Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Letters 5 and 6

I sit here alone, in my early-morning kitchen, reading Rilke writing to Kappus about solitude and dead-end jobs and the elusive beauty of Rome, and I am wondering about all of those questions he asked his young correspondent. The second half of letter 6 is filled with questions, but were they rhetorical or did he want an answer? He did truly seem to want to read more of Kappus's poetry, and now I am feeling, in these two letters, that Rilke had suddenly become more invested in this correspondence. He was not writing only because Kappus required an answer, but because he himself needed to share what he was experiencing.

The description, in letter 5, of his uneasiness in Rome, how "one learns slowly to recognize the very few things in which the eternal endures that one can love," felt extraordinarily close to my own relationship with certain poets--Milton, Donne. But it did not seem at all relevant to my own experience in Rome, which was far more like being swept into a mad love affair with a glorious stranger. Then again, I am a gawky provincial, and Rilke--emphatically--was not.

What were your reactions to these letters? I am curious, in particular, about letter 6, in which Rilke talks about solitude and our general entrapment in "paltry" jobs and preoccupations. Did that ring true to you?


Carlene said...

I have mixed responses to Rilke’s letters; I feel like he really finds being with busy-ness and people and the pressures of everyday life almost too much to deal with, but then, I wonder, is he so wrong? Yes, he seems a bit of a prima donna, needing quiet and a settled location and a fortunate hour to write letters. When he derides much of Rome, I want to shout at him and call him out for his –what seems to be jaded and effete—attitude towards the history and architecture of one of the most revered cities in the world. But then...but then. He finds comfort and beauty in the water, the nature, and the quieter aspects of his surroundings. I stopped for a few minutes and then quizzed my own attitudes: do I revere what I’ve been told is supposed to be revered? It’s kind of like appreciating artists who are supposed to be “the greats” but not really liking their work. For example, I just do not understand or like Gertrude Stein. For a long time, I felt apologetic about it. I tried. I came to an intellectual understanding of what she was working on. But I JUST DON’T LIKE IT. It seems that Rilke’s way ahead of me, then: if he finds Rome dirty, oppressive, and over-blown, perhaps he is reacting to what the expectations of the city are, as opposed to the actuality of it.

In the sixth letter, Rilke brings up the value of one’s inner life again; this is a recurring theme with him in these letters. He tells Kappus that it would be better to have a child’s non-understanding than to have an adult’s disdain of experiences. I think this is true; when we are children, things are new and interesting and we don’t bring prejudices to our experiences. As adults, we almost expect to be let down, and we have a really hard time embracing the unfamiliar with joy and anticipation. At least, that seems to be the case for many of us. Kappus is also complaining (as is evident from Rilke’s response) about his profession. At this point I wanted to stand up and cheer! Yes, all professions have challenges that are not pleasant…not just yours, Kappus. Rilke basically tells him that the problem is with him; no matter what profession he chooses, the feeling of boredom or tediousness comes as part of the whole human experience. In short, no one has a perfect existence, and it’s all in one’s perception of experiences whether one feels one’s life has value.
I found myself really getting involved in Rilke’s gentle rebuke (or what feels like a rebuke) of Kappus’ thoughts that he has lost God with his lost childhood. Rilke seems to be saying that we cannot have lost God, if we have yet to attain Him, and that we can come to know God through a lifetime of collecting the simple sweetness from our everyday experiences. Kappus seems to be looking well beyond himself for satisfaction; he is dissatisfied with his experiences as being less than wonderful, with his life as friendless and boring, and he feels he’s lost his faith. Rilke assures him that we build our understanding of God, of faith, through living each day and appreciating things as they are. He tells Kappus to be patient. I needed to hear that, too.

Keith said...

“Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own - only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you.” Rilke, Letter 6

Wordsworth comes to mind, here.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Or let me die! We suffer all manner of deaths. Some of them are physical, some emotional, some psychological. The deadening of the soul comes to mind in relation to the drudgery of many forms of work. The fact, however, that Rilke can say this as one cut off from the social confines of many a profession is something which I have to take with a granular of salt.

Wordsworth is focused on a similar idea as Rilke is above. Keep the wonder alive. Keep enjoying those passions which drive you. Keep the fire burning at all costs. Melville, on the other hand, presents us with Bartleby, a character whose soul is crushed by the walls outside his bureaucratic windows. He is a man who can no longer function in the confines established by our market frenzied realities. Kafka’s Joseph K wanders the interminable hallways of endless bureaucracy in his novel The Trial to no avail. Nothing comes of it all.

All four writers, Rilke, Wordsworth, Melville and Kafka, devoted themselves to a dream of art and made it happen. Melville paid a price for it. Perhaps he was living true and not selling out to the drudgery of profession, but like so many before and after him, the dogs of debt and hunger nipped at his heels. Who can be as strong as the character of Rilke’s self he portrays? It is interesting that Wordsworth chooses the words “could” and “wish” to close his sermon on keeping the spirit alive. The struggle is implicit.