Letters to a Young Poet
(Letter Two)

by Rainer Maria Rilke


April 5, 1903

You must pardon me, dear Sir, for waiting until today to gratefully remember your letter of February 24: I have been unwell all this time, not really sick, but oppressed by an influenza-like debility, which has made me incapable of doing anything. And finally, since it just didn't want to improve, I came to this southern sea, whose beneficence helped me once before. But I am still not well, writing is difficult, and so you must accept these few lines instead of your letter I would have liked to send.

Of course, you must know that every letter of yours will always give me pleasure, and you must be indulgent with the answer, which will perhaps often leave you empty-handed; for ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.

Today I would like to tell you just two more things:

Irony: Don't let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of life. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn't be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless. Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends -- and when you arrive at the edge of greatness, find out whether this way of perceiving the world arises from a necessity of your being. For under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you (if it is something accidental), or else (if it is really innate and belongs to you) it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art with.

And the second thing I want to tell you today is this:

Of all my books, I find only a few indispensable, and two of them are always with me, wherever I am. They are here, by my side: the Bible, and the books of the great Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen. Do you know his works? It is easy to find them, since some have been published in Reclam's Universal Library, in a very good translation. Get the little volume of Six Stories by J. P. Jacobsen and his novel Niels Lyhne, and begin with the first story in the former, which is called "Mogens." A whole world will envelop you, the happiness, the abundance, the inconceivable vastness of a world. Live for a while in these books, learn from them what you feel is worth learning, but most of all love them. This love will be returned to you thousands upon thousands of times, whatever your life may become -- it will, I am sure go through the while fabric of your becoming, as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys.

If I were to say who has given me the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity, there are just two names I would mention: Jacobsen, that great, great poet, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor, who is without peer among all artists who are alive today.

And all success upon your path!

Rainer Marie Rilke

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Letters to a Young Poet (Letter One)


Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke - Translated by Stephen Mitchell; Random House; ISBN: 0394741048; 1987


Rainer Maria Rilke, (1875-1926), was one of the greatest poets of modern Germany. He wrote these 10 letters in 1903 to Franz Xaver Kappus who had them published after Rilke's untimely death. To learn more about Rilke, please read this short bio.

Published under the provision of U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.
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Published February 3, 2003
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