Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke: Book Review Part 1
Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke in response to a query from a young struggling poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. Rilke himself was between the ages of 28 and 33 when he wrote these inspirational letters to Kappus. Rilke was struggling with his career, yet he was so taken up with Kappus having written to him about counseling that he wrote these letters in reply or as advice to Kappus’s mixed feelings about being a writer/poet. In this book, Rilke shows himself to have a deep understanding of the human psyche, its weaknesses, and the reality of what it means to adopt the life of an artist, writer, or poet. Rilke is an intellectual, deep, and profound. The book was one of the best sets of letters I have read in a long while and I highly recommend the book to every creative soul out there looking for written inspiration to validate their way of life. In this book review, I’ll try and analyze the letters from my perspective and try to bring out certain parts of the letters that touched my heart.
I loved all the ten letters mentioned in this tiny little book. I will divide the blog post over two days as we study this small but extremely profound book.
The first letter shows Rilke to be charmed by the young poet, Kappus, and immediately jumps to advise him on the life of a poet or writer. He mentions to Kappus not to critique any work of art nor pay attention to critiques as they are highly subjective and can be prejudiced. He advises Kappus not to bring out his personality and personal feelings in his poetry. He praises his writing talent; Rilke especially found a lot of potential in Kappus’s poem ‘To Leopardi’. Rilke says frankly to Kappus that he would know if he wanted to be a writer if he considered that he would die if he was not going to be able to write every day. Rilke encourages Kappus to write on familiar everyday things that he knows about: his surroundings, dreams, and memory are highlighted examples given by Rilke. Rilke also believes that one’s childhood can be a great resource of information to feed a writer with ideas to write about. I agree with Rilke on this point. When I started writing way back when I was 20 years of age, I did not write about things that I was used to. I tried going the distance, having too many unrealistic ideas for novellas, et al. But after rereading the books of my second favorite writer Ruskin Bond from then on I made it a point to write about what I was used to. The memoirs which I wrote consequentially were fed with 100% material from my childhood, and at the age of 28, I wrote my first memoir about my life in books. Notice also in the first letter of Rilke that he cautions Kappus to keep track of his progress as a writer, and if he does indeed progress then he should do so quietly.
The second letter is penned after a long gap of three months where the writer Rilke describes his lateness due to depression caused by the influenza type of fatigue. You will see as you go on reading the next few letters that Rilke is quite a sickly person which prevents him from answering his letters most of the time. In the second letter, Rilke advises Kappus to find joy while being alone in his artistic element. He tells Kappus to not give in too much to irony, from which I conclude that means that not only should he not write a lot of ironical statements in his writings but also not to live life as if one was living a ‘life of irony’. I would interpret that as not just existing but Kappus and all writers should live life genuinely. Rilke asks Kappus to always carry around with him the books that are indispensable to him. Rilke carries the following with him at all times:
- The Bible
- Books of the Great Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen
Rilke says these are very thought-provoking books that will keep writers strong in their commitment to their art. According to Rilke, we have to ‘live’ and ‘love’ these books for them to become termed as ‘indispensable to us.’ I also keep carrying around many books practically all the time, but there are a few books that I keep on dipping into from time to time:
- The Bible
- Books by R. K. Narayan
- Books by Ruskin Bond
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
Where R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond are concerned, I at least carry around in my bag one book of the concerned writer. These books keep on reminding me about my love for reading, writing, and teaching. These books, like Rilke’s books I’m sure, have always grounded me where my writing and publishing principles are concerned. I’m sure Rilke wanted that for his young friend, Kappus, too.
