Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.

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Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 

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8 Comments

Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education

8 responses to “Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

  1. Thank you for sharing what seems like an intimate connection with the work of Rilke. I have never studied him in any depth, just encountering the odd poem here and there, but I can see that I have neglected someone truly worth spending time reading.

    • Thanks, Victoria. He’s a gold mine for me, but the way was paved by my reading of Eckhart Tolle. What do we do except add to our existing knowledge, that which we’ve gathered and retained as meaningful?

  2. Pingback: Victoria Musgrave | Five Things Friday: Woolf, Rilke and Meditation

  3. Richard, my absolute favorite passage from Rilke comes from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I love these words and after many years they still touch me deeply each time I read them. Ben Shahn illustrated this passage with a series of lithographs still available in print. Rilke wrote:

    Ah! but verses amount to so little when one writes them young.
    One ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long,
    and a long life if possible, and then, quite at the end, one might perhaps
    be able to write ten lines that were good. For verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings (those one has early enough) , – they are experiences.
    For the sake of a single verse, one must see cities, men and things, one must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else) : to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars-and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in a room with the open window and the fitful noises.

    And still it is not yet enough to have memories. One must be able to
    forget them when they are many and one must have the great patience
    to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves.
    Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture,
    nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves-not till
    then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse
    arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

    HAPPY EASTER.

    • Lovely. Thanks, Dave. It’s funny given these words the intro that my post I discarded, about Letters to a Young Poet being most commonly given to young people as a brief for lifelong passionate dedication when, to me, that’s the least of it. Since the young do not know, and one can become an artist at any age.

  4. Thank you, Richard, for another revery while I finish my revisions of Chaps. 7-12. Getting back to the awe of a childhood spent in nature, with all manner of living things, safely exploring open space — that desire has propelled me. In nature and solitude lie the answers to all conflicts. This is the very meaning of wisdom. I will never be, and don’t aspire to be, a great poet like Rilke. But I can and will offer my own understandings, my own language for the ineffable — because I must.

  5. Thanks to Dave, I just ordered a copy of the book from which he quotes and can hardly wait to pore over it and the illustrations. Will make a great teaching resource for all those bright, YOUNG students I look forward to teaching in the fall. 🙂