Sample text for The poet's guide to life : the wisdom of Rilke / translated and edited by Ulrich Baer.

Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog

Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.

- There is only a single, urgent task: to attach oneself someplace to nature, to that which is strong, striving and bright with unreserved readiness, and then to move forward in one’s efforts without any calculation or guile, even when engaged in the most trivial and mundane activities. Each time we thus reach out with joy, each time we cast our view toward distances that have not yet been touched, we transform not only the present moment and the one following but also alter the past within us, weave it into the pattern of our existence, and dissolve the foreign body of pain whose exact composition we ultimately do not know. Just as we do not know how much vital energy this foreign body, once it has been thus dissolved, might impart to our bloodstream!

If we wish to be let in on the secrets of life, we must be mindful of two things: first, there is the great melody to which things and scents, feelings and past lives, dawns and dreams contribute in equal measure, and then there are the individual voices that complete and perfect this full chorus. And to establish the basis for a work of art, that is, for an image of life lived more deeply, lived more than life as it is lived today, and as the possibility that it remains throughout the ages, we have to adjust and set into their proper relation these two voices: the one belonging to a specific moment and the other to the group of people living in it.

Wishes! Desires! What does life know about them? Life urges and pushes forward and it has its mighty nature into which we stare with our waiting eyes.

Life takes pride in not appearing uncomplicated. If it relied on simplicity, it probably would not succeed in moving us to do all those things that we are not easily moved to do . . .

A conscious fate that is aware of our existence . . . yes, how often we long for such a fate that would make us stronger and affirm us. But would such a fate not instantly become a fate that beholds us from the outside, observes us like a spectator, a fate that we would no longer be alone with? The fact that we have been placed into a “blind fate” that we inhabit allows us to have our own perspective and is the very condition of our perspicacious innocence. It is due only to the “blindness” of our fate that we are so profoundly related to the world’s wonderful density, which is to say to the totality that we cannot survey and that exceeds us.

Seeing is for us the most authentic possibility of acquiring something. If God had only made our hands to be like our eyes—so ready to grasp, so willing to relinquish all things—then we could truly acquire wealth. We do not acquire wealth by letting something remain and wilt in our hands but only by letting everything pass through their grasp as if through the festive gate of return and homecoming. Our hands ought not to be a coffin for us but a bed sheltering the twilight slumber and dreams of the things held there, out of whose depths their dearest secrets speak. Once out of our hands, however, things ought to move forward, now sturdy and strong, and we should keep nothing of them but the courageous morning melody that hovers and shimmers behind their fading steps.

For property is poverty and fear; only to have possessed something and to have let go of it means carefree ownership!

To look at something is such a wonderful thing of which we still know so little. When we look at something, we are turned completely toward the outside by this activity. But just when we are most turned toward the outside like that, things seem to take place within us that have longed for an unobserved moment, and while they unfold within us, whole and strangely anonymous, without us, their significance begins to take shape in the external object in the form of a strong, convincing, indeed their only possible name. And by means of this name we contentedly and respectfully recognize what is happening inside us without ourselves touching upon it. We understand it only quietly, entirely from a distance, under the sign of a thing that had just been alien and in the next instant is alienated from us again.

It does not happen frequently that something very great is condensed into a thing that can be held entirely in one hand, in one’s own, impotent hand. Just as when one finds a tiny bird that is thirsty. You take it away from the edge of death, and the little heartbeats increase gradually in the warm, trembling hand like the wave at the edge of a giant ocean for which you are the shore. And you suddenly realize, while holding this little recovering animal, that life is recovering from death. And you hold it up. Generations of birds, and all of the forests over which they pass, and all of the skies into which they will rise. And is any of this easy? No: you are very strong to carry the heaviest burden in such an hour.

Each experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity in each individual case.

Wishes are the memories coming from our future!

Be out of sync with your times for just one day, and you will see how much eternity you contain within you.

After all, life is not even close to being as logically consistent as our worries; it has many more unexpected ideas and many more facets than we do.

My God, how magnificent life is precisely owing to its unforeseeability and to the often so strangely certain steps of our blindness.

Life has been created quite truthfully in order to surprise us (where it does not terrify us altogether).

How numerous and manifold is everything that is yet to come, and how differently it all surfaces and how differently it all passes from the way we expect. How poor we are in imagination, fantasy, and expectation, how lightly and superficially we take ourselves in making plans, only for reality then to arrive and play its melodies on us.

