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

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

  1. I listened to the audio version of Letters to a Young Poet last year. In French, it is read by Denis Podalydes. It was marvellous, I loved it.
    I loved the peace coming out of them and the tolerance. I know what you mean about lost values. I think it’s mostly how our lives seem speedy compared to his pace. I’m missing the slow.

    I’m going to read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in August, in a readalong with Litlove.

    • I “told” her that I don’t want to read it again or at least not just yet. I’m afraid to spoil the memory. I liked it very much but I will enjoy reading your reviews to refresh my memory.
      I hadn’t seen your post on Rilke. I don’t know so much about his intellectual background. I know Romain Rolland was interested in Eastern religions, I suppose he was as well, because that’s how much of it sounds.

  2. Pingback: Wisdom from an Older Poet « Book Around The Corner

  3. I have not read a single thing of Rilke’s–not even one poem, which I think is a huge gap in my ‘literary education’, which is why I am hoping to read the book Litlove has planned for later this summer. I do like the sound of the essays you mention–I wonder if the English edition would also have the essay by Rolland–I’ll have to investigate. It’s interesting to read about other authors–like Zweig through the eyes of one of his contemporaries. This is what I love about reading–all the little connections you make.

    • It’s a short essay and I was actually surprised they included it as it had no link to the letters at all. You need to read his poems, they are so beautiful. But you would also like his letters, I’m sure.

  4. I keep a volume of Rilke’s poetry by my bed and dip into it now and then. I really like what I have read – I need to devote a bit of less sleepy time to him!

  5. He is worth it. I will have too look up some of his poems in English, I want to see how they sound in another language. Poetry is so much about sound that it is interesting to see what the translator achieves.

    • Let me know what you think when you do so – the edition I have has the poems in the original language on the opposite page and I often will try to read it just to get a sense of how the poems really sound. Translating poetry seems like it must be such a difficult task…!

      • I used to work as a translator but I didn’t like it all that much but I always thought one thing I would love to do, just for myself, is translating poetry. You can take your time and really work on every word.

  6. Thank you for a beautiful post on Rilke!
    What he writes on women is really interesting – and so are his thoughts on irony. For several decades irony has been a central figure in literature, almost as if it was a sign on literary greatness – but according to Rilke, it is not – . Very intriguing, I certainly have to read more about this …

    I will be bringing “Letters …” with me when I go on holiday tomorrow.

    • Thanks, Sigrun. The depth of what he writes is incredible. It is to a certain degree a lesson in how to live and write better.
      The last part of the last letter is particularly accurate. I will let you find out for yourself. I know I used to feel and think much more like he does about writing. And there are certainly still a few writers, or poets, with his integrity.
      When I write I’m not often tempted to use irony but I use it a lot in speach and know exactly why. I don’t want the other person too close.
      Irony is very problematic in memoirs I think. At least if it is the only way a person can cope with a painful experience. This is exactly what Rilke means, I think. You have to fully experience something and then maybe you could use irony. He makes a lot of sense.
      I hope you will enjoy the book (and your holiday).

  7. Rilke is up there in my pantheon of greats – he’s one of the true geniuses I think. I’ve got the letters by my bed, and your beautiful post reminds me to read them more regularly. I wish I had a copy with that Romaine Rolland essay in. However, I do have a big biography of Rilke to read, and I must turn my attention to that very, very soon.

    • Oh, I would love to read that biography as well. I think you will like those letters very much. He combines quite a lot, it’s a course on how to write and live and his sensibility, empathy and spirituality can be felt at any moment.
      Yes, I agree, he is a genius.

  8. One of my favorite books, Caroline. Anyone who considers being a writer should read it. I didn’t know about the friendship with Rolland or the heartbreaking story of his loss of belongings. I’ll have to reread it now with all this in mind.

    • It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I really wonder how many writers would still be writing if they were only writing out of an urgent need… He gives good advice apart from that but most of all I liked how gentle he his, how kind.
      I will have to find out if Romain Rolland wrote more about him. I suppose Zweig mentiones him as well as, according to Rolland, he thought he was the most important poet alive at the time.

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