I read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet this afternoon and evening, cover to cover. Words can’t quite sum up how important a read it is for these scary, stressful times.
I’d started this before but never finished it, so today I decided to start over, read the whole thing, and capture what value I could in one go. I don’t think I quite realized how valuable it was going to be for me in this very moment. And at the same time, I suspect this will be the first of many complete readings of this text.
Rilke touches on so many important things: solitude, patience, uncertainty, ideas, learning, criticism, growth, depression… even “starting.” It’s a work for the times, if there ever was one. I’ve included some of my highlights below.
These things cannot be measured by time, a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquillity, as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all! (19)
On questions and uncertainty:
If you hold close to nature, to what is simple in it, to the small things people hardly see and which all of a sudden can become great and immeasurable; if you have this love for what is slight, and quite unassumingly, as a servant, seek to win the confidence of what seems poor—then everything will grow easier, more unified and somehow more conciliatory, not perhaps in the intellect, which, amazed, remains a step behind, but in your deepest consciousness, watchfulness and knowledge. You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best I can, dear Sir, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future. (24)
“People have tended (with the help of conventions) to resolve everything in the direction of easiness, of the light, and on the lightest side of the light; but it is clear that we must hold to the heavy, the difficult. All living things do this, everything in nature grows and defends itself according to its kind and is a distinct creature from out of its own resources, strives to be so at any cost and in the face of all resistance. We know little, but that we must hold fast to what is difficult is a certainty that will never forsake us. It is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult should be one more reason to do it. (42)
But I ask you to consider whether these great unhappinesses did not rather pass through you. Whether much within you has not changed, whether somewhere, in some part of your being, you were not transformed while you were unhappy?
… If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and a little beyond the outworks of our intuitions, perhaps we should then bear our sadnesses with greater assurance than our joys. For they are the moments when something new enters into us, something unknown to us; our feelings, shy and inhibited, fall silent, everything in us withdraws, a stillness settles on us, and at the centre of it is the new presence that nobody yet knows, making no sound.
… The quieter, the more patient and open we are in our sadness, the deeper and more unerringly the new will penetrate into us, the better we shall acquire it, the more it will be our fate, and when one day in the future it ‘takes place’ (that is, steps out of us towards others) we shall feel related and close to it in our inmost hearts. (51-53)
And on our fears:
We have no reason to be mistrustful of our world, for it is not against us. If it holds terrors they are our terrors, if it has its abysses these abysses belong to us, if there are dangers then we must try to love them. And if we only organize our life according to the principle which teaches us always to hold to what is difficult, then what now still appears most foreign will become our most intimate and most reliable experience. How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginnings of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help. (56)
Finally, on starting (from Letters from a Young Worker):
“It is a monstrous act of violence to begin something. I cannot begin. I’m simply jumping over what ought to be the beginning. Nothing is as powerful as silence. Were we not all of us born into talk, it would never have been broken.” (71)