Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

In equal turns uplifting and bracing, Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of correspondence from poet Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875 – December 29, 1926) to an aspiring poet aged 19, Franz Xaver Kappus. Rilke’s words are nurturing and inspiring to any vulnerable creative or young mind eager to shine.

In the early 20th century, Kappus asked Rilke to read and review his work. Rilke denied critical review, saying he was unfit to offer critique.

Your letter only reached me a few days ago. Let me thank you for the great and endearing trust it shows. There is little more I can do. I cannot go into the nature of your verses, for any critical intention is too remote from me. There is nothing less apt to touch a work of art than critical words.

But through generous self-expression and patient writing, Rilke proffers wisdom and reflection. Among other wonderfully rich advice, Rilke reckons solitude enables becoming—”love your solitude” he advises, and “seek answers within”:1

Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: Must I write?

Isobel Egan's "Introspection II" featured in Terry Gross' "All I Did Was Ask" in the Examined Life Library.
“Introspection II,” a porcelain sculpture by Irish ceramicist Isobel Egan.

Rilke also urges balance between self-examination and self-obsession and tackles how to write from the depths of sadness. Most of all, Rilke shows how human connectivity—not accomplishment—sustains our humanity.

Rilke’s belief that we require “existential anxiety in order to begin,” that somehow soulful questioning is a gateway to self-knowledge and thus contentment, isn’t new. But no one has put it quite so rapturously. Rilke’s writing is referenced frequently—more than other philosophers of his era. It’s difficult to believe that so much of it came from this thin epistolary.

"Rainer Maria Rilke" (1906) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, a critical Expressionist painter and great friend of Rilke.
“Rainer Maria Rilke” (1906) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, a critical Expressionist painter and great friend of Rilke.

I believe Rilke’s current favor (like that of German novelist and philosopher Hermann Hesse in the 1970s) is because, above all, Rilke’s writing is extremely maternal and hopeful. It is directive, yes, but moreover it is caring, nurturing, and reassuring.2

You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best I can, dear Sir, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue.

When asked to review poems, Rilke pushes that request aside and, instead, gets to work on the poet. Focusing on the person, not the work, is an approach held in prestige by so many artists and writers (and certainly by The Examined Life).3

As sometimes the master’s genuine stroke
will find the nearest, hurried page,
so often in the same way a mirror will take
to itself the smiling, sacred, unique face

of a girl as she tries on the morning alone,
or sits in the lamplight’s flattering gleam.
And before the breath of faces more real,
later she lets slip only a counterfeit glow.
What did we once glimpse with our eyes
staring at the hearth, its slow-burning coal?
Visions of life – forever lost to us.

O earth, who can enumerate your loss?
None – or only he who still sounds praise,
singing his heart out, born to the whole.

From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus

For additional insight on the self-forming nature of solitude, dive into the meaningful, mournful poems of American poet Wendell Berry.  On ballasting one’s young insecurity, read Maya Angelou’s warm, generous Letter to My Daughter.

I often fish from the thematic streams of Rilke’s work, and he’s inspired many posts. Including one on the fear of being interrupted once we enter solitude and a soul-wrenching restlessness for something long gone.

Solitary streets of German-Bohemia. Featured in Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" in the Examined Life Library.
“Love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you with melody wrought with lament.” Solitary streets of German-Bohemia, the region of Rilke’s birth. “Deepest need of man is to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.” wrote Erich Fromm. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In this solitude, we find life’s most abundant rewards.

To love is also good, for love is hard. Love between one person and another: that is perhaps the hardest thing that is laid on us to do, the utmost, the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, do not yet know how to love: they must learn. With their whole being, with all their strength, concerted on their solitary, fearful, upward beating hearts, they have to learn to love.

Illustration by Rupi Kaur. Featured in Kaur's "Milk and Honey" in the Examined Life Library.
“Learn to love your solitude” wrote poet Rupi Kaur in her debut collection of poetry Milk & Honey. Illustration by Rupi Kaur.

What Rilke teaches us bears repeating: be kind to yourself, be patient;4 “These things cannot be measured by time; a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing.”

Illustration of Rainer Maria Rilke.