14th May, 1904.
My dear Herr Kappus,
It is a long time since I received your last letter, but do not hold that against me. First work, then troubles and finally ill-health, have been keeping me from this answer, which, as I wished it, was to come to you from good peaceful days. Now I feel somewhat better
—here, too, I was affected by the beginning of spring with its evil, ill-humoured transitions—and now I manage, dear Herr Kappus, to greet you, as I am so heartily glad to do, and to tell you to the best of my ability one or two things concerning your letter.
You see, I have copied out your sonnet, because I considered it to be beautiful and simple and born in the form in which it runs with so much quiet grace. It is the best of your verses that I have been permitted to read. And now I give you that copy, because I know that it is important and makes for new experience to find one’s own work again in someone else’s hand-writing. Read the verses as if they were someone else’s, and you will feel in your innermost being how utterly they are your own.
It has been a joy to me to read, again and again, this sonnet and your letter. I thank you for both of them.
And you must not be led astray in your loneliness, because there is something in you that desires to come out of you. If you think of it quietly and use it as an instrument, this very desire will help you to extend your loneliness over the broad lands. With the help of conventions, people have solved all problems according to what is easy and according to the easiest side of what is easy, but it is clear that we must attach ourselves to what is difficult. All living things attach themselves to it, everything in nature grows and defends itself after its manner and is an entity in itself, and strives to be so at any price and against all resistance. We know little, but that we must attach ourselves to what is difficult is a certainty that never deserts us. It is good to be lonely, for loneliness is difficult. The fact that a thing is difficult must be for us the more reason for doing it.
To love, too, is good, for love is difficult. Loving between human being and human being, that is perhaps the most difficult thing with which we have been charged, the extreme possibility, the last test and trial, the work for which all other work is but preparation. Wherefore young people, who are beginners in everything, do not yet know how to love: they must learn. With their whole being, with all their strength collected about their lonely, timid, upward straining hearts they must learn to love. Apprenticeship always a long time of seclusion, and so love, too, is for a long time right far into life, just loneliness, increased and deepened solitude for him who loves. Love is not at first anything that can be called merging or surrender or union with another, for what would the union be of what is unclean, unready, and still subordinate? It is an exalted occasion for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become a world, to become a world in himself for another’s sake; it is a great and even arrogant claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to what is far. Only in this sense, as a duty to work at themselves [“to hearken and to hammer day and night”] should young people use the love that is given to them. Surrender and sacrifice and every kind of fusion is not for them, who must save up and collect a long, long time yet; it is that which comes at last, that perhaps, for which a life-time is still hardly sufficient.
But it is in this that young people go so often and so badly astray. It is in their nature to have no patience, so they throw themselves together when love comes over them, and spend themselves just as they are in all their disorder, confusion and perplexity. What is to happen then? What is life to do with the heaps of half-battered life, which they call their fusion, and which, if possible, they would gladly call their happiness and their future? Each one loses himself for the other’s sake and loses the other, too, and many others who wanted to come afterwards. And each loses the immensity of his possibilities, and exchanges the coming and going of delicate things full of portent for a fruitless perplexity, of which nothing more can come; nothing but a little nausea, disappointment, poverty and flight into one of the many conventions which have been set up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous of paths. No sphere of human experience is so well provided with conventions as this. Life-belts of the most different devices are there, boats and air-bladders. The conception of society has been able to create all kinds of refuges, for, as it was inclined to take the life of love as a pleasure, it had to make it easy, cheap, secure and safe, as public pleasures always are.
It is true that many young men, who have a false love
—that is to say one that surrenders itself and is not lonely—and that is where the average will always remain—feel the oppression of a transgression and want to make the circumstance in which they find themselves capable of life and fruitful after their own personal manner. For nature tells them that the problems of love are less than anything else of importance, capable of a public solution according to some convention or other, that there are problems, intimate problems between one human being and another, which in each case need a new, a particular and a personal answer. But having already thrown themselves together, they no longer recognise any boundaries or any distinction between each other, and therefore have no longer any possessions of their own, so how should they be able, out of their own selves, out of the depth of their loneliness, to find a way out?
They act in common helplessness, and, even if with the best intention they want to avoid the convention
—perhaps marriage—which opens itself to them, they fall into the clutches of another conventional solution, which may be less public, but which is just as deadly; that is all that surrounds them far and wide—convention; for, when it is a question of a troubled union which has been formed early, every treatment is conventional; every situation, to which such confusion leads, has its convention, however unusual, that is to say, however immoral in the ordinary sense of the word it may be; yes, even separation would then be a conventional step, an impersonal and chance decision without force and without fruit.
He, who considers it seriously, finds that as for death, which is difficult, so for love, which is difficult, too, no explanation or solution, no hint or path has yet been found out; and for these two charges, which we carry covered up
and hand on afterwards without opening them, no common rule based on an agreement can possibly be discovered. But in proportion as we begin to try to live as individuals, so will these great things come nearer to meet us as individuals. The claims which the difficult task of love lays upon our development are beyond the possibilities of our life, and as beginners we are not yet equal to them. But if we endure and take this love upon ourselves as a burden and apprenticeship instead of losing ourselves in all the easy and thoughtless play, behind which men have hidden themselves in the presence of the most serious of the serious things of their existence, then those, who come long after us, will perhaps feel the effects of a little progress and a little alteration; which would be a great deal.
We are actually the first to come to the point of considering objectively and without prejudice the relationship of one individual human being to another, and in our attempts to live such a relationship we have no model before us, and yet there has already come to pass much in the course of time to help us in our timid beginnings.
In their new personal development the girl and the woman will only be for a short time imitations of the good and bad manners of man and reiterations of man’s professions. After the uncertainty of this transition it will appear that women have passed through those many, often ridiculous, changes of disguise, only to free themselves from the disturbing influence of the other sex. For women, in whom life tarries and dwells in a more incommunicable, fruitful and confident form, must at bottom have become richer beings, more ideally human beings than fundamentally easy-going man, who is not drawn down beneath the surface of life by the difficulty of bearing bodily fruit, and who arrogantly and hastily undervalues what he means to love. When this humanity of woman, borne to the full in pain and humiliation, has stripped off in the course of the changes of its outward position the old convention of simple feminine weakness, it will come to light, and man, who cannot yet feel it coming, will be surprised and smitten by it. One day
—a day of which trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining forth especially in northern lands—one day that girl and woman will exist, whose name will no longer mean simply a contrast to what is masculine, but something for itself, something that will not make one think of any supplement or limit, but only of life and existence—the feminine human beings.
This advance, at first very much against the will of man who has been overtaken
—will alter the experience of love, which is now full of error, will change it radically and form it into a relationship, no longer between man and woman, but between human being and human being. And this more human love, which will be carried out with infinite consideration and gentleness and will be good and clean in its tyings and untyings, will be like that love which we are straining and toiling to prepare, the love which consists in this, that two lonely beings protect one another, border upon one another and greet one another.
Just this much more: do not think that that great love, which was entrusted to you as a boy, has been lost. Can you tell, whether great and good wishes did not ripen within you at that time and resolutions on which you still live to-day? I believe that that love lives so strongly and powerfully in your memory because it was your first deep solitude and the first inner work which you did at your own life. All good wishes to you, dear Herr Kappus!
RAINER MARIA RILKE.
Translated by K.W Maurer