The Evergreen Journal #35
Rilke is my Friend
Letters to a Young Artist by Rainer Maria Rilke
September 30, 2022
Read by Dan Stephens and Max Decon (1 hr 55 minutes)
Sometimes I am painfully aware that I cannot sit down with a good book in my hands and spend the day reading. But unfortunately, I cannot do that any longer due to impaired vision.
I have to read by ear instead of sight. After fifteen years of reading this way, I can assure you it is not the same at all, and it is nowhere near the pleasure I had from reading with an actual book in my hands. I feel this way every time I read a book that I like a lot and want to take notes and go back over the text several times to absorb it and get more clarity before moving on.
So, over the years, I have continued to purchase hardback copies of books that are meaningful to me. That is specifically poetry books by poets I admire. I usually buy several of that poet’s books. This way, I have a collection and can see the changes in the poet’s writing over time.
There is something deeply personal about owning a book of poetry.
I feel complete when I can hold that book in my hands – it is a feeling that can’t be duplicated by listening to a book recording.
The book I am writing about today is available at Amazon Look here!
When reading by ear, I can’t hear I don’t know how names are spelled. That is such a distraction because I have to go on-line to look up so many things that I am unable to see with my ears.
After listening to the book, Letters to a Young Artist, I wanted to write about Rilke today.
I read the book by ear two times in the past two days. This left me with a lot of questions about specific names, and other things I needed to know.
Finally, I went to my bookshelves and pulled out my ten books by Rilka to find the exact one I needed. Then, with the aid of a Merlin CC TV, I can watch the screen and see small bits of the text, and I patiently watch that screen to get an idea of the things I want to know more about after listening to the book.
First, I want to say that Rilke is my friend. When you read this book, you feel like you know him personally and that he is writing to you. Instantly, you feel like he is your friend.
I don’t remember exactly when or where I first got my first book by Rainer Maria Rilke. However, I have a hunch it was when I was in a bookstore in Prague one summer. I was fortunate enough to be in Prague, and other Czech Republic places each summer for over a dozen years. I’m wild about the Czech writers and artists.
While in Prague, I always loved walking down the steep mountain stairway from the Castle to the Charles Bridge. Once I reached the bridge, I walked over it slowly because there was always artists selling their artworks. I purchased original art in Prague or other Czech cities with art galleries each summer. I always searched for the original artworks and love to buy them from the artist personally, when possible. I always purchased artworks and new books to bring back home.
Yesterday, I looked over my collection of ten books by Rilke because I was looking for this particular one. I wanted to see the actual text because I listened to the NLS recording of Letters to a Young Artist, and there were questions I had.
As I began reading this book, I became aware of the mixed emotions I was feeling. It was like I was a voyeur, looking into the most private thoughts of a young man. The book opens with a letter to Rainier Maria Rilke. In this first message, it seemed like I had opened the cover of a private journal. Yet, at moments I felt like I was sitting in the audience and watching a profoundly moving play performed on a stage. I was captivated by the sincere plea for help that the young man expressed in his letter. I was listening to the young man’s voice as he poured out his heart and described the conflict he felt about being a writer. I think about his courage to write this letter and include some of his poems.
The young artist is
Franz Xaver Kuppus.
In Kuppus’ first letters he tells Rilke he is “not yet twenty years old” and is a student at a military school. That military school is the same one Rilke attended previously when he was younger. I believe this captured Rilke’s attention as he relived his own unfortunate days at that school.
Rilke was only twenty-seven at the time the two began corresponding. Rilke was still a struggling writer, and when I read the letters, Rilke was writing to his young self because it seemed like this was the advice he wished he could have given to himself as a brilliant and sensitive young man. I think this is why Rilka responded to that first letter. It touched his heart because he could feel the spirit-ing poet’s distress in that first letter he wrote to Rilke. I also think Rilke’s response to a stranger was because he understood that this student was an artist. An artist cannot be created or learned. A person is born with art inside of them. It’s a calling and a gift that can’t be bought or learned.
The first introductory letter was penned in 1902. The letter initiated an exchange of conversational letters between the two men for six years. Rilka wrote ten letters that are recorded in this book.
I have read this book numerous times over the years. It is fresh and new with each reading. I feel like those ten letters were written to me, personally. I need to hear Rilka’s words over the years, so I return to him again.
These two wrote to each other from 1902 to 1908. An interesting fact is that Rilke himself was a young man who had not yet achieved the success and acclaim he would garner later in his life. These ten letters are an excellent introduction to Rilke and set the themes for which he would be famous in years to come.
Rilke gives readers his most profound insights into his thoughts and needs, the artist’s life, and his relationship with the world. He speaks of his difficulties and personal struggles in finding his inner efforts to live his life as a gifted artist.
Here, I will briefly share a few thoughts expressed in Rilke’s ten letters.
Rilka wrote that he has two books with him wherever he is.
The Bible and Six Novellas by Danish writer J. P. Jacobsen.
“There are only two names I can give you.
Jacobsen, great poet, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor who had no equal among all artists now alive.” (More about Rodin Here.)
“Live in these books for a while. Learn from them what seems to be worth learning. Above all, love them.”
