Paris, 17th February, 1903.
Your letter only reached me a few days ago. I should like to thank you for its great and touching confidence. I can do little more. I cannot go into the nature of your verses, for any intention to criticise is too foreign to me. Nothing can touch a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so easy to grasp and to express as most people would have us believe; most events are inexpressible, and take place in a sphere that no word has ever entered. Most inexpressible of all are works of art, existences full of secrets whose life continues alongside ours, whilst ours is transitory.
Only when I have first drawn your attention to that fact, can I then tell you that your verses have no special nature of their own, yet show a quiet and concealed inclination towards the personal. I have that feeling most strongly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There it is something of your own that is trying to find expression in words and melody. And in the beautiful poem, “To Leopardi,” I think a kind of relationship with this great solitary man may be growing up. Yet your poems, even the last one and the one to Leopardi, are as yet nothing in themselves, nothing independent. Your kind letter which accompanied them does not fail to explain to me many deficiencies which I felt in reading your verses without being able to put a name to them.
You ask me if your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before me. You send them to journals. You compare them with other poems and you worry if certain editors refuse your efforts. Now, as you have given me permission to advise you, I beg you to give up all that. You are directing your thoughts outwards, and that above all is what you should not do at present. No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way. Withdraw into yourself. Explore the reason that bids you write, find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, “Must I write?” Dig deep into yourself for an answer. And if this answer should be in the affirmative, if you can meet this solemn question with a simple strong “I must,” then build up your life according to this necessity. Your life right down to its most indifferent and unimportant hour must be a token and a witness to this compulsion. Then approach nature. Try to express what you see and experience and love and lose as if you were the first man alive. Do not write love-poems. Avoid those forms which are too trite and commonplace: they are the hardest, for a great and mature power is needed to give of one’s own where good and often brilliant traditions throng upon one. Therefore betake yourself from the usual themes to those which your everyday life offers you. Paint your sadnesses and your desires, your passing thoughts and your belief in some kind of beauty
—paint all that with quiet and modest inward sincerity; and to express yourself use the things that surround you, the pictures of your dreams and the objects of your recollections. When your daily life seems barren, do not blame it; blame yourself rather and tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the creative worker knows no barrenness and no poor indifferent place. And even if you were in a prison, whose walls prevented all the bustle of the world from reaching your senses, even then would you not still have your childhood, that precious, kingly wealth, that treasure-house of memories? Turn your attention towards it. Try to recall the forgotten sensations of that distant past; your personality will strengthen itself, your loneliness will extend itself and become a dusky dwelling and the noise of others will pass by it far away. And when from this turning inwards, from this retreat into your own world verses come into being, then you will not think of asking anyone, whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to get journals interested in these works, for you will see in them your own loved and natural possession, a part and an expression of your life. A work of art is good, when it is born of necessity. In this question of its origin lies the criterion according to which it may be judged. There is no other. Therefore, dear Sir, I would give you no advice but this—to retire into yourself and sound the depths in which your life has its source; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it just as it is, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps it will be shown that you are called to be an artist. Then take your destiny upon your shoulders and bear it with its burden and its greatness without ever asking for the reward which might come from without. For the creator must be a world in himself and must find everything in himself and in nature, to whom he has attached himself.
But perhaps even after this retreat into yourself and into your solitude you will have to renounce the idea of becoming a poet. As I said, the feeling that one could live without writing is enough to prove that one should not write at all. But even so, this contemplation which I beg you to make will not have been in vain. In any case your life will thereafter find out its own course, and I hope for you more sincerely than I can say that it may be good, rich and wide.
What else am I to say to you? I think I have given every point the right emphasis; finally I should like to give you just this one other piece of advice, to follow quietly and earnestly the course of your development. You cannot disturb it more drastically than if you direct your thoughts outwards and expect from without the answer to questions which probably only your innermost feeling in the quietest hour of your life can answer.
It was a joy to me to find the name of Professor Horaček in your letter. For that lovable scholar I have cherished a respect and a gratitude which lasts through the passing years. Will you please tell him of my feeling for him. It is very kind of him to remember me still and I know how to value it.
At the same time I give you back again the verses which you were kind enough to entrust to me, and again I thank you for your great and affectionate confidence. By this sincere answer, which I have given to the best of my ability, I have tried to make myself a little worthier of it than, as a stranger, I really am.
With all respect and sympathy,
RAINER MARIA RILKE.
Translated by K.W Maurer