How often has Rilke been quoted? Letters to a young poet was written over a century ago when the poet was responding to a young soldier who had read his poetry and was having doubts about his chosen military career. The first letter was written in 1903 as a response to the young soldiers request to critique his own poems. Rilke refused that request but continued a correspondence which fortunately the young would-be poet had the presence of mind to keep. The letters will continue to challenge, inspire and bring solace to anyone who chooses to dive in. Dive deep, float and re emerge refreshed and reinvigorated.
I want to recommend these lines to my two young men sons, as they begin their individual journeys into adult life. Somehow a recommendation from their mother doesn’t always get the reaction I most want, so sometimes I wait, I hold, there may be occasion when I need to draw upon this well of sagacity.
….And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is some thing in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.
It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.”
One more thing I would say to my lovely boys, which appears in the story Rilke proposed the young soldier read, ‘Mogens’ by Jens Peter Jacobsen,