Crying Over Spilt Rilke

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


Courtesy of Knud Odde

I recently came across a used copy of Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. As I was leafing through it in the book store, I noticed that there was a page number written somewhat emphatically in yellow highlighter at the top of the first page: “PAGE THIRTY-FIVE.” Naturally curious, I turned to page 35, and it was there that I found the above excerpt highlighted in yellow.

Reading it, I got goosebumps. Tears welled up in my eyes. Standing in a used book store in the middle of the day, I suddenly found myself in a state–if that makes any sense.

That passage was something I needed to read. And, for reasons I won’t go into, I needed to read it at that particular time. I didn’t know what to do with it, really–I still don’t–but I think that’s what Rilke’s saying, after all. We’re not supposed to know what to do with our sensations or experiences or doubts all the time. And that’s okay, because maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it just takes time. Maybe, as Rilke puts it, “everything is gestation and then bringing forth,” and we just have to suffer through the gestation part before we get to the bringing forth part.

I finished reading Letters yesterday, and it didn’t take long for me to see why it’s so well-loved. Rilke writes with such honesty, such kindness, offering much-needed reassurance to those of us with particularly turbulent or reflective inner lives. He acknowledges the darkness and the doubts that we as young creative types are likely to feel, but doesn’t condemn those feelings or attempt to cure them. Instead he tucks them snugly into bed with us, acknowledges them not only as natural but as beneficial, as companions, as key ingredients for our growth.


Sketch by Leonid Pasternak

For Rilke, as uncomfortable as the present might be, and as uncertain as the future always is, our experience of both is exactly what it needs to be. He writes, “the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens”–and what a difference that point of view makes. To view the future not as something external and adversarial that happens to us, but as something from inside us, something that springs from within so that no matter what it is, we might acknowledge it as being manageable, tractable–in our wheelhouse, as it were. Something we’ve been preparing for our entire lives, whether we realized it or not.

But until the future’s ready for us, what can we do? Like the excerpt says–and like some stranger somewhere highlighted in my copy years ago, perhaps thinking that someone like me might pick it up someday and read it–there’s no use trying to force the answers. All we can do is let them gestate deep inside while we struggle along with the questions.

And yes, it’s going to be a struggle. But if we can appreciate the struggle for what it is, maybe even learn to love the struggle–well, that’s half the battle right there, isn’t it?

(On a final note, although I’m convinced I would likely have come up with it myself eventually, I’d be remiss not to give credit for the milk/Rilke pun to my pal Matt Barbot. He coined it before me, but it was just too good for me not to use. Thanks, Matt.)


About Adam Lauver

consider me a lesson deftly taught.
This entry was posted in Life, Literature, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

59 Responses to Crying Over Spilt Rilke

  1. Love the blog!Keep up with your writing entries in your blog!

  2. A wonderful article. I wasn’t aware of this particular book of Rilke and would definitely have a go at it. Thanks.

    • Adam Lauver says:

      Thanks–you definitely should! It’s actually the first I’ve read by Rilke. Any other essentials from him you’d recommend?

      • Duino elegies is his most eminent of his works and so I started with them. It is, hands down, the best poetical work the modernism has produced. I was so shattered and so afflicted by it that any work of Rilke (later I read some of his sonnets) that I read later was a bit of a let down. I would definitely recommend reading other works first and then to read the elegies.

  3. Pingback: An Elegiac Envisage: remembering Rilke | Memento

  4. phillybookpicks says:

    Beautiful article !

  5. ruffus005 says:

    I think looking at our questions in this light frees our mind, so that we can recognize the answer when it comes. All while at the same time avoiding going insane with the frustration that builds up as we try to force an answer into our minds.

    • Adam Lauver says:

      I think you’re exactly right. Reminds me of what I’ve learned about mindfulness meditation, which is all about not forcing any particular judgment or thought, but instead simply observing your thoughts as they occur naturally. As someone with kind of a hyperactive/over-analytical mind, this is something that I struggle with on a daily basis.

  6. bookpeeps says:

    Thanks so much for this. I had not read Rilke’s work, but now I will.

  7. Jen says:

    I also just got around to reading it. I asked my husband to buy me a hard copy while he was in the US (we live abroad) because for some reason I knew it was something I wanted IRL, not on my Kindle and I was right. I am going to go back through it again, and underline and fold over corners — it’s that kind of treasure.

  8. yogacatie says:

    love this, and love that quote! I recently stumbled upon it too and it was exactly what I needed to hear (and then I wrote a blog post about it as well -how can you not -what great stuff!) Thanks!