At this point, I pause to think about the two books I would have if I could only have two books in my library. Like Rilke, I would put the Bible at the top of my list of all books from any period.
Just to think of how 66 different people, for an extended period, wrote the entire book by inspiration of God. I cannot imagine how sixty-six people, over thousands of years, were able to write a comprehensive view of their life, the times in which they lived, and their visions of the future. The Bible is over 25 percent prophetic writings. Things that are written in it are just now coming to pass in my own lifetime. Biblical writers envisioned how Israel would be born in only one day – that was in my lifetime! And the visions they had for the events that would take place on earth after the state of Israel was created are clearly laid out step by step.
I live in this generation that saw Israel born in only a day. I was four years old when this supernatural event happened that created the state of Israel.
According to the Bible, the people who are living on earth at the time of this event are the people of the final generation who will be here wen Jesus comes back again. I can understand why Rilke wanted to always have the Bible with him in his many travels over his lifetime. Rilke lived in many different countries during his life. I think this book gave him comfort and grounded him in many ways.
Rilke comments on the two outstanding people in poetry and art. He was around artists and poets his entire life. He personally knew these men he named and had years of experience and conversations with them. In fact, Rilka’s wife was one of Rodin’s top students in Paris, and she remained friends with him her entire lifetime. Rilke was married to a sculptor who learned her craft in Rodin’s studio. They had a most unusual marriage, but you’ll have to read the book to see why I made this comment.
Who are the two people I would say are exceptionally brilliant and superior to all others in art and literature in my world? This is something I will think about after putting down this book.
This piece of Rilke’s letter speaks to me as a poet.
This advice is good to remember:
“Read as little as possible in the way of aesthetics and criticism.”
“Works of art are infinitely solitary. Only love can grasp them and hold them.”
I thought of Neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf’s insight into research of the human brain. She wrote that
“Our brains are wired for love. Not fear. not performance, not aggression, but love.”
Dr. Leaf demonstrates how our brains are designed and explains their responses to love and toxicity. I plan to read more of her work.
More about Dr. Leaf’s discoveries Watch Video here.
I love this quote!
“To be an artist means not to calculate and count, it means to grow.”
Rilke comments, “Patience is all.”
I think that my advice would be to embrace patience. That is a priority for me. I try not to rush anything in my writing or art life. I take my time and know that it will eventually come to its form and place in this world. I rely on my inner vision to lead the way to the completion of the work. It is not unusual for me to work on a piece at different times that span several decades before it is completed. Rilke was like this, too. It took many years for him to write some works.
And to have this inner knowledge, the poet and artist must embrace solitude. We must set aside time and place to do our work completely alone and inaccessible to anyone. This is a practice I have adopted more and more with every passing year. One of my professors always told us, “When the muse arrives, you must be standing at your easel.” That means our art is our calling, and it is our job. We are to arrive in our studio on time and set to work. Our time is precious, and we cannot allow anyone to waste it for us. So I think, above all things, we must actively guard our time, how we spend it, and with whom we spend it. As Rilke instructs us, we must enter into solitude and make it a practice in all we do.
“There is beauty everywhere.”
Yes, Rilke urges us to learn to see the beauty in everything. I said everything! Solitude will give us the focus we need to know the beauty of this world that our Creator made for us. We are God’s image bearers in this world.
“What is needed is this and this alone, solitude.
There is only one solitude, which is fast and not easy to bear. Almost everyone has moments when they would exchange it for some company.
What is needed is this and this alone. Solitude.
Great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours.”
“” Be attentive to what rises up inside you.
It is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult. “
Rilke wrote the tenth letter from Paris the day after Christmas, 1908.
“You must know, dear Mr. Kuppus, how glad I was to have the lovely letter from you.”
Rilke has a lot to say in this final letter about what art is and what art is not. This chapter, alone, would be all any person thinking about art would need to know. Rilke unmasks the word ‘art” and how it is misused by several professions.
Rilke speaks to those who have a heart open to understanding. People of all ages can understand him if they are willing to be life-long learners. These letters are relevant and timeless as Rilke clearly calls out professions that are not what they present themselves as. He names them and calls them “half-artistic professions.”
What are you waiting for if you have not read “Letters to a Young Artist,”? Maybe it’s your time to become a friend of Rilke, too?
*Lynda’s Final Notes:
After reading this book by ear, I got out my translated copy of the book with a foreword by Stephen Mitchell. Published by The Modern Library, New York. 2001 Modern Library Edition.
Translation copyright 1984 by Stephen Mitchel.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
You may also like to read this new book that provides the letters that Franz Xaver Kuppus (the young poet) wrote to Rilke. I just ordered a copy for my library. Look Here.
You may be asking, “Who is J P Jacobsen, that Rilke mentioned as a writer whose book he reads all the time?”
Jens Peter Jacobsen (7 April 1847 – 30 April 1885) was a Danish novelist, poet, and scientist, in Denmark often just written as ” J. P. Jacobsen “. He began the naturalist movement in Danish literature and was a part of the Modern Breakthrough . Jacobsen was born in Thisted in Jutland, the eldest of the five children of a prosperous merchant. For more information you can go to Wikipedia Here.
©Lynda McKinney Lambert, 2022. All rights reserved._