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Authors: Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

BOOK: Letters to a Young Poet
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated, Edited and with Notes and an Afterword by
Charlie Louth
Introduction by
Lewis Hyde




Paris, 17 February 1903

Viareggio near Pisa (Italy), 5 April 1903

Viareggio near Pisa (Italy), 23 April 1903

At present in Worpswede near Bremen, 16 July 1903

Rome, 29 October 1903

Rome, 23 December 1903

Rome, 14 May 1904

Borgeby gård, Flãdie, Sweden, 12 August 1904

Furuborg, Jonsered, Sweden, 4 November 1904

Paris, on the second day of Christmas 1908





Translator's Note and Further Reading

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Letters to a Young Poet

Rainer Maria Rilke
, one of the finest and most widely read poets of the twentieth century, was born in Prague in 1875. He published a great deal of verse early on, which is now little read, but with
The Book of Images
The Book of Hours
(1905), and especially
New Poems
(1907 and 1908), he established himself as the major poet writing in German at the time. He married in 1901 and had a daughter, but abandoned family life almost immediately. In 1910 he published his only novel,
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
, which draws in part on his own experiences of Paris, where he went in 1902 to write a short and brilliant book on Rodin (
Auguste Rodin
, 1903). Despite travelling widely, Paris was the main geographical pole in Rilke's life until the First World War, when he was stranded in Munich. From there, after the war, he moved to Switzerland, completing the
Duino Elegies
in 1922, which he had begun ten years before, and receiving the ‘dictation' of the
Sonnets to Orpheus
. After this, while living in the French-speaking Valais, he wrote more in French than in German, and published
Vergers suivi des Quatrains Valaisans
a few months before his death from leukaemia at the end of 1926. After his death a lot of important uncollected poetry gradually emerged, as well as two further collections in French. The publication of his enormous correspondence, still not complete, began with the appearance of
Letters to a Young Poet
in 1929.

Charlie Louth
was born in Bristol in 1969. He is a Fellow of The Queen's College, Oxford, where he lectures in German. His translations of Friedrich Hölderlin's
Essays and Letters
(with Jeremy Adler) appeared in Penguin Classics in 2009.

Lewis Hyde
is a poet, essayist, translator and cultural critic with a particular interest in the public life of the imagination. His books include
The Gift
Trickster Makes This World
(1998) and
Common as Air
(2010). The former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard University, Hyde teaches during the fall semester at Kenyon College, where he is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. During the rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Faculty Associate at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.


In late autumn 1902 it was – I was sitting under ancient chestnut trees in the gardens of the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt with a book. I was so absorbed by my reading that I hardly noticed it when the only one of our teachers who was not an army officer, Horaček, the learned and good-natured chaplain of the Academy, came and joined me. He took the volume from my hand, looked at the cover and shook his head. ‘Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke?' he asked thoughtfully. He leafed through its pages, ran his eyes over a few verses, looked reflectively into the distance and finally nodded. ‘So, our pupil René Rilke has become a poet.'

And I was told about the slight, pale boy sent by his parents more than fifteen years before to the Military Lower School in Sankt Pölten so that he might later become an officer. In those days Horaček
had worked there as the chaplain and he still remembered his former pupil well. He described him as a quiet, serious, highly gifted child, who liked to keep himself to himself, put up with the discipline of boarding-school life patiently and after the fourth year moved on with the others to the Military Upper School in Mährisch-Weisskirchen. There his constitution proved not to be resilient enough, and so his parents took him out of the establishment and had him continue his studies at home in Prague. What path his career had taken after that Horaček was unable to say

Given all this it is probably not difficult to understand that I decided that very hour to send my poetic efforts to Rainer Maria Rilke and ask him for his verdict. Not yet twenty years old and on the verge of going into a profession which I felt was directly opposed to my true inclinations, I thought that if anyone was going to understand my situation it was the author of the book
To Celebrate Myself.
And without its being my express intention, my verses were accompanied by a letter in which I revealed myself more unreservedly than to anyone ever before, or to anyone since

Many weeks went by before an answer came. The
letter with its blue seal bore a Paris postmark, weighed heavy in the hand and displayed on the envelope the same clarity, beauty and assurance of hand with which the content itself was written from the first line to the last. And so my regular correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke began, lasting until 1908 and then gradually petering out because life forced me into domains which the poet's warm, tender and moving concern had precisely wanted to protect me from

But that is unimportant. The only important thing is the ten letters that follow, important for the insight they give into the world in which Rainer Maria Rilke lived and worked, and important too for many people engaged in growth and change, today and in the future. And where a great and unique person speaks, the rest of us should be silent

Franz Xaver Kappus
Berlin, June 1929


Letters to a Young Poet
could as easily have been called
Letters from a Young Poet
. Rainer Maria Rilke was only twenty-six years old when Franz Xaver Kappus first wrote to him in 1902. As the addresses on Rilke's letters indicate, he had no settled home (first he's in Paris, then on the Italian coast, then at an art colony in northern Germany, then in Rome, then in Sweden, then back in Paris). Three years before these letters start, he had married the sculptor Clara Westhoff and fathered a child, but he and his wife rarely lived together, nor did they raise their daughter (they left that task to Clara's parents). Nonetheless, he was not without a sense of family obligation. ‘The last two years since my marriage I really have tried to earn, continually, day
by day,' he wrote to a friend in the same week as the second letter to Kappus, confessing that ‘not much has come of it' and that it left him feeling ‘as if someone had closed the window towards the garden in which my songs live'.

As for those songs, Rilke had clearly dedicated himself to poetry and had been publishing since the early 1890s, but he could not yet be sure that the work would give him sufficient foundation in the world. The letter just cited continues: ‘I have written eleven or twelve books and have received almost nothing for them …' Some years earlier he had enrolled himself in a business school (an experiment that lasted only a few months), and he periodically dreamed that he might become a schoolteacher or a doctor or more simply ‘seek rescue in some quiet handicraft'.

Nor was Rilke entirely free of his parents. Concurrent with the letters he sent to Kappus are letters sent to him by his father, letters in which Josef Rilke expressed concern that his son had failed to find a respectable career and offered to secure him a civil service job in Prague. Just before a visit to his parents in August of 1903, his father wrote to worry about the way that Rilke dressed and to suggest that he
order himself a new suit. In those days when Rilke fell to musing on his ideal poetic career he would find his reveries interrupted by the word ‘imprudent' spoken in his father's voice.

As for Rilke's mother, she visited him in Rome a month before the seventh letter to Kappus. ‘Every meeting with her is a kind of setback,' he wrote to a friend.

When I have to see this lost, unreal woman who is connected with nothing, who cannot grow old, I feel how even as a child I struggled to get away from her and fear deep within me lest after years and years of running and walking I am still not far enough from her, that somewhere inwardly I still make movements that are the other half of her embittered gestures … Then I have a horror of her distraught pieties … herself empty as a dress, ghostly and terrible. And that still I am her child; that some scarcely recognizable wallpaper door in this faded wall that doesn't belong to anything was my entrance into the world …!

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