Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

This is the best work I’ve read after Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I found profoundly informative to amateur writers like me. The book, though short, moved me in ways unimagined. I was awestruck when Rilke said that “Art too is only a way of living”; I’ve never thought about art from that perspective. But when I analyzed the meaning of his words, I was overwhelmed by their truth. It is true how much art is connected with our lives without us realizing it, and artistic works are by-products of artists’ own life experiences. So yes, art is a way of living.

The ten letters here contain what Rainer Maria Rilke has written to a young military student, Franz Kappus, who later became a poet himself. In the early stages of his writing, Kappus was plagued by doubt about the quality of his verses, which led him to correspond with the great poet, Rilke for advice. And the advice Rilke so generously give is valuable for any budding writer.

In his letter, Rilke addresses art, life, and its interconnection. First, he tells the young poet that when writing, the question he should ask him is “must I write?” If, and if only the answer to the question is yes that he should proceed to write. No one can advise a writer; that is Rilke’s opinion. So then, where should the young, budding artists look at? To whom to look up? And Rilke tells to “Go inside yourself. And if from this turning inwards, from this sinking into your private world, there come verses, you will not think to ask anyone whether they are good verses.”. His words are a confirmation that artists are born and not created. “Let your judgments have their own quiet, undisturbed development, which must, like all progress, come from deep within, and cannot in any way be pressed or hurried. To be an artist means: not to reckon and count; to ripen like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of Spring without fear lest no Summer might come after.” These words are the best that an amateur can hear, and this amateur grasped them with pleasure.

The key factor for a writer is being solitary. Rilke stresses its importance in so many words. He advises the young Kappus to find material for his work from the wealth of his childhood. That is where the true riches are which marks a lifetime of success. He also emphasizes the influence nature can have on shaping one’s artistic creations. Further, Rilke talks about the influence love, women, and sexuality can have on young Kappus as he grows mature and how they could contribute to the formation and shaping of him as an artist. In expressing his opinion, Rilke is both bold and generous, and the letters, if they can confirm, show a great open mind.

The letters, though written to a budding poet, are an appropriate read to all types of readers, for while giving advice to the young man, Rilke’s own musings occupy them. The mind of a genius thus exposed is quite interesting to read. Rilke’s vision of life and positivity is marvelous. When he said “when a sorrow rises up before you, greater than you have ever seen before; when a restlessness like light and cloud shadows passes over your hands and over all your doing. You must think that something is happening upon you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall”, so touching they were that I was moved to tears. There is nothing more to say except that I would heartily recommend this little compilation to all readers, and that I sincerely hope that they will profit from his wisdom.

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.