The Songs of Solitude of Rainer Maria Rilke

by Matthew Koslowski on August 19, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell, trans.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke by Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans.

One evening in May, I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The galleries were not what I remembered. Due to construction of a new wing, pieces of art were removed and yet, even beyond that, the very air of musuem seemed disturbed. Nonetheless some much loved pieces were still there as well as new pieces to be discovered.

Walking among Monet’s Haystacks was walking with an old friend who hasn’t changed over the years, who has something new to reveal to you if you’ll only just listen.

Dante was my guide in three galleries. He found me by himself; I found him consulting with Virgil; and I stumbled upon him in glory beside Beatrice and turned away to give him privacy. And, then later, I was granted an audience with the divine Beatrice myself.

Discovering and standing before two paintings by Pieter Claesz was stumbling into a cathedral and listening to a wise, learned priest deliver a firey sermon about the vanity of the physical objects of this world.

My only disappointment was that the Greek and Roman galleries were closed. I had hoped to listen to the wisdom of stones and perhaps hear one state simply, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”


So Much Before All Beginning

Although I hate to admit it, I cannot recall how I first came into contact with Rainer Maria Rilke. That my introduction to a figure who has been so instrumental to my thoughts over the past few years has been lost saddens me not a little.

Though I have read much of his poetry, it is his ten letters to Franz Kappus published as Letters to a Young Poet that have had the most profound impact on me.

In times of transition, in times of distress, I find that these ten letters provide a comfort that nothing else seems to provide. Within them resides a whole world, a world of vast solitude and of penetrating insight. Even though these letters were written just over a century ago, the nature of growing and of becoming has not changed, nor has the nature of solitude.

These facets of life — growth, becoming, and solitude — are the spring from which Rilke drinks and he shares his cup with whoever comes upon him. There is a universal quality in these letters and yet a personal quality.

When I read them, I feel as though Rilke were writing to me.

Locked Rooms or Books Written in a Very Foreign Language

When things change in my life, I find the most comfort when I read Letter Four. When I find myself lost and beginning to panic, when I remember to turn to this letter from Rilke, I am able to transform my situation: I feel a sense of calm and, though I may know no better where I am going, I begin to focus again on the route and not the destination.

“You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselvesas if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answes, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
– From Letter Four, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, pages 34-35.

Like the year’s first blossoming flower, the fragrance of this passage startles me, breaks over me and lets me awaken to a spring that was long in coming. No, I cannot answer my questions yet and, if I try to force them, I will have no more success than the farmer boy who helped the sprouts grow by pulling them up towards the sunshine.

Partisan Opinions and Word-Games

As a future English literature teacher, I find some of the advice of Rilke both refreshing and shocking. From the outset, after just five sentences he states his opinion of criticism, both constructive and academic:
“Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as poeple would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”
– From Letter One, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, pages 3 – 4.

Later he picks up that thread again.

“Read as little as possible of literary criticism — such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.”
– From Letter Three, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, pages 22 – 23

And, for literature to be relevant to students as well as to adults, I think he’s correct. No child or teenager needs literary criticism to understand what “No Surprise” by Daughtry or “Her Diamonds” by Rob Thomas mean, for example. When we start imposing meaning in literature, when there begins to be right and wrong answers in interpretation, literature becomes one more task.

“You must change your life.”

The other day I was talking with a friend, talking about Rilke and wisdom in fact, after pointing her to Letter Four to help her deal with what she was calling an “existential crisis” since I had recently found solace again in Rilke’s company.

As I talked about the great wisdom of Rilke, I realized that he creates a vocabulary for us. Reading Rilke allows us to become literate in our own becoming, our own questioning. This vocabulary allows us to think about our becoming in new ways and to express it.

So often we look to find a complete answer. But when in our lives are we ever provided with such? This is where Rilke’s advice to live the questions becomes important. But even from a partial answer or from something that was once whole and is now destroyed we can find find meaning as Rilke reminds us.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here this is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

– Rainer Maria Rilke (Stephen Mitchell trans.)


3 Responses to “The Songs of Solitude of Rainer Maria Rilke”
  1. Dustin says:

    Yeah, I visited the Museum of Fine Art this summer. A lot of it is still under construction.

  2. Lee Marcotte says:

    There is much I would like to say in response to this post. Your eloquence leaves me tongue-tied. I hope you introduce your students to Rilke early on. He serves an enduring guidepost on becoming all that one can peacefully.