Letters To A Young Poet – Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet: Rilke, Rainer Maria/ Burnham, Joan M. (Translator)/ Nerburn, Kent (Foreward By)/ Kappus, Franz Xaver/ Burnham, Joan M.

If there be only one book that you could ever afford to buy yourself in any one year, then for me it would have to be this book.  It is Gold-dust.

It is the very first chapter of this beautiful book that absolutely sung from the rooftops with each note plucked from the harp of knowing, aimed directly like a swiftly fired arrow straight into the heart. It captivated me because I knew every sentence to be true, and yet never in such compact self-contained pages had I ever known it.  Just in all its fullness to be true –

– I know.

‘All of us who labor in the arts know that it can be a lonely existence.  We often find ourselves living a life of solitary dreams, disconnected from others, and driven by a vision that no one else seems to value and share. On some days, this can become overwhelming.  We then thirst for a single voice of understanding that will reach into our solitary lives and reassure us that the path we have chosen is worthy, and that the rewards it offers are worth the loneliness it entails.’

How true is this, not just in the arts, but most especially of a life in Him.  And then you see, that is where prayer becomes something completely other, it crosses worlds, and breaks bounds.  It becomes not a private dwelling place at certain set times throughout the day, but it seeps into every breath and accompanies us in every deed and every gesture and every imagining.

And there you see I feel triple shot,  because when I first read this book I thought it mirrored the voice of someone who has had an all-powerful conversion, and if you are in my position well then that is exactly how you would feel.  Then there’s the added utter paradoxical bonus of being a women and a mother in my position, who yearns beyond yearning for beloved intimacy.  And then there comes the triple added bonus of staying awake to two in the morning and walking for miles and miles upon end for a little solitude, in order to contemplate and recall her inspiration, then to write.

This beautiful little book is simply a set of ten letters written from Rilke to an aspiring young poet named Franz Xaver Kappus.  ‘The letters range freely over a variety of subjects, from the dangers of an ironic world view to the value of faith and the close link between physical and creative ecstasy.  But always, they come back to the fundamental theme of the aloneness of the creative spirit. and the demands it makes upon the lives of those who labor in its service’

‘I know of no other advice than this:  Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.’

‘Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe.  Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded.  Even more inexpressible are works of art; mysterious entities they are, whose lives, compared to our fleeting ones, endure.’

On advising Kappus he suggests that he should not look outward toward publishers,

‘There is only one way to go: Go within.  Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write.  Put it to the test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place in your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write?  Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this:  Must I write?  Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple “I must,” then build your life upon it.  It has become your necessity.  Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.  Then draw near to nature.  Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience.’

The cause is Love.   God who is Love.   I avow that I would die if I were forbidden Love.

‘The letters are also the result of a unique conjunction of circumstance that created an almost magical alchemy of thought and feeling.  And it is in this magical alchemy that their enduring significance lies.  The three circumstance that came together to create this alchemy were Rilke’s background, his age when he wrote the letters,  and the great looming shadow of the sculptor Augustine Rodin.’

It goes on to say;

‘Rilke came from a background that made him deeply sympathetic to the struggles of anyone striving to be an artist.  His father has been a career military man and had sent his son off to a military boarding school with the intention of training him to be an officer.  Rilke, weak of constitution and romantic in temperament, was ill-suited to the physical rigors and severe discipline at the school, and was subjected to numerous cruelties by his classmates and teachers.  Still he remained there for five formative years of his early adolescence before, humiliated and physically and spiritually exhausted, he was allowed to return to his native Prague to continue his studies at home.  During these five trying years he found his greatest solace and self-expression in the act of writing poetry.  It was his only means of shaping what he called the “damnation” of those years into something of meaning and beauty.’

‘It requires great,  fully ripened power to produce something personal, something unique, when there are so many good and sometimes even brilliant renditions in great numbers.  Beware of general themes.  Cling to those that your every day life offers you.  Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thought, your belief in anything beautiful.  Describe all that with fervent, quite and humble sincerity.  In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.  If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself.  Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth.  For the creative artist there is no poverty – nothing is insignificant or unimportant.  Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure-house of memories?  Direct your attention to that.  Attempt to resurrect the sunken sensations of a distant past.  You will gain assuredness.  Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass by it from afar’.

Jesus knew.  Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come.

The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:21

‘the kingdom of God is within you.’

‘Therefore my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this:  Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write.  Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analysing.  Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without.  For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.’

I have betrothed myself to My Beloved.

I have looked deep inside for an age.  I was looking long before I ever came to the Church. I am a writer by heart and not a speaker, but deeper still I looked within the very depths of my being, I looked beyond everything that I am and am not, I looked beyond everything that I have to give, and everything that I fail to give, and everything that I want to give. And I looked into all my failings, and all my disappointments, and all my failures. And I looked at all my successes, and at all my triumphs, and all my gifts, and I looked above and below everything that I aspire to be.  And for me it has to be just one thing.  It is Love.  I am called to Love.  I simply must Love there is just no other way. Just as St Therese knew it and did it in her way, I have to do it in my own way, the only way that I can.  My vocation is to Love.  I already knew this before I even knew that it was a line in her book, because before I had ever even heard of St Therese of Lisieux, I wrote the line in one of my poems.

I am a vessel overflowing with your promise
I will pour the wine for many
My vocation is to Love.

The new Charism is to be called  –  The Way of Love.

I am going to end this post with the very first lines of this astoundingly beautiful book

‘For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test.  It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation.’

Rainer Maria Rilke

P.s  It is fascinating to know that despite all of this understanding of the need for aloneness, that Rainer Maria Rilke indeed fell in Love and chose to so happily marry.

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About mags

Beloved apostle of His Soul x
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2 Responses to Letters To A Young Poet – Rilke

  1. Tonia says:

    This book sounds like a ‘must-buy’ gift for every struggling writer – Tonia x

    • mags says:

      Tonia it is the most beautiful little book for anyone who is a writer, else an artist of any kind. But most especially it is a perfect book for anyone who is contemplating Gods Will.

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