The longer I live, the more urgent it seems to me to endure and transcribe the whole dictation of existence up to its end, for it might just be the case that only the very last sentence contains that small and possibly inconspicuous word through which everything we had struggled to learn and everything we had failed to understand will be transformed suddenly into magnificent sense. And who can be sure if in the realm of the beyond it might not somehow matter that here we had reached precisely that end that was ultimately meant for us. There is also no certainty that new challenges might not confront us on the other side while we flee from here completely exhausted—challenges that the soul, as it finds itself shaken and without having been either summoned or prepared, would face even more than other tasks with a sense of shame.

It is not possible to have an adequate image of how inexhaustible the expansiveness and possibilities of life are. No fate, no rejection, no hardship is entirely without prospects; somewhere the densest shrub can yield leaves, a flower, a fruit. And somewhere in God’s furthest providence there surely exists already an insect that will gather riches from this flower or a hunger that will be sated by this fruit. And if this fruit is bitter it will have astonished at least one eye, and will have provided it pleasure and have triggered curiosity for the shapes and colors and crops of the shrub. And if the fruit were to fall, it would fall into the abundance of that which is yet to come. Even in its final decay it contributes to this future by turning it into more abundant, more colorful, and more urgent growth.

I have by now grown accustomed, to the degree that this is humanly possible, to grasp everything that we may encounter according to its particular intensity without worrying much about how long it will last. Ultimately, this may be the best and most direct way of expecting the utmost of everything—even its duration. If we allow an encounter with a given thing to be shaped by this expectation that it may last, every such experience will be spoiled and falsified, and ultimately it will be prevented from unfolding its most proper and authentic potential and fertility. All the things that cannot be gained through our pleading can be given to us only as something unexpected, something extra: this is why I am yet again confirmed in my belief that often nothing seems to matter in life but the longest patience.

Is not everything that happens to us, whether or not we desire or solicit it, always glorious and full of the purest, clearest justice?

What else does it mean to live but precisely this daring under- taking of filling a mold that one day will be broken off one’s new shoulders, so that, now free in this new metamorphosis, one may become acquainted with all the other beings that have been magically transported into the same realm?

We lead our lives so poorly because we arrive in the present always unprepared, incapable, and too distracted for everything.

It is possible to feel so very much abandoned at times. And so much depends on the tiny indulgence of things, whether we can cope at all when they suddenly don’t respond to us and don’t move us along. Then we stand there inside the paltriness of our body, all alone—it is just like when we were children, when “they” were angry with us and pretended not to see us. Then the things were equally disloyal and there occurred a brief moment of nonbeing that forced its way up to our heart and left room for nothing else. Suffering. For what is more being than precisely this heart, where the world alternates between becoming “object” and “self,” inside and opposite, longing and fusion—and the beats of which coincide occasionally perhaps with, God knows, what infinite other measures in outer space . . . (perhaps by chance).

Finally—we know this—life’s little wisdom is to wait (but to wait in the proper, pure state of mind), and the great grace that is bestowed on us in return is to survive . . .

How tremendous both life and death are as long as one does not incessantly consider both of them to be part of one greater whole while making hardly any distinctions between them. But this is precisely a task for angels and not our task, or rather ours only as an exception that might occur during moments that have been brought into existence slowly and painfully.

You have to live life to the limit, not according to each day but according to its depth. One does not have to do what comes next if one feels a greater affinity with that which happens later, at a remove, even in a remote distance. One may dream while others are saviors if these dreams are more real to oneself than reality and more necessary than bread. In a word: one ought to turn the most extreme possibility inside oneself into the measure for one’s life, for our life is vast and can accommodate as much future as we are able to carry.

Life has long since preempted every later possible impoverishment through its astoundingly immeasurable riches. So what is there for us to be afraid of? Only that this should be forgotten! But all around us, within us, how many ways of helping us remember!

The following realization rivals in its significance a religion: that once the background melody has been discovered one is no longer baffled in one’s speech and obscure in one’s decisions. There is a carefree security in the simple conviction that one is part of a melody, which means that one legitimately occupies a specific space and has a specific duty toward a vast work where the least counts as much as the greatest. Not to be extraneous is the first condition for an individual to consciously and quietly come into his own.

