Between the Pages of Letters to A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke II

"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 all 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 becoming, as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys"

(Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. NY: Modern Library, 2001, p.17).

For the second commentary on Rilke’s Letters, (you may read the first here) I choose the above quote for its depth and subtlety. On one level this quote does not seem to say much except to give favorable remarks on two books: Six Stories and Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen. But there are some few questions here: why would Rilke recommend these books to Kappus––the young poet to whom he addresses––and why does he think these books would provide for the reader the experiences he describes? These questions petition a little more attention for the above quote. In their examination it is apparent that Rilke has found within the pages of these books what he hopes Kappus would also come to know. The quote also offers that, within the worlds of these writings are tools that were essential to Rilke; that these tools were still useful to him and are things he considers enriching to his “experiences, disappointments, and joys.” The wallpaper behind the frame of this quote is the quite suggestion that the treasures Rilke found in these works may not be the same that Kappus would discover or need to discover––unless they are of similar minds and needs. The allure of the quote is its instigation of what happens when one finds a book one can love. The suggestion is, the book that one ought to love is that which does not only teach one of new worlds, but decodes the world that is one. So that even after one vacates its pages, the lessons learnt remains an important guide. The stress is the necessity to love the work. Perhaps it is because in loving the work, one is essentially loving oneself. Hence, although Rilke recommended these particular books by Jacobsen as the best sort of books for a reader to love, it does not necessarily mean they are the books that Kappus, or any other reader of Letters, needs to love, but rather that there exist works that would require loving, and within the loving of these works lies one's redemption.

That “a whole world” looking to embrace one in “happiness,” “abundance,” and “inconceivable vastness” exists in words may perhaps sound dramatically exaggerated. And yet the Bible insists the world became through words. And if you do not buy the Bible’s narration, then all you need do is take another look at these letters: I am reaching out to you in your world, from my world by words. Thus we can safely say words bridge worlds. In fact so much of what surround us are the products of words. The concrete forms which ideas take are often built into place by words.  From this point of view, the concept that in loving words, one stitches into “the whole fabric of [one’s] becoming” significant “threads” that reward one “thousands upon thousands of times” a return of the invested love is merely a rewording of daily encountering of self. And yet finding this advice a dramatic exaggeration is not at all odd; seeing as Rilke is referring to that which, so familiar, retracts the ability to be easily identified and appreciated. Because, often, what is right under one’s nose is most difficult to detect. In spelling out in words the familiarly-unknown, it takes a form that imagination can dissolve in ways that can aid its conscious discovery of truths that are already known subconsciously. This then is perhaps what Rilke is saying to Kappus, that the scope of a good book is that which reveals our own worlds to us, translating our own truths––which, too attached to us, we fail to know properly––in ways we can take notice of and learn to sieve in love. Thus teaching one what one needs to proceed through “whatever your life may become.”But most importantly, it reflects the world that we are, through love, thus helping us learn to love that which we are.

Lastly, a little on the jolting phrase, “live for a while in these books.” This, like many of what Rilke says, is a simple way of  suggesting a lot. For is not by living that one learns? And does not living require every fiber of one’s being? And does not living arrests one’s intellect and demand decisions of one? And thus by living “for a while in these books” one may say that Rilke means experiencing the world of words. That by this means of experiencing the world of words one can dig out what is buried and give it that essential closer examination; it is the way in which one finds love for the familiarly-unknown. And it is what is necessary to develop a way of seeing and feeling and communicating in ways that are at once a secret language of self, and something of a common language between those who inhabit, attentively, the worlds of words.

Obviously it is quite necessary for the aspiring writer, whose craft is the creation of worlds with words, to learn to find her own home within its sphere. But what the quote seems to really hammer at is the necessity to not only make these discoveries and live them through one’s imagination by the guiding hands of another’s imagination, but an assurance that the world that one is, touches other worlds, and the world that one is, is a world that others would gladly like to visit, and some would need to visit, to “live,” to “learn from,” and to make connections with; all for the sake of love.


Previous in the series:
Between the Pages of Letter to A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke I


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