  9. grieviouslacunae says:

    hurts, pains so much to hear this much needed foreknowledge, the extant reprimand.
    love this article. it, too, has recently been quoted to me – delightful (swoon – back down to reality)

    • Adam Lauver says:

      Going back down to reality is the worst, isn’t it? :P (Although I guess Rilke would say that it’s necessary to go back down to reality, that way you have somewhere from which to soar!)

  10. willowmarie says:

    I’ve long believed in mystery & it was “without noticing” that caught me. Rilke is one of my favourites – appreciated the post. Thank u.

  11. Cara says:

    That was amazing and I think I might feel like you did when reading it for the first time. I feel like I want to know the answers to things that may not have answers yet. This is exaclty what I needed to calm my mind. thanks!

    its a work in progress but check out my blog,

    • Adam Lauver says:

      So glad I could offer you Rilke to calm your mind!

      And the first thing I saw on your blog was kittens, sooo… followed :P.

  12. Clair Glass says:

    Reblogged this on Tough Girls Read and commented:
    And I got goosebumps reading this blog post!

  13. Reblogged this on the long way home | Prodigal Paul and commented:
    Ran across this quote and post. They are both so good. I am all the more persuaded I need to open up the copy of Letters that I have sitting on my shelf right now.

  14. Bill Chance says:

    What a great quote! It’s going into my commonplace book now. -What makes it extra special for you is the way you found it – there’s nothing like the wisdom of strangers to lead you in the right direction.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Adam Lauver says:

      Totally agreed about the wisdom of strangers. I think strangers are underrated these days. It’s why I really like this particular line from Ethan Hawke’s novel, Ash Wednesday: “Give your heart to everybody you meet. The rest is pretense.”

  15. Gefrorene Zeit says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I love Rilke and those Letters are a very caring and loving reminder for me as well, indeed.

    Those moments of synchronicity are moving as well, aren’t they?

    Best regards,

    • Adam Lauver says:

      Hey Christian, thanks for stopping by! Moments of synchronicity are sort of what sustain me, to be honest. Those and food, I guess :P.

  16. jibarican says:

    wonderful! Thank you!

  17. leonardo34 says:

    Reblogged this on Leonardo34's Blog and commented:
    Rainer Maria Rilke: Brev till en ung poet.

  18. Aulia says:

    My favorite from the book is this: “Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, for the space around you is beginning to grow vast. Be happy about your growth, in which you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.”
    I would never be able to say enough thank you to Rilke…

    • Adam Lauver says:

      Yes!! That is also a fantastic passage that I marked up in my copy. That’s actually another part that made my eyes well up. I know I need to be able to accept certain people in my life not being “able to comprehend”… but it’s hard, and it’s something I struggle with all the time. It takes practice, I think–loving people enough not to expect too much from them.

  19. Thermal Exhaust Port says:

    Great article, and what a passage – came at the right time for me too (although I don’t think there’s ever a wrong time to read something like that). I’ve never got round to reading Rilke before but it seems I’ve been missing out on a sensitive and humane thinker…will pick up the book.

    • Adam Lauver says:

      I think you might be right that there’s never a wrong time to read that kind of passage. Although I imagine that if someone is relatively happy/content with their life and not going through much inner turmoil at the moment, then the words are bound to have less of an impact, you know? Thanks for stopping by–hope you enjoy Rilke!

  20. Very enjoyable and thoughtful. As an “older” reader–69–it seems to me that we may indeed “live along into the answer,” but that is only one of the possibilities. Some questions just fade away, such as “what is the best place to live? What is the best job for me?” Some seem less urgent or open to more possibilities: “What do I want in a spouse/child/friend?” Others become more urgent: “What is the something-larger-than-myself that I need to feel a part of?”

    • Adam Lauver says:

      That actually rings extremely true to me. Only 26 here, but I can already sense certain adolescent questions fading in importance as others become more prominent…

  21. Such a wonderful article and such awesome timing. Most definitely on my summer reading list.

  22. sticktalking says:

    I read a little of Rilke pretty regularly, so glad to see him alive in the hearts and minds of others, as well.

  23. it’s been more than 40 years since I read the Rilke letters, but the essence of that passage echoed somewhere in my brain – by the way – I’m still living the questions

    • Adam Lauver says:

      I think that’s even more important than hoping to live into an answer–being content living the questions themselves. Some are bound to go unanswered anyway, after all!

