Friday, January 30, 2015

Letters to a Young Poet

So pretty.  Not like mine.
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

I think this is Rilke's most famous work these days--at least in America, since I expect the Germans still read lots of Rilke. It's the book that every literarily-minded undergraduate reads (or at least means to read), and the book that started a new genre of "Letters to a Young X."  And it's only ten fairly short letters collected into a book.

In 1902, Franz Xaver Kappus, a young cadet at a military academy, found out that the poet Rilke had once been a cadet at the same school.  Rilke was not suited to the school at all and was quite miserable, but the connection inspired Kappus to write to Rilke and ask for an opinion of the poetry he was struggling to write.  He also asked for advice on his career, since he was struggling with the same choice of whether to go into the military or to pursue literature.

Rilke responded, not with much of an opinion on the poetry--which he refused to give--but with advice on how to live as a poet.  Disregard criticism and dig within yourself and your memories to write what only you can write. He discussed all sorts of topics, but it's mostly advice on how to live, scattered over several years.  Kappus did not include his own letters, but he appears to have asked a lot of questions about religion, intimacy, beauty and art, all sorts of things.  Rilke also lauded J. P. Jacobsen, the Danish author of Niels Lyhne, which I've written on before.

Some bits I particularly liked:  
Irony: Don't let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of fife. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn't be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless. Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends and when you arrive at the edge of greatness, find out whether this way of perceiving the world arises from a necessity of your being. For under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you (if it is something accidental), or else (if it is really innate and belongs to you) it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art with.

l know, your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you, and I foresaw your lament and knew that it would come. Now that it has come, there is nothing I can say to reassure you, I can only suggest that perhaps all professions are like that, filled with demands, filled with hostility toward the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty. The situation you must live in now is not more heavily burdened with conventions, prejudices, and false ideas than all the other situations, and if there are some that pretend to offer a greater freedom, there is nevertheless none that is, in itself, vast and spacious and connected to the important Things that the truest kind of life consists of. ... What you, dear Mr. Kappus, now have to experience as an officer, you would have felt in just the same way in any of the established professions; yes, even if, outside any position, you had simply tried to find some easy and independent contact with society, this feeling of being hemmed in would not have been spared you. It is like this everywhere; but that is no cause for anxiety or sadness...

Don't observe yourself too closely. Don't be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame (that is: morally) at your past, which naturally has a share in everything that now meets you. But whatever errors, wishes, and yearnings of your boyhood are operating in you now are not what you remember and condemn. 
They're nice letters, and most people would probably enjoy reading them.  I did.

I've been meaning to read some Rilke for my Classics Club list, but I didn't put the Letters on the list--I said "Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge.  Or something by Rilke, anyway."  I was going through the Germanic literature collection at work and came upon the Letters, and thought I should read them, but I still want to read Malte Laurids Brigge so I'm not going to count this.  Unless it turns out to be absolutely terrible and unreadable!


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