It’s always strange to read someone’s letters or diary. Such things were originally meant for an audience of one or two- or for no one, in the case of a diary or journal- and yet the correspondence of some writers make it into the public sphere, their raw and unedited (or lightly edited) words providing a window into a mind that may not have shone through as much in the work that was meant for the public.
In Letters to a Young Poet, I discovered a Rilke not quite like the one I was familiar with. I’ve read much of Rilke’s poetry, have been in love with his Duino Elegies since I was in high school, and regularly re-read The Book of Hours and The Books of Images. There is a melancholy feeling in all of them, and the ethereal quality of someone who doesn’t quite think on the same plane as the rest of us, but in Letters…, I found a man haunted by a disastrous period in a military school, who seemed lonely even when surrounded by people, but who was comfortable in his solitude at the same time. A man who was sure of his own creativity and his work, but not arrogant about it.
I think this little book should be required reading for people who go into creative fields, whether it’s writing, art, or… anything, really. Everyone should read this book. The section where Rilke tells Kappus (the young man who began the correspondence) that he should not become a writer unless everything in his being reaches for the written word, unless he could not live without doing it, is great advice for anyone searching for the Great Thing they wish to do with his/her life, whether it’s writing, dancing, or carpentry. You look inside yourself. You conquer the dragons that tell you that you can’t achieve what you want. You find your inner solitude and the Thing You Must Do, and then you go and do it. Fearlessly, and without regard for the judgment of others.
So go and find a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Read it. Read it again. Then go and act, ‘with beauty and courage’.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” – Rainer Maria Rilke