Poetry Month Review – “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke

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.

Posters of Rilke fill college dorms.  This one includes a portrait done in 1906 by Paula Modersohn-Becker, an early expressionist painter

Posters of Rilke fill college dorms. This one includes a portrait done in 1906 by Paula Modersohn-Becker, an early expressionist painter, along with a quote from the first of the Letters to a Young Poet

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!)

Rainer Maria Rilke in September 1900

Rainer Maria Rilke in September 1900

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.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, psychoanalyst, writer, and associate of Rilke, Freud, Nietzsche, Wagner, and others

Lou Andreas-Salomé, psychoanalyst, writer, and associate of Rilke, Freud, Nietzsche, Wagner, and others

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.”

A beast can become a prince...

A beast can become a prince…

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….

A 1902 portrait of poet Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmut Westhoff

A 1902 portrait of poet Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmut Westhoff

Note: This edition was translated and edited by Charlie Louth, and contains an introduction by Lewis Hyde.

Published by Penguin Classics, 2013


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10 Responses to Poetry Month Review – “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. Beth F says:

    I’ve never read more than poem here and there are a few good quotes from Rilke. I think his letters would be a great way to get to know him.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I can see where writing in different languages would give content different feels – some things just can’t be translated.

  3. ds says:

    I adore Rilke. My copies of his poems are dog-eared, underlined and question-marked; I move between translations like a tennis ball across the net. He’s right about the differences of subject elicited by French & German, I think (having no French). But what shines out of everything he writes, in any language, rendered by anyone is the astonishing purity and largeness of his poet’s heart.

  4. Charlie says:

    I’ve heard of him but never read his work so I’ve opened Wikipedia ready (love learning about literary people). Translating a poem must be very difficult, more than a story. You’ve got to get the meaning right and the style, too, but also, if there is any rhyming… so much!

  5. Sandy says:

    Kind of an intense fellow isn’t he? It is a little bit frustrating to have to learn about someone through another person’s translation. It is impossible for the author’s true essence to come through (or if it does, it is sheer luck). You make me want to read these, and I am not generally drawn to poetry at all.

  6. Wonderful, wonderful review. I’m reading this volume now — my first Rilke — and I’m enjoying it enough. One of the best essays on translation I’ve ever read is by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, a Lebanese poet who writes in English, Arabic, and French. She talk about how she picks the language to compose in based on how close or removed she wants to be from her topic, aware that even as she picks a language more or less part of her identity, she’s already translating internally.

  7. Jenny says:

    I want to read this so much AND I’m already nervous of works in translation, let alone works in translation where the author has said things that would tend to incline against the accuracy of translation. I know I’m going to bounce back in favor of reading this at some point, because I know it is wondrous. CONUNDRUMS ARE CONFUSING FOR BRAINS.

  8. I feel so uneducated. 😦

  9. This is a book I’ve always meant to read, but have never gotten around to. I really should add it to my to-read pile.

  10. Kevin says:

    My daughter is getting married to a German man and as part of the ceremony they plan on reading excerpts from Letters to A Young Poet; some will be read in English and some will be in Rilke’s original native German. We have no problem acquiring the English translation, but am unable to find a German version of ‘Letters’ to read from. The groom’s brothers will read from the German, but first we need a version to read from. And I need it by June 23, 2014. (Yeah, I know, I can’t believe they planned the ceremony without first nailing down the German version).

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