Letters to a Young Poet


“What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain.”

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his Letters to a Young Poet to Franz Xaver Kappus, someone he never met, but with whom he easily identified. Kappus reminded Rilke of an earlier version of himself: the young man was attending the military school to which Rilke had gone and had similar aspirations of becoming a poet. Rilke’s Letters offered advice and encouragement to Kappus, and, although Rilke wrote more than a hundred years ago, his wisdom has lost no relevance today.

Rilke discusses many topics, but most of his ideas revolve around solitude as a source of inspiration and peace. He advises the reader to move slowly through life, to take time to think, and to seek isolation in order to discover an identity outside of society and within nature. Rilke’s concise and pithy writing has helped me remain comfortable with the present and calm about the future. He reminds the reader to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart . . . live in the question.” His message is to live in a way that increases understanding of self, and to find peace in that understanding.

Rilke also comments, with brevity and insight, on the women of his time period. In the early 1900s, due to economic independence gained through industrialization, a “new woman” emerged. These working women tested their boundaries in society, becoming “imitators of male behavior and misbehavior and repeaters of male profession.” Yet Rilke realizes that women do not need permanently to adopt male habits, nor must they return to traditional female roles. He believes that “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.” His wording occasionally seems sexist (“mere opposite of the male”) but his ideas are as progressive and as lacking in prejudice as possible during this time period.

I would suggest Rilke’s Letters to anybody, and especially those in their late teens with even a vague interest in writing and/or solitude. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy of these letters to annotate and reread many times. It is a remarkable little book.


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