This short book is a collection of ten letters Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a young poet, Mr Kappus, between 1903 and 1908, but this book only includes Rilke’s letters so we only see one side of their conversation. They give a great insight into his way of thinking, as he is open in sharing his philosophy. I have only read a small selection of his poems but it adds another dimension to better understand his thinking. It is also always interesting to learn about how other people think, especially when they are an artist.
The first letter is Rilke’s reply to Mr Kappus having sent his poetry for his review. Rilke criticises his poems for having no “individual style” and counsels him to look into himself, delving deep inside to find what he feels has a necessity to write. He also advises not writing love poems or other common types, as they are too difficult, but to write about his everyday life, his memories or nature. Then when he writes what he feels he must create, it will be art. This theme of inner solitude and inward searching is one that will follow through many of the later letters.
In the second and third letters Rilke discusses his influences, primarily the Bible, Jens Peter Jacobsen, and Auguste Rodin. He also expounds on his view of art as works “of an infinite loneliness”, coming from you and your feelings, taking as long as needed to gestate; and such that other’s opinions and criticisms should be avoided, to not let them touch the work.
In the fourth letter it appears Mr Kappus has been having some struggles. Rilke does not give any specific advice but tells him to love nature, the small and simple things. He advises him not to seek answers but to live the questions, and then in both cases gradually understanding may come. He then moves onto physical pleasure, particularly food and sex. He believes a lot of people squander these pleasures instead of fully understanding them. For example with food, people have lost the sense of the necessity of it, and similarly we have become dull to other necessities of our life. Instead we should be reverent and humble in the face of our fruitfulness, and appreciate the difficult of life for us and nature in meeting our needs. Then, when we create, whether intellectually or physically, it should be in the light of these thoughts. But we can only get to this if we embrace solitude.
We see more of Rilke’s philosophy detailed in the seventh and eight letters. But in the meantime the fifth letter is almost an interlude, sharing his impressions on Rome where he is then staying, having travelled widely during the course of this writing, due to ill health or his work. And the sixth is a short note of encouragement to Mr Kappus who seems depressed by his job as Officer in the army. Rilke tells him all professions would likely leave him with the same frustration, so he should instead focus on his inner solitude and also faith, which Mr Kappus does not have.
The seventh letter finds Rilke still encouraging Mr Kappus to persist in his solitude, and because it is difficult, it is more of a reason to persist in it. He then moves onto love, as something else that is difficult and which we should work on. He criticises those who fling themselves at each other and so lose themselves, and instead calls for the difficult task of learning to love, with solitude, and so becoming yourself for the sake of the other.
Rilke sends the eighth letter to Mr Kappus who has had some great sadness happen to him. Rilke describes sadness as something new which comes into you and makes your feelings mute. You are then alone with this new thing, not knowing what it is, and it goes into you and changes you. You must be lonely and attentive to learn what it is, to make it yours, so when it comes out of you it will not surprise or be strange to you. He acknowledges this is difficult, but again encourages him to hold to difficult things.
The final two letters are shorter notes of encouragement to Mr Kappus. Rilke seems happier in these letters, and things are going well for him. He sends a book to Mr Kappus, in contrast to his third letter where he could not afford a copy of his own published work to send him. He also seems healthier at this time, in contrast to a number of his earlier letters mentioned ill health, which often delayed his replies.
In conclusion, this is an insightful work, although with abstract philosophies I have not yet fully grasped. It’s pleasant to watch their relationship grow through the letters, and to see Rilke’s care for Mr Kappus, excepting that he us often very slow to reply to him. I would recommend it to those interested in such things, but not a book for everyone.