Rainer Maria Rilke: “Letters to a Young Poet”, an astonishing wealth of ideas on love

RilkeLetter_Poet Rilke Letters to CezaneLetters 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.


= Excerpts From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters to a Young Poet.” Dover Publications. Print 2002. IBook 2012: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=504543167

= Excerpt From: Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters on Cézanne.” North Point Edition: iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-on-cezanne/id498300676?mt=11

Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History Part I: Thomas Mann-Herman Hesse

FrontCoverBooks with collections of letters written by prominent artists, writers, thinkers, politicians, psychotherapists etc. are rich sources of knowledge which help us to understand different aspects of human nature such as love and friendship and others.

This literary genre allows readers to explore various facets of the personality and temperament of especially those who disguised they true nature or were distorted in their biographies which are sometimes full of lies and self flatteries.

Most of the published letters contain personal exchanges between people that dedicated time and passion to correspond with their lovers, families, friends and so forth. Such material reveals the personality, mood, taste, and personal challenges of the letter-writers. It also gives us the opportunity to get to know the atmosphere of their times and in some cases what was happening when the letters were written, including the spirit of their times, i.e. Zeitgeist.

In general, published correspondences were kept and organized by the writers and/or the addressees, and after their death, these writings passed on to their families or friends, which sometimes resulted in their ending up in museums or foundations or private collections. These institutions or individuals that are in possession of the collections  sometimes license the rights to publish books with selections made by experts or authors’ close relatives, who sometimes provide the context of the letters.

Letters also serve as an important source of information for biographers who can quote the writers directly expressing their own voices and intimate feelings that are always relevant for the readers to understand a writer’s character. For example, the controversial Russian author Lou Andreas-Salome used letters to support the biographies on the life and works of  Frederick Nietzsche and passionate poet Rainer Maria Rilke respectively, both were romantically linked to her in their lifetime.

There are also many examples of fictional letters that are regularly used in novels as part of a plot, including Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Sweet Tooth” in which letters form an  essential part of the story. Fictional letters are also used in The Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind by Dale M. Moyer Ph.D. who published the imaginary correspondences that “Martha Bernays wrote to her fiancé, Sigmund Freud during the four years of their engagement.” Irving Yalom in his novel When Nietzsche Wept used letters from this famous philosopher to build up a fictional story based on real life events.

We find multiple examples of films in which letters play a central role in the story. A good example is The Go Between (1970) by Joseph Losey where in the summer of 1900, a 13-year-old boy helped to carried letters between two secret lovers. The film is based on a novel by L.P. Hartley with the same tile.

Likewise, the form of letters is used in plays such as Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins, which is heavily based on the intelligent and passionated letters between the two British writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf who exchanged letters for some 20 years until Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins payed the two writers when the play was premiered in New York in 1994.

I would like to mention a few collections of letters, mainly from some letter-writers who lived between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a turbulent era with two devastating World Wars but at the same time full of creativity and romanticism.

I will provide some of the historic contexts and literary backgrounds, starting with the correspondences between Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, the two renowned literature Nobel Prize winners, including texts that showed their fears during the rise of Nazism in Germany and the arrival of Hitler’s arrival to power.

(To be continued)


Bibliography Part I & II:

1. Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Introduction by Pete Hamill. The Hesse-Mann letters,1910-1955. Jorge Pinto Books, 2006. http://www.pintobooks.com/rediscoveredbooks2.html

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, Edward Snow (Translator) “Rilke and Andreas-Salome; a love story in letters” W.W. Norton, 1988     https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/rilke-andreas-salome-love/id831234644?mt=11

3. Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet. Dover Publications, 2012. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-a-young-poet/id504543167?mt=11

4. Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1988. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-felice/id655193304?mt=11

5. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-milena/id655172328?mt=11

6. Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009. http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/van_gogh/theo#sthash.qtsHZYmd.dpuf

7. Mary Soames, Winston Churchill, Clementine Churchill. The Personal Letters of the Churchills.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

8. Sigmund Freud. Letters of Sigmund Freud. Edited by Ernest L. Freud. Dover, 1992

9. Malcolm Jones. The Good Word. Newsweek, January 17, 2009. Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/01/17/the-good-word.html