable. If you will love what seems to be insignificant and will in an unassuming manner, as a servant, seek to win the confidence of what seems poor, then everything will become easier, more harmonious, and somehow more conciliatory, not for your intellect—that will most likely remain behind, astonished—but for your innermost consciousness, your awakeness, and your inner knowing. You are so young; you stand before beginnings. I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day. Perhaps you are indeed carrying within yourself the potential to visualize, to design, and to create for yourself an utterly satisfying, joyful, and pure lifestyle. Discipline yourself to attain it, but accept that which comes to you with deep trust, and as long as it comes from your own will, from your own inner need, accept it, and do not hate anything.
Oh, that we might hold in reverence our fertility, which is but one, even if it seems to be either spiritual or physical. Spiritual creativity originates from the physical. They are of the same essence—only spiritual creativity is a gentler, more blissful, and more enduring repetition of physical desire and satisfaction. The desire to be a creator, to give birth, to guide the growth process is nothing without its constant materialization in the world, nothing without the thousandfold consent of things and animals. Its enjoyment is so indescribably beautiful and rich only because it is filled with inherited memories of millions of instances of procreation and births. In one thought of procreation a thousand forgotten nights of love are resurrected and that thought is fulfilled in grandeur and sublimity. They who meet in the night to be entwined and sway in passionate lust are performing a serious work. They are gathering “sweets” and depth and power for the song of some future poet, who shall arise and speak of unspeakable bliss. They beg the future to wait to become the present, and they blindly embrace, believing their wish. Even so, they are mistaken. The future does come; a new human being arises, due to the law of nature. A strong resistant seed forces itself to the ovum that draws it willingly to itself.
In the great depths all becomes law.
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. But he who has a pact with aloneness can even now prepare the way for all of this that in the future may well be possible for many, and can build with hands less apt to err. Therefore, dear friend, embrace your solitude and love it. Endure the pain it causes, and try to sing out with it. For those near to you are distant, you say. That shows it is beginning to dawn around you; there is an expanse opening about you. And when your nearness becomes distant, then you have already expanded far: to being among the stars. Your horizon has widened greatly. Rejoice in your growth. No one can join you in that.
Be good to those who stay behind, and be quiet and confident in their presence. Do not torment them with your doubts, and do not shock them with your confidence or your joy, which they cannot understand. Try to establish with them a simple, sincere mutual feeling of communion, that need not change if you yourself change. Love the life that is theirs, although different from yours. Be considerate of aging persons, for they fear the very aloneness in which you place your trust.
Your pact with aloneness will be your support and solace even in the midst of unfamiliar situations. It is through that aloneness that you will find all your paths.
I do dislike writing letters when traveling because I need more than the basic writing implements: I need quiet and solitude and at least one friendly hour.
There is much beauty here because there is much beauty everywhere.
You should not be without a greeting from me at Christmastime, when in the midst of the festivities your feeling of aloneness is apt to weigh more heavily upon you. Whenever you notice that it looms large, then be glad about it. For what would aloneness be, you ask yourself, if it did not possess greatness? There exists only one aloneness, and it is great, and it is not easy to bear. To nearly everyone come those hours that we would gladly exchange for any cheap or even the most banal camaraderie, for even the slightest inclination to choose the second-best or the most unworthy thing. But perhaps it is exactly in those hours when aloneness can flourish. Its growth is painful as the growing up of a young boy and sad as the emergence of springtime. But that should not confuse you. What you really need is simply this—aloneness, great inner solitude. To go within and for hours not to meet anyone—that is what one needs to attain. To be lonely as one was lonely as a child, while adults were moving about, entangled with things that seemed big and important, because the grownups looked so busy and because one could not understand any of their doings—that must be the goal. And when you realize one day that their activities are superficial, that their careers are paralyzed and no longer linked with life, then why not look at the world as a child would see it—out of the depths of your own world, out of the breadth of your own aloneness, which is itself work and rank and career? Why should anyone wish to exchange a child’s wise incomprehension for resistance and disdain, since the incomprehension is aloneness, and resistance and disdain are an involvement in the things you seek to escape from.
Reflect on the world that you carry within yourself. And name this thinking what you wish. It might be recollections of your childhood or yearning for your own future. Just be sure that you observe carefully what wells up within you and place that above everything that you notice around you. Your inner most happening is worth all your love.
