Rainer Maria Rilke helped me, probably more than anything else, to understand that my adolescent confusion with the world and lust for wisdom was not uncommon. When I felt desperately alone amidst the misplaced confidence of college freshman, my mom gave me a card with that quote on the front. It made me feel, knowing that the hesitation and desperation for answers that I felt was ancient, that people had been likely asking these questions forever, that I was not alone. I felt a timeless connection to the writer and the young man he was addressing.
I read up on the origin of the quote and discovered that Rilke was writing letters to a nineteen year old student and poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, who mailed Rilke asking for advice. Kappus was a student at a military academy where Rilke had also studied. He was reading some of Rilke’s poetry and was unsure of his commitment to pursuing a career in the military. Upon learning that Rilke did not continue his military education, Kappus decided to mail him and ask for advice and criticism of his poetry.
The correspondence that began with the simple request for poetry criticism and continued as musings on life, love, failure, and marriage didn’t necessarily answer any questions for me. Rather it taught me to appreciate them, to understand that at no point in life has one attained enough wisdom to discover the comfort and confidence that I so hoped for. More so than any other writer, Rilke has clarified to me the timelessness of these questions from young men and in doing so, has made me feel much less scared about the future. I feel the type of wisdom found in “Letters to a Young Poet”, whether from a peaceful uncle or a compassionate friend, is a comfortable reminder of our commonality for everyone who has ever felt alone or scared.
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”