Rainer Maria Rilke was a poet born in Prague (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1875. He is generally labeled a “mystic” and has developed something of a cult following over the years.
Rilke’s poems are considered quite difficult to translate from the German, and frankly, I even have trouble understanding them in English. His letters, on the other hand, are quite comprehensible and even inspirational.
This little volume is the latest of one of many translations of Rilke’s famous set of ten letters he wrote between 1902 and 1908 to a “fan” – an aspiring poet. The young man, Franz Kappus, 19, sent Rilke some poems and asked him if he would evaluate them, and whether he, Kappus, should risk all by becoming a poet full-time. Rilke, then only 28, answered generously, at length, and in great detail about what constitutes creativity and poetry, and how to channel the former into the latter. (What a dream-come-true for a “fan” of an author!)
The letters give you a sense of Rilke’s great facility with words, and provide an interior portrait of an artist (himself) that is revelatory and moving.
Don’t stop at the first letter; in it Rilke claims no one can help another with writing. But thereafter, Rilke goes on to advise Kappus about how and where to find the creative thoughts within himself. (Not only within: he does go on a bit about how “creativity of the spirit has its origin in the physical kind, is of one nature with it and only a more delicate, more rapt and less fleeting version of the carnal sort of sex.”)
Poetry and sex. Who knew?
But here, perhaps, is a better example of the beauty of his writing, when he explains to Kappus how Rome has helped his equanimity:
“No, there is not more beauty here than elsewhere, and all these objects which generation after generation have continued to admire, which inexpert hands have mended and restored, they mean nothing, are nothing, and have no heart and no value; but there is a great deal of beauty here, because there is beauty everywhere.
Infinitely lively waters go over the old aqueducts into the city and on the many squares dance over bowls of white stone and fill broad capacious basins and murmur all day and raise their murmur into the night, which is vast and starry and soft with winds. And there are gardens here, unforgettable avenues and flights of steps, steps conceived by Michelangelo, steps built to resemble cascades of flowing water – giving birth to step after broad step like wave after wave as they descend the incline. With the help of such impressions you regain your composure, win your way back out of the demands of the talking and chattering multitude (how voluble it is!), and you slowly learn to recognize the very few things in which something everlasting can be felt, something you can love, something solitary in which you can take part in silence.”
Discussion: Can the prowess of Rilke be evinced through this (or any) translation? I have no idea. Rilke himself said in a letter to his long-time friend/lover Lou Andreas- Salomé that when he wrote on the same subject in French as well as German, the content “developed very differently in the two languages: which argues strongly against the naturalness of translation.”
I cannot read Rilke in German, and thus I don’t feel able to say how good this particular translation is, although it is easy enough to find and compare others. Take, for example, the passage cited above about Rome. In this version, the translator has Rilke saying that “inexpert hands” have mended the beautiful objects of Rome. Another version I checked uses “workmen.” My impression is that restoring objets d’art is an extremely painstaking process requiring great skill, so I don’t find those concepts fungible. But, I have no idea what the passage says in the original German, so I have no knowledge about which construction is closer to Rilke’s intent. In any event, otherwise I thought that this beautiful passage comes forth much clearer in this translation than the other. Generally, however, among translations, I think there is more variation in the associated matter (intro, notes, and the like) than in the text itself.
What I can say that I found Rilke’s thoughts riveting. In the course of talking about creativity, he also muses on power relationships, love, gender roles, sickness and health, cowardice and fortitude, and how to think about what happens in life generally. I especially like this passage:
“… imagining an individual’s existence as a larger or smaller room reveals to us that most people are only acquainted with one corner of their particular room … That way, they have a certain security. And yet … perilous uncertainty … is so much more human. …
How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginning 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.”
These letters will give you a very good sense of Rilke’s genius, his quixoticism, and lots of ideas to think about as well. And I particularly enjoyed being able to read something by Rilke that I actually understood….
Note: This edition was translated and edited by Charlie Louth, and contains an introduction by Lewis Hyde.
Published by Penguin Classics, 2013