Rilke on What It Really Means to Love
By Maria Popova
The human journey has always been marked by our quest to understand love in order to reap its fruits. We have captured that ever-shifting understanding in some breathtakingly beautiful definitions. There is Susan Sontag, who marveled in her diary: “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.” There is Tom Stoppard, who captured its living substance in a most memorable soliloquy. There is Vladimir Nabokov, who defined it over and over in a lifetime of letters to his wife. But no formulation eclipses the luminous poetic precision of Rainer Maria Rilke in a passage from the classic Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — his correspondence with a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus, which also gave us Rilke on living the questions; a volume so iconic that it has sprouted a number of homages, from the poet’s own lesser-known Letters to a Young Woman to Anna Deavere Smith’s modern masterpiece Letters to a Young Artist.
In the seventh letter to his young friend, penned in May of 1904 and translated by M. D. Herter Norton, Rilke contemplates the true meaning of love and the particular blessings and burdens of young love:
To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is — solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate — ?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things. Only in this sense, as the task of working at themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), might young people use the love that is given them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must save and gather for a long, long time still), is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives as yet scarcely suffice.
I consider Letters to a Young Poet a foundational text of our civilization and a life-necessity for every human being with a firing mind and a beating heart. Complement it with Rilke on the relationship between body and soul, how befriending our mortality can help us live more fully, and the resilience of the human spirit, then revisit his own youthful ripening of love in his love letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé.
Published January 29, 2015