Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1903-1908) and Romain Rolland on Rilke (1941)

Drawn by some sympathetic note in one of his poems, young people often wrote to Rilke with their problems and hopes. From 1903 to 1908 Rilke wrote a series of remarkable responses to a young would-be poet, on poetry and on surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world. An accompanying chronicle of Rilke’s life shows what he was experiencing in his own relationship to life and work when he wrote these letters.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet or Briefe an einen jungen Dichter are very famous. I often heard people mention them. So far I had only managed to read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his only novel, and Rilke’s poems. He has always been one of my favourite poets and I was quite thrilled when the first Rilke Projekt CD came out in Germany. German actors and singer’s recite his poems to music that has been especially composed for the project. Meanwhile there are at least two or three other CDs out.

I’ve been reading the book you can see below Briefe an einen jungen Dichter which also contains the Letters to a Young Woman and an essay by Romain Rolland on Rilke.

The essay fascinated me even more than the letters.

Romain Rolland and Rilke were living within walking distance from each other in Paris, Rilke in the Rue Campagne-Première 17 and Romain Rolland on the Boulevard Montparnasse 162. For years they were living close to each other without knowing each other. They were introduced by Stefan Zweig. To read the names of all their mutual friends with whom they met regularly is quite amazing. Stefan Zweig, André Gide, Emile Verhaeren, Auguste Rodin, are but a few. Rilke and Rodin were very close friends and it’s interesting to read how different the two were. Rolland also mentions what an unhappy childhood Rilke had. From 10 to 16 he was at a very strict Military Academy and one can imagine how horrible this rigid discipline must have been for someone so sensitive.

Rolland and Rilke met before WWI and when the war broke out, Rolland left for Switzerland and lived in Geneva while Rilke left for Germany and was finally drafted in 1916. This is something I had either forgotten or didn’t know. Luckily Rilke didn’t have to fight and was working in an archive instead but he lost all his belongings which had remained in his apartment in Paris. His things were confiscated and auctioned, everything, including his manuscripts. What a nightmare. Gide tried to help but it was too late. Nothing was returned to the owner.

After the war Rilke came to live in Switzerland as well, not far from where Romain Rolland stayed. Most of the time Rilke lived at the Château de Muzot.

By that time Rilke’s health had deteriorated considerably and he had to stay frequently at the sanatorium Valmont where he also died. Only shortly before he died it was discovered that he had suffered from some very rare form of leukaemia.

Reading the letters with all this in mind, was quite touching.

A young aspiring poet had written to Rilke asking for advice and over the years Rilke would guide him with his letters. The idea of art and the artist that Rilke describes in his letters is so far from what we see nowadays.

Rilke’s idea of an artist is almost religious and deeply spiritual. First, he advises the young poet, he must try to find out whether being a writer is really his deepest wish. Only if he isn’t able to exist without creating, he should pursue this career. Everything else isn’t true to the soul and will only achieve to produce things devoid of meaning.

Art is good when born of necessity.

He also tells him that loneliness and solitude must be endured. They will transform the soul and lay bare its depth and truth. Most people look for an easy way of life but that isn’t the way of the soul. The soul strives for the difficult and serious.

In one of the first letters he tells the young man to read the novelist that is closest to his, Rilke’s, heart, Jens Peter Jacobsen. I have read Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne when I was very young, shortly after reading The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and I can confirm that it is deeply moving and engaging.

The artist described by Rilke is a pure being of the utmost integrity. This isn’t the realm of creative writing schools and MFA’s (I don’t want to criticize these at all. Our time is a different one). The art created by a being who is capable to endure loneliness and dive into the abyss of the soul or embrace the beauty of inspiration, has a deeply spiritual dimension.

I liked the gentleness of Rilke’s tone, how each and every single word is chosen carefully and especially for the one receiving the letter.

It is interesting to read what he writes about criticism and how to live with being criticized.

The advice he gives in his letters is true and precious but I was, once more, astonished, how much Rilke’s German is different form the one written and spoken nowadays. German isn’t a language that is supervised by a body of language authority like French. The German from only a few decades back sounds quite different from the one in use now.

Rilke is a deeply emotional man and so is his writing. There isn’t the tiniest trace of irony or sarcasm which is a deliberate choice. Rilke writes that a young aspiring poet must stay away from irony as he must explore things that are very serious and deep. Irony will, according to Rilke, never reach the deepest layers of the soul.

Another interesting aspect was what he said about love and men and women. Love, like loneliness, must be endured, he states, it is the most difficult thing in the world. He further says that he doesn’t think that men and women are all that different and that he thinks that women sadly are not yet fully accepted as human beings and that is not how it should be. They should be able to be whole and independent without the need of a man.

It made me a bit sad to read the letters, the world in which they have been written, is long gone, and our values have so much deteriorated.

Rainer M. Rilke: Briefe an einen jungen Dichter - Briefe an eine junge Frau, Buch