Rilke’s Letters to a Young Artists Letter 2
Today, we’re revisiting Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. If you haven’t read the first part on Rilke’s first letter, I’d encourage you to read it here first.
These letters were written between the Austrian-Hungarian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and a young cadet in the military academy, Franz Capez. The letters were over 6 years of correspondence back and forth—from late 1902 to 1908. While we don’t have the letters that Franz wrote to Rilke, we know that Rilke responded to each one. Today, collections of Rilke’s letters have been published and translated from the original German. I’ll be sharing three of the letters that are in the public domain, but if you’d like to purchase a copy of these letters for yourself, the Penguin Classics version is a very good translation.
In the first letter, Rilke gave some advice to Franz. Though we don’t have Franz’ letter, we know he had sent some of his own poetry, and had asked Rilke for advice. Franz was asking the questions many young creators have—was his poetry any good, should he become a poet? Rather than telling Franz whether he should be poet, he told Franz to listen to himself. Only through this, Rilke wrote, will Franz be able to know what his direction is, and decide whether he must be a writer. Rilke implored Franz not to listen to anyone else—he must listen to his heart, and make decisions from that. Rilke shared so much wisdom, especially about making art that came from the heart and soul, so please read his first letter to hear his insight.
I’ve read and reread these letters over the years, and every time I do, something new speaks to me. Today, I decided to do something unique—I decided not the read the letter until I shared it today, so that I’m experiencing it anew, along with you. We can experience and think through the letter at the same time—I didn’t pre-organize my thoughts, and I’m not working from a polished outline! Instead, we’ll be open, and honest, and real.
Without further ado, here’s letter number two:
Viareggio, near Pisa (Italy)
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 the 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 fife. 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 Recalm'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 cared "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 &U 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 whole fabric of your being, 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 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 Maria Rilke
Take a moment to think about the letter. What stood out to you?
As I read over the letter, a few things stood out to me.
The first is when he mentioned that in the deepest and most important things, we are unspeakably alone. It reminded me of a poem by Kay Ryan, Learning. She wrote:
“Whatever must be learned is always on the bottom, as with the law of drawers, and the necessary item. It isn’t pleasant, whatever they tell children, to turn out on the floor the unfolded things in them.”
Ryan writes that the things that are important or necessary are hidden at the bottom—whereas Rilke mentions that those things that are deep are important, but are also places where we’re alone. Slightly different angles, but both make me think how there’s certain parts of our life where we really need to go deep—and we are often alone in those places. Like Ryan says, “it’s not pleasant, whatever they tell children.” It’s not an easy experience; it’s not a fun experience.
Helping in the Heavy Things
Rilke also makes the point that in those places, when we’re working with something that’s really deep or important, we are often alone. He says this is because things have to really align for someone to be able to advise us. When I think of some of the hardest times in my life, I did feel unspeakably alone in some ways. When I became a new mom—though there have been thousands of moms before—there weren’t many people around me going through that experience. I felt like everything was resting on me, and I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out. Through that experience, I can see how it’s true that many things must go right for us to advise each other. Either someone near me had to be a mom going through that same experience, or someone had to have remembered every part of it.
Also at that time, I was creating Kathryn Hastings and Co. It was a very joyous time, yet it was also deep and important. And I often feel alone with it. Just recently, I was talking with a good friend about my work creating products and my podcast and Kathryn Hastings and Co., and she said these things were nice because they filled my cup up. While this was true, something didn’t sit quite right with me—it’s about more than just keeping busy each day, there’s a real sense of purpose with the work I’m doing now. Though wax seals seem a bit frivolous in some ways, it’s not about the seal or paper—it’s about an appreciation of beauty, finding things in our world that are beautiful, creating beautiful things, sharing beautiful things, helping find my own connections to beauty and taking time to notice and celebrate, and helping others do the same. In this case, the important and deep thing is a positive thing—but it is also something I feel alone in.
However, I have a group of other artists I meet with, who are also starting their own businesses. Many of them are even mothers too! We are thus in a unique place to be able to advise and help each other. But like Rilke mentioned, a whole constellation of things had to come together in order for us to succeed in helping each other.