Why don’t you think of him as the coming one, who has been at hand since eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree, with us as its leaves? What is keeping you from hurling his birth into evolving times and from living your life as though it were one painful beautiful day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don’t you see that everything that happens becomes a beginning again and again? Could it not be his beginning, since a beginning in itself is always so beautiful? If, however, he is the most perfect one, would not what is less than perfect have to precede him, so that he can choose himself from great abundance? Would not he have to be the last one, in order to envelop everything within himself? And what sense would our existence make, if the one we longed for had already had his existence in the past? By extracting the most possible sweetness out of everything, just as the bees gather honey, we thus build him. With any insignificant thing, even with the very smallest thing—if only it is done out of love—we begin, with work, with a time of rest following, with keeping silent or with a small lonely joy, with everything that we do alone, without participants or supporters, we begin him: the one whom we shall not experience in this lifetime, even as our ancestors could not experience us. Yet they who belong to the distant past are in us, serving as impetus, as a burden to our fate, as blood that can be heard rushing, as a gesture rising out of the depths of time.
Do not allow yourself to be confused in your aloneness by the something within you that wishes to be released from it. This very wish, if you will calmly and deliberately use it as a tool, will help to expand your solitude into far distant realms. People have, with the help of so many conventions, resolved everything the easy way, on the easiest side of easy. But it is clear that we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us. It is good to be lonely, for being alone is not easy. The fact that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it. To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people—who are beginners in everything—cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it. With their whole being, with all strengths enveloping their lonely, disquieted heart, they must learn to love—even while their heartbeat is quickening. However, the process of learning always involves time set aside for solitude. Thus to love constantly and far into a lifespan is indeed aloneness, heightened and deepened aloneness for one who loves.
Please, dear friend, think about this: Did not this great sadness rather pass through you? Did not much within you change? Did you not, somehow at some place in your being, change while you were sad? The only sad experiences which are dangerous and bad are those that one reveals to people in order to drown them out. Like illnesses treated superficially and incompetently, they retreat and, after a short pause, break out even more intensely. They gather together within the self and are life. They are life unlived, ridiculed and scorned. Were it possible, we might look beyond the reach of our knowing and yet a bit further into the past across the farmsteads of our ancestors. Then perhaps we would endure our griefs with even greater trust than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unfamiliar. Our feelings become mute in timid shyness. Everything within us steps back; a silence ensues, and the something new, known to no one, stands in the center and is silent. I believe that nearly all our griefs are moments of tension. We perceive them as crippling because we no longer hear signs of life from our estranged emotions. We are alone with the strange thing that has stepped into our presence. For a moment everything intimate and familiar has been taken from us. We stand in the midst of a transition, where we cannot remain standing.
Therefore it is so important to be alone and observant when one is sad. The seemingly uneventful moment, when our future really enters in, is very much closer to reality than that other loud and fortuitous point in time, when it happens as if coming from the outside. The quieter and more patient, the more open we are when we are sad, the more resolutely does that something new enter into us, the deeper it is absorbed in us, the more certain we are to secure it, and the more certain it is to become our personal destiny. When it “happens” at a later time—when it becomes obvious to others—then we feel an intimate kinship with it. And that is necessary. It is needed, and our evolvement will gradually go in that direction: nothing strange shall befall us, but rather that which has already for a long time belonged to us.
Allow life to happen to you. Believe me, life is right in all cases.
And about feelings: All feelings that integrate and inspire are pure. Impure is the feeling that touches only one side of your being and is tearing you up so. Everything you can think about in your childhood is good. Everything that causes you to be more than you have been in your best hours is right. Every advancement is good if it pervades your whole bloodstream, when it is not due to intoxication, not due to being conditioned to sadness, but to transparent joy.
The silence must be immense where there is space for such sound and movements. And when one realizes that the presence of the distant sea and its melody is added to all this, perhaps as the innermost tone in this prehistoric harmony, then I can only wish that you trustingly and patiently allow that grand solitude to work in you. It is no longer possible to be erased from your life. It shall be immanent in all that you experience and all that you do. It will act as an anonymous influence, akin to how ancestral blood constantly moves and merges with our own and links with that of the individual, never to be unlinked. It is gently decisive at each crossroad of our life.
Art also is only a way of life, and we can, no matter how we live, and without knowing it, prepare ourselves for it. With each encounter with truth one draws nearer to reaching communion with it.