Letters to a Young Poet

"Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke

“Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke, Translation by M. D. Herter Norton

“Then draw to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.” Letter One, 16

Born in 1875, the great German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke published his first collection of poems in 1898 and went on to become renowned for his delicate depiction of the workings of the human heart. Drawn by some sympathetic note in his poems, young people often wrote to Rilke with their problems and hopes. From 1903 to 1908 Rilke wrote a series of remarkable responses to a young, would-be poet on poetry and on surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world. Those letters, still a fresh source of inspiration and insight, are accompanied here by a chronicle of Rilke’s life that shows what he was experiencing in his own relationship to life and work when he wrote them.

“For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.” Letter One, 17

“After all this it is not hard to understand how I determined in that very hour to send my poetic attempts to Rainer Maria Rilke and to ask him for his opinion. Not yet twenty and close on the threshold of a profession which I felt to be entirely contrary to my inclinations, I hoped to find understanding, if in any one, in the poet who had written Mir zur Feier. And without having intended to do so at all, I found myself writing a covering letter in which I unreservedly laid bare my heart as never before and never since to any second human being.” -Franz Xaver Kappus, Berlin, June 1929, Introduction, 12

“If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you…” Letter Four, 27

M. D. Herter Norton’s translations were the first to open Rikle’s work to the English-speaking world in accurate, sensitive, modern versions free from both embroidery and slavish adherence to rhyme.

“He can remember that all beauty in animals and plants is a quiet enduring form of love and longing, and he can see animals, as he sees plants, patiently and willingly uniting and increasing and growing, not out of physical delight, not out of physical suffering, but bowing to necessities that are greater than pleasure and pain and more powerful than will and withstanding.” Letter Four, 28


“No, there is not more beauty here than elsewhere, and all these objects, continuously admired by generations and patched and mended by workmen’s hands, signify nothing, are nothing, and have no heart and no value;-but there is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere.” Letter Five, 33

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