  24. History of Capitalism says:

    Rilke is great. There is this hilarious set of letters that I read recently between Freud and Lou-Andreas Salome in which Freud is saying how he had Rilke over for dinner and they had a great time but that Rilke had not hung out with him since and had told Freud something like “permanent alliances are impossible” and Freud pretty much just talks kinda insecurely about whether Rilke likes him, and Salome has to be comforting and say something to the effect of “don’t worry, dear, he likes you plenty, that’s just the way Rilke is.”

  25. williamsanna says:

    Profound words from Rilke, but profound words from you good sir. God was sure looking out for you, knowing exactly the words that needed to be impressed on your heart. I commend you for taking notice of an act that could have passed by as seemingly insignificant.

    • Adam Lauver says:

      While the question of God is one that I’m still (and probably always will be) living, I very much appreciate your kind heart and words. Thank you.

  26. Frank Lukas says:

    Thank you for a well written and enjoyable essay. Any time is a good time to read Rilke. There is always something there for whatever is going on in one’s life. Off the subject; have you ever known anyone who was happy or content with their life for more than five minutes? I suspect that I am considerably older than you and I have met a lot of people on my lifetime. I have yet to meet this fortunately gifted person. So, it’s lucky for us Rilke attends our spirits.

    • Adam Lauver says:

      Oof, good question. I guess it’s all relative. Yes, we all deal with unhappiness–but I feel like Rilke’s passage deals with a very particular, reflective kind of unhappiness that not everybody is going to feel very often. Which is fine, of course. But I think the types of questions we ask ourselves (or hear the universe asking us) definitely play a part. And I’d venture to say that people with fewer questions are probably more likely to be content. Does that make any sense?

  27. jeanmcurio says:

    Beautiful – both the book and your post about it. I first read this book in high school and it has ever-remained a favorite. My most loved excerpt: “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.” You have inspired me to take it down from the shelf and dive into it yet again.

  28. I have had that particular excerpt written down and stuck to my wall for a couple of years now. I love it. A reminder in times of need to just be… with the questions, with yourself. Funnily though I have not read ANY thing else by Rilke! I think I ought to change that. Thank you. Great post.

  29. mdy63 says:

    Lovely quote. Reminds me of Joss Whedon’s commencement speech (not sure where) this year, where he said, “If you think happiness means being at peace, you will never be happy.”

  30. anca says:

    Beautifully said! And without any insecurities! I enjoyed this piece a lot. Thanks for that :) I love Rilke. I came across him through a reader, “A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings From The Best of Rainer Maria Rilke” with Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Wonderful book to keep you daily company. Maybe you’ve encountered this one of his’. In case you haven’t, sharing it with you:

    I love the dark hours of my being.
    My mind deepens into them.
    There I can find, as in old letters,
    the days of my life, already lived,
    and held like a legend, and understood.

    Then the knowing comes: I can open
    to another life that’s wide and timeless.

    So I am sometimes like a tree
    rustling over a gravesite
    and making real the dream
    of the one its living roots

    a dream once lost
    among sorrows and songs.

  31. Pingback: Ich fürchte mich so vor der Menschen Wort

  32. A writer keeps writing despite the disappointments. A lover keeps loving despite the pain. Rilke did it best when he combined the two with this work. Ive read the book before, but sometimes its nice to re-lean into those that walked the road before us. Nice post.

  33. sarahlissa1208 says:

    loving the questions…not easy but pretty liberating :)

  34. Changa says:

    This book changed my outlook on life, and in some ways, changed my life period. I also came across it by accident. Buying (and actually reading it) is one of the best decisions I ever made. I still turn to my favorite passages when I need a reminder from Rilke, and then everything is good again. Great post!

  35. penwithlit says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    If you like books that are written in a very foreign tongue;-

  36. Mike Rogue says:

    Reblogged this on Highways and Hallowed Halls and commented:
    During my first year of college, I struggled a lot. On the outside, I was effortless: finding my way into organizations, taking upper-level seminars, making friends with the president. But on the inside, I was asking BIG, fundamental questions about myself and about life. And I was, for the first time, on my own. During this time, and during much of my life since this time, I began to reach out for life preservers–little bits that I could cling to for hope and assurance in the “goodness” of the future. One such bit of wisdom was “Letter 4” from Ranier Maria Rilka to a young poet, emailed to me by the interim chaplain at the time. I read the words “Live the questions now” and my eyes began to open to a new peace. Rilke continues, “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

    I’m thankful for the Adam Lauver sharing his thoughts on this letter and the rest of the collection which I own, but have still not finished. Maybe this is the encouragement I’ve been needing :) I’ve reblogged his post here:

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