Even if you believe that poetry is irrelevant, value can be found in reflecting on the thoughts that legendary German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) shared with a struggling young officer cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus over one hundred years ago.
By relying on letters exchanged periodically, the two maintained a relationship as mentor and pupil that stretched from 1903 to 1908. Nine of Rilke’s earliest letters to the younger man — who was studying at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (in north-east Austria) — are collected here in a slender volume by translator M.D. Herter Norton. The book is a beautiful one, whose elegant yet straightforward typeface and high-quality paper reflect the elder poet’s sensibilities.
The contemplative lyric poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:
Franz Kappus initiated the dialogue, having studied Rilke’s poetry as a teenager. Looking back on their exchange of letters, Kappus wrote in 1929: “Not yet twenty, and close on the threshold of a profession which I felt to be entirely contrary to my inclination, I hoped to find understanding” (p. 12). The first letter that Kappus received in response to his solicitations was penned by a 28-year old Rilke, who was himself struggling with forces that tested his faith and resolve. And it is in this fact — that the mentor, too, was facing his own difficult road — that perhaps the most valuable insights into Rilke’s letters can be found.
For Rilke was aware that he was extending advice to a man less than ten years his junior, and he [Rilke] was not immune to the very fears, uncertainties, and obstacles that young Franz Kappus was grappling with. What follows are some of my favorite passages, excerpted in chronological order from several of the book’s nine letters. May you, too, find a gentle reassurance in Rilke’s selfless offerings.
From April 23, 1903 —
From July 16, 1903 (perhaps the most-quoted letter) —
Also from the July 16th letter —
From December 23, 1903 —
From August 12, 1904 —
A second excerpt from August 12, and another of Rilke’s most quoted prose passages —