Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ (New Translation)

The preeminent Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) left a rich legacy of poetry that contains some of the most moving and astute observations on the human condition – love, longing, solitude, creativity and God.

Rilke was 27—still a young artist with his best work ahead of him—when he got a letter from a 19-year old military school student named Franz Kappus. Kappus sent Rilke some poems and asked him for advice about becoming a writer. Rilke got lots of letters from aspiring artists, but Kappus’s touched him, for he had spent the worst five years of his young life forced by his parents into the same military school. And so began a ten-letter correspondence lasting from 1902–1908.

1902 portrait of Rilke by his brother-in-law, Helmuth Westhoff

The letters aren’t really letters, they’re diaries. Rilke saw himself in Kappus, and so they’re written from Rilke to Rilke—both to his past and his present. In ten letters, Rilke not only shared personal reflections on the vocation of writing but also offered uncommon wisdom on a life, touching topics such as gender, solitude, longing and romantic love. Posthumously published in German in 1929, these letters of great poetic insight come alive in a new edition: Letters to a Young Poet: A New Translation and Commentary (Shambhala 2021).

This new edition is the work of the ecological philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist Joanna Macy, and Anita Barrows, a poet and clinical psychologist, two women who have lived into the far reaches of life — Macy was 91 at the time of the translation and Barrows 73. Both women have spent a quarter century thinking deeply about the same issues that Rilke grappled with. It is clearly a labor of love to translate the work of a man who lived long ago, who barely survived to fifty, and who was still in his twenties when he composed these singular letters of timeless lucidity. And the new translation embodies what the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s described as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original,”

Excerpts from the 2021 Edition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.

To love is good too, for love is difficult. For one person to care for another, that is perhaps the most difficult thing required of us, the utmost and final test, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. With our whole being, with all the strength we have gathered, we must learn to love.

Rilke then called his reader to free himself from the ideological shackles of our culture’s conception of love as a melding of entities. “No human experience is so rife with conventions as this,” he observed and went on to offer this alternative:

To love is not about merging. It is a noble calling for the individual to ripen, to differentiate, to become a world in oneself in response to another. It is a great, immodest call that singles out a person and summons them beyond all boundaries. Only in this sense may we use the love that has been given us. This is humanity’s task, for which we are still barely ready.

Love, then to Rilke, is development, first of ourselves and then those whom we love. It is achieved not by possessing the other, but by the giving and taking that enables each individual to rise above themselves and become “a world in oneself.”  

And finally,

This more human love (endlessly considerate and light and good and clear, consummated by holding close and letting go) will resemble that love that we so arduously prepare — the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.

Stunningly mature wisdom indeed, coming from a poet who was only in his twenties when he penned these words.

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