However, I don’t think that means you have to have the exact same experience in order to help someone. I think of some of my deepest times, when I was going through recovery for my eating disorder in college. At that time, it was really important for me to be around people who were different from me—people who weren’t struggling with weight and body image, who wouldn’t casually talk about dieting. Those things would have been incredibly unhelpful, because they wouldn’t give me a way out of the suffering. Outside of a doctor, the person who helped me the most was my best friend. She had a positive body image and relationship with food, so she didn’t understand many of the things I was going through—and that was a positive thing! I would say, “This is what I’m feeling,” and she’d respond, “Well that doesn’t make any sense,” which would help me to revisit it and see I was thinking about things the wrong way. I would see things she was doing, like the way she served her food or had a healthy workout life, and I could emulate what she was doing. It gave me a path into being healthy. It’s been over 10 years now, and I’m very healthy, and I don’t worry about relapse anymore, because I’ve totally changed my mindset ad the way I approach food and working out—it all comes from a place of feeling good and self-worth and not needing to look a certain way.
But when I think about that dark deep time in my life, and lot of things did need to align for my friend to be a support for me. She needed to have had a close relationship with me, but also miraculously avoids all the societal cues we get about the way women should look and take care of themselves through self-harm and dieting. Those pieces came together for her, because she grew up outside the US, didn’t engage with diet culture, and wasn’t part of the media I was seeing which prescribed the way women should look. All these things came together—and she was able to help me in a deep time.
In those moments in your life, did you feel totally alone? Was there time when there was someone who was able to advice or help you? What were those things that happened? As Rilke mentioned, a whole constellation of things must go right for that to succeed—what were those things that allowed them to help you?
Irony—A Useful Tool, or a Cutting Weapon?
The other thing that stood out to me was Rilke’s comments on irony. He wrote, “Don't let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments.” The definition of irony is: “The expression of ones meaning through language that signifies the opposite, usually for humorous or emphatic affect.”
When we’re in an uncreative space, we’re trying to get back to a creative one, where we can generate ideas, where we can generate something new. But the power of irony is to cut things down. So it makes sense that Rilke would advise to avoid irony in uncreative moments. When we use irony, we often already have something to work with. There’s an initial example, that we cut through with irony to reveal the truth. In some ways, it’s a way to use humor to cut down the validity of what is being presented.
Even though Rilke is not speaking specifically about criticism, this passage prompted me to think about self-criticism. When I’m creating art, I have to step away from being a critic in order to create. Once I’ve been prolific, and created everything I wanted, then I can bring in criticism, discernment, and even humor and irony to distill down to the essence of what I want to say.
It reminded me as well of how people use irony to dispel tension, or as an armor. Maybe you remember from high school, how some of the funniest kids were the ones who often had challenges in their life. I’ve noticed in my own life that I use irony as an armor—I use it the most when I’m trying to make people laugh and change the situation, because I’m uncomfortable.
Rilke mentioned Franz should see if irony is part of his nature or not—and we may adopt using irony as a valuable tool, but we have to remember it’s not the most important one. It won’t help you build, but it can help you to clean up your ideas. Rilke mentioned irony could go two ways—under the influence of serious things, it can fall away as gratuitous. When we speak of something that is very great or true, irony almost doesn’t work, because it is almost as a gimmick against something grand. Rilke’s other option was that irony will strengthen into a serious tool with which to train his art. This kind of irony is the kind I mentioned before, that’s able to cut down and distill the truth you’re trying to expose.
We have to be careful with our irony. I think about the American editor, William Maxwell, my husband’s namesake and for my son, who wrote with such sincerity and sentiment that I’m always moved when I read his work. It’s so honest and clean. I’m sure that he uses irony more than I notice. But when I read his work, I see him taking a path into places that are emotionally vulnerable, and he does it without irony. It’s so beautiful, because there are many artists that might talk about a difficult relationship or a sad situation like a death in the family, but rather than staying in that moment and staying in the pain of that experience, they go into irony, which protects them from being vulnerable, or from censor of being too sentimental. We lose something when we use irony—it cuts something out of the experience. So what Rilke is mentioning here, with how to use irony as an instrument among all the others, that resonates with me. It’s a great way to shape something you’ve created, but something to avoid until you’re ready to edit.
In my own head, what I’m saying makes senses, but I’d love to hear if you have a similar experience of irony in your own life. Do you use irony regularly? If you’re an artist, how do you use it in your artwork?
This is a short letter, and perhaps little of this resonates or makes sense—this isn’t scripted, so I’m truly experiencing these letters, but I realize my words may feel like an itinerant cat, wandering the alleys, and nobody knows where we’re going with them.
I’ll continue to read more of these letters, I hope you’ve taken something from the reading. Some of you reached out, that you listen to the podcast several times, because it was so good. Even today, in such a short letter, so much is standing out—so if this sparked any thoughts in you, you can share them below or reach to me on Instagram.
Signing off as Rilke did,
“And all success upon your path!