I had posted Rilke’s eighth letter some time ago (see previous post Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: The Eighth Letter), but hadn’t delved further into this correspondence. Recently I decided to read all the letters and now I must share them with you. I found them lovingly presented on the site: http://www.carrothers.com/rilke_main.htm. Here is what Eddie Carrothers has to say about the letters:
“Letters To A Young Poet are ten letters written to a young man about to enter the German military. His name was Franz Kappus, he was 19 years old, and he wrote Rilke looking for guidance and a critique of some of his poems. Rilke was himself only 27 when the first letter was written. The resulting five year correspondence is a virtual owner’s manual on what it is (and what is required) to be an artist and a person.
This book has been my favorite book for ten years or more. I’ve bought and then given away so many copies of it, I almost never have one for myself. So I digitized it for all those times when I’m without my own copy. The translation is by Stephen Mitchell and is, by far, the best of all the ones I’ve read. It is available on Vintage Press in paperback and is about $9. You can even order it on-line from amazon.com. I highly recommend getting one. It’s a book you’ll read countless times and each time will seem like the first time.”
The day after Christmas, 1908
You must know, dear Mr. Kappus, how glad I was to have the lovely letter from you. The news that you give me, real and expressible as it now is again, seems to me good news, and the longer I thought it over, the more I felt that it was very good news indeed. That is really what I wanted to write you for Christmas Eve; but I have been variously and uninterruptedly living in my work this winter, and the ancient holiday arrived so quickly that I hardly had enough time to do the most necessary errands, much less to write.
But I have thought of you often during this holiday and imagined how silent you must be in your solitary fort among the empty hills, upon which those large southern winds fling themselves as if they wanted to devour them in large pieces.
It must be immense, this silence, in which sounds and movements have room, and if one thinks that along with all this the presence of the distant sea also resounds, perhaps as the innermost note in this prehistoric harmony, then one can only wish that you are trustingly and patiently letting the magnificent solitude work upon you, this solitude which can no longer be erased from your life; which, in everything that is in store for you to experience and to do, will act an anonymous influence, continuously and gently decisive, rather as the blood of our ancestors incessantly moves in us and combines with our own to form the unique, unrepeatable being that we are at every turning of our life.
Yes: I am glad you have that firm, sayable existence with you, that title, that uniform, that service, all that tangible and limited world, which in such surroundings, with such an isolated and not numerous body of men, takes on seriousness and necessity, and implies a vigilant application, above and beyond the frivolity and mere time passing of the military profession, and not only permits a self-reliant attentiveness but actually cultivates it. And to be in circumstances that are working upon us, that from time to time place us in front of great natural Things — that is all we need.
Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art – as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality. May the coming year support and strengthen you in that.
R. M. Rilke