The third letter is an Easter greetings letter to Kappus. Rilke is pleased that his book recommendation has not fallen on deaf ears and that Kappus is reading the books by Jacobsen. Nothing endears a reader to another person like a book recommendation taken seriously. Rilke believes the books in the life of a writer that is dear to him makes him realize that his destiny should be that of a writer. After reading these books when one finds contentment in that thought, then indeed one is called to be a writer. He again warns Kappus to stay away from critiques of books because to him, they are nothing but ‘clever word games’ to delude the reader. Rilke believes that one must love art and not critique it; in his time, God’s time or destiny’s time, the fulfillment of the essence of a book of art read, will always come about in the end – so then why waste time in critique? The fulfillment of art is like a woman pregnant and ready to give birth or a tree that will blossom in due time and season. I have noticed after reading these astounding letters of depth that Rilke keeps on using a pregnant woman as an image of the ripening of the poetic mind. Moralistic sensuality is key to this letter though Rilke admits that the idea of sexuality, lust, sexual gratification during their time was highly male-centric and so was not a fully developed way that we look at sex and everything connected to it. My heart bled when in this letter I read how Rilke opens his heart out to Kappus saying that he was poor and that as soon as his books used to be published, they no longer belonged to him and he couldn’t buy them because he couldn’t afford them himself. It reminds me of the plight of so many authors who are bullied by the big industry of ‘vanity publishing’ that rules the literary world currently. By striving for perfection, we indie writers and publishers are trying to change the way readers look at our books.
The fourth letter tells Kappus the fact of life, that we human beings have the potential in us to answer our own fundamental and mysterious questions – all comes to fulfillment in destiny’s own time. He encourages Kappus to practice discipline. He again talks about sex and lust here in this letter, telling Kappus that human beings misuse and waste sex. He asks Kappus not to take sex lightly as we are human and not animals. This makes me ponder on the religious affiliations of Rilke and how deep his understanding of sexuality happened to be. He takes sex seriously and astoundingly says that all that is created on the Earth have, irrespective of circumstances, the ‘great motherhood of mutual longing’. I won’t say I agree with that, but it is quite a statement. He praises the ‘virgin’ and the ‘mother’ but makes no mention of sexually active women who are not betrothed in holy matrimony. In this letter, Rilke even goes overboard in saying that even males have a mothering tendency which truly was a revolutionary statement to make in Rilke’s time. He feels the day we start relating to people as human beings and not, male and female, then will this world be a better place to live in. He bemoans a career that restricts one’s sense of freedom.
The fifth letter has a gap of two long months. Rilke hasn’t been able to write it seems, because he hasn’t had the silence and solitude to do so. He is in Rome but doesn’t like it because it seems like the ‘death of another era’. Yet, he still believes not only in the beauty of Rome but also in the beauty of everything that exists and which is the potential worthy to be used by Art. I like this letter best because I too am certain that everything that exists is beautiful in its unique way. Rilke wonders at the end of this letter whether Kappus’s book has reached him or not; he spends a great deal of time on this point showing how much he now cared and loved Kappus.
The sixth letter is a Christmas letter. Here, Rilke speaks of aloneness having greatness. He likens it to when we were children left to our own devices to entertain ourselves without the supervision or interference of adults. A human being has a world within himself and a child left alone can conjure up an event to match his mood or situation when he or she is at play. Kappus is now wondering whether his career was a mistake and so Rilke tells him the following quite patronizingly:
- He knew this moment would come.
- All careers are the same.
- Try to draw closer to things that will never leave you.
The last point is Biblical indicative of when in the Gospel of Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus says, and I quote:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Thus, Rilke introduces Kappus to God. He asks Kappus whether he had really lost God when indeed he never really had Him in the first place! Rilke also mischievously ruminates whether it is possible to lose God as one loses a little pebble or a stone? Rilke calls life a beautiful day in a history of great pregnancy, yet again bringing the image of the pregnant woman to mind. According to Rilke, we build God, like bees build a honeycomb. I can relate to this, as an existentialist. Everyone has their version of divinity: as many people as there are on this planet, those many and MORE divinities. It’s difficult to point out something specific that is not about things and elements that we know are biased.
Tomorrow I will blog the concluding part of my book review. If you can download the book on your Kindle or get a copy of it to refer to as we study the book, it will be beneficial. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, poems, and other bookish articles, then you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this week!
Copyright ©2020 Fiza Pathan
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