Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke is an outstanding collection of his correspondence with a 19-year-old cadet named Franz Xavier Kappus who aspires to be a poet but is struggling between a life path either as an artist or as an army officer. These beautifully written letters raise questions and apprehensions that Kappus and many other aspiring young poets shared in their correspondence with Rilke who was always modest to give advice and ideas how to deal with their emotional issues.
These letters are in some ways connected with Rilke’s own painful experiences as a young man in his early years in a military school where he was mistreated and unhappy – a condition that led him to solitude and poetry writing. Most importantly, in the Letters, Rilke, at that time already a mature solitary writer, projected his own feelings and struggles to understand the difficulties of real love as well as the fundamental characteristics of human relationships, which he had been pursuing with great efforts.
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, together with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his brilliant autobiographical novel in the form of a diary during his stay in Paris, and the essays on August Rodin, to whom he became private secretary between 1902 and 1907, show his talent as an introspective prose writer. The content of these books blends naturally with his highly admired poetry books such as his beautiful Sonnets to Orpheus, the Book of Hours, the Book of Images, Duino Ellegies etc.
It was Kappus who published ten letters that he received from Rilke between 1902 and 1908 and gave the title to the book in June 1929, three years after the Poet’s death – we don’t know how many letters he received as he only published ten. Kappus did not include his own letters in this volume. The readers would need to guess what he wrote to Rilke. In his brief Introduction to this book, Kappus explained that he had been troubled by his future as a military officer:“I felt to be directly opposed to my inclinations”, therefore decided to send his “poetical efforts to Rainer Maria Rilke and ask for his opinion”. Rilke answered from Paris, the beginning of a devoted correspondence between the two until 1908, ”..then gradually trickled into nothing, since life drove me off into regions against which the poet’s warm, delicate and touching solicitude had really tried to guard me’, Kappus confessed in the introduction.
In his first letter Rilke talked about one of Kappus’ poems. He suggested that he not show his work to anyone or send it to publishers so as to avoid rejection, “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do.” “Nobody can help you”, Rilke wrote, “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine…its roots down to the deepest places of your heart”. Rilke showed in this paragraph a personal inclination for introspection, one of his own strengths as a solitary writer.
The correspondence shows that Rilke was often traveling since his letters were sent from Italy, Germany, Sweden and the last one from Paris. All his answers are full of wisdom related to the subjects that burdened Kappus in different moments and situations. He recommends him to read books starting with The Bible and J. P. Jacobsen’s novels especially The Six Tales.
Rilke’s letters reveal his generous personality by modestly sharing his knowledge about books, authors, virtue, sex, love, relationships, voicing his avant-garde opinions and ideas which even today can be considered controversial.
Like in most of his poetry, love and eroticism occupy a central place in the correspondence with Kappus who was at that time a young man experiencing romance and probably also physical contact with women. These letters allow Rilke to express his unconventional views on sex and love. He refers to the famous German poet Richard Dehmel, finding his poetry disappointing by turning “..what is charming into something unworthy”. He goes further in his criticism by accusing Dahmel of being “no entirely mature” when he writes about sexuality in a way “which is not human enough, merely masculine, which is heat, intoxication and restlessness, and loaded with the old prejudices and arrogances with which men have disfigured and burdened love.”
Continuing with the same topic in another reply, Rilke expresses his sympathy for Kappus’ struggle to understand sex: “a complicated topic”, he says, associated to many socially sanctioned ideas and misconceptions. “Our acceptance of it is not bad; what is bad is that almost all men misuse and squander this experience” Rilke wisely argues, probably recalling his own life.
The conversation on these topics is intensified in a letter sent from Rome in 1904 when Kappus seemed to have fallen in love. Trying to help the young cadet to deal with his natural romantic tribulations, Rilke expresses his views on what he considers to be real love, an emotional state that is very close to his poetry. With great candor and details Rilke writes: “..young people who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it”, adding, they..“love falsely, that is simply surrendering, letting solitude go…”
Rilke frankly suggests to Kappus that he must be patient and let maturity lead him to appreciate love as a distinct “difficult” human experience that is different from mere sex, which according to the poet, the “..social perception has contrived to create shelters of every description, for as it was disposed to take love-life as a pleasure, it had to mould it into something easy, cheap, innocuous and safe, as public pleasures are”. In the context of describing the difficulties of love, Rilke talks about what he considers to be a “good marriage”, whose aim is not a “hasty communion…” but “..rather one in which each appoints the other as guardian of his solitude and shows him this greatest trust that he has to confer. ”
The last published letter was sent from Paris in 1908, four years after the previous one in the book. In this particular letter, Rilke expresses the satisfaction of the fact that the young cadet chose the military profession of a “steady expressible existence” with title and uniform, “a duty, all this which is palpable and defined”. Kappus served for 15 years as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and continued to write poetry and novels although without too much success. Later he became an editor for various newspapers, including his own “Kappus Deutsche Wacht” and eventually died in 1966.
Rilke wrote more than 1,000 letters to friends, lovers, colleagues and some artists that he admired. After his death in 1926 his publisher acquired some and published most of them as collections which have been translated into dozens of languages. Among them, the most widely read are perhaps The Letters to a Young Poet, as well as those addressed to Lou Andreas Salomė, a lover, a travelling companion and a long time friend. Letters on Cezanne published in English in 1985, is another important collection of Rilke’s correspondence addressed to various friends about his admiration as well as the mystical experiences and influence that the famous French artist’s paintings have on him and his poetry. “…after the master’s death, I followed his traces everywhere”, Rilke wrote in one of his letters to a friend.
We should be thankful to Franz Xavier Kappus for publishing Letters to a Young Poet, which offers an “astonishing wealth of ideas which the poet here raises”, as Reginald Snell mentions in the introduction of his English translation of the book.