I want to thank you briefly for your letter; I can understand all of it quite well and can even follow you into your sadness, into this sadness that I know so deeply and which may of course be explained . . . And yet this sadness is nothing but a sensitive spot within us, always the same spot, one of those that can no longer be located once they begin to ache so that we fail to recognize and treat it when we are numb with pain. I know all of this. There is a kind of joy that is quite similar—and somehow we might have to get beyond both of them. I just recently thought that when I spent a few days climbing the steep mountains of Anacapri and was so filled with joy up there, so strenuously joyful in my soul. We let go of one or the other always yet again: this joyfulness and that sadness. We still do not own either of them. What do we amount to as long as we can get up and a wind, a gleam, a song wrought of the voices of a few birds in the air can seize us and do whatever it wants with us? It is good to hear all of this and to see it and to seize it, not to become numb toward it but on the contrary: everything is to be felt in countless ways in all its variations yet without losing ourselves to it. I once said to Rodin on an April day filled with spring: “How this [springtime] dissolves us and how we have to contribute to it with our own juices and make an effort to the point of exhaustion—don’t you also know this?” And he, who surely knew on his own how to seize spring, with a quick glance: “Ah—I have never paid attention to that.” That is what we have to learn: not to pay attention to certain things, to be too concentrated to touch in some sensitive spot the things that can never be reached with one’s entire being, to feel everything only with all of life—then much (that is too narrow) will be excluded but everything important will take place . . .

Life is so very true, when taken in its entirety, that even the lie (if it does not emanate from base motives) gloriously shares in this unwavering truth.

Life goes on, and it goes past a lot of people in a distance, and around those who wait it makes a detour.

Do not believe that everything strong and beautiful will end up as something “ugly and ordinary,” as you put it at this moment of inner turmoil—it cannot end this way because it does not end at all if it was something strong and beautiful. It continues to work its effects in unceasing transformations; it is only that these transformations frequently so vastly exceed our capacity to grasp and endure them. Frequently, when we are frozen by an event or if an event sheds its leaves and petals in front of our eyes in some other violent way, we dig up the soil around it in horror and shrink back from the ugliness of its roots where that which looks to us like transience lives. We have such a limited capacity to be just toward all phenomena and we are so quick to call ugly, as if turning spitefully and vengefully against ourselves, anything that simply does not correspond to the notion of beauty to which we subscribe at that moment. This is often nothing more than a—though often nearly intolerable—shifting of our attention; the clustered appearances of life are still so terribly disconnected and incompatible for our perception. Take a walk in the woods on a spring day. It’s enough for us to allow our gaze to wander briefly into another category of existence to be facing destruction and disintegration rather than to be looking at life, and to perceive instead of joy, desolation; to feel instead of harmonious vibrations petrified, even exiled, from any insight and participation and commonality. But what does this say against spring? What against the forest? What against us? What, finally, against our possibilities to relate to and to recognize each other? Wherever our attention is thus redirected in our soul, in our interiority, it is of course all the more assaulting and disturbing—but one would call this shift “ugly and common” only if one recognized it as nothing but a conventional disillusionment or disappointment and not as the task to grasp an unceasingly particu- lar, unique and incomparable metamorphosis in all of its peculiar reality.

Wherever we expect something great, it is of course not this or that particular thing that we expect, and it is altogether impossible to count on and expect anything at all since what is at stake is the unexpected, the unforeseen. There is no one less puzzled by the slowness of this process since the experience of my days is measured according to the great intervals of artistic growth.

How peculiar, the way life works. If this were not a bit arrogant, one would like to position oneself outside of it all, on the opposite side of everything that happens just in order not to miss anything at all—even there one would still remain rooted in life’s true center, maybe there even more so than elsewhere, there where all things come together without having a proper name. But ultimately we are also quite attracted and taken in by names, by titles, by the pretexts of life, because the whole is too infinite and we recover from it only by naming it for a while with the name of one love, no matter how much this passionate delimitation then puts us in the wrong, makes us culpable, murders us . . .

Ah, we count the years and introduce divisions here and there and stop and begin anew and waver between these options. But everything that we encounter is so very much of one piece, and so intimately related to everything else, and has given birth to itself, grows, and is then raised so much to come into its own, that we basically just need to be there, if only unassumingly, if only authentically, the way the earth is there in its affirmation of the seasons, light and dark and wholly in space, longing to be supported by nothing but that web of influences and forces where the stars feel secure.

We make our way through Everything like thread passing through fabric: giving shape to images that we ourselves do not know.

Even the past is still a being in the fullness of its occurrence, if only it is understood not according to its content but by means of its intensity, and we—members of a world that generates movement upon movement, force upon force, and seems to cascade inexorably into less and less visible things—we are forced to rely upon the past’s superior visibility if we want to gain an image of the now muted magnificence that still surrounds us today.

It is, after all, one strength within the human with which we achieve everything, a single steadfastness and pure direction of the heart. Whoever possesses that strength ought not to lose himself to fear.

How is it possible to live since the elements of this life remain entirely beyond our grasp? If we are continually inadequate in love, insecure in making decisions, and incapable in our relation to death, how is it possible to exist? I did not succeed in this book [The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge], although it was born out of deepest inner commitment, to put into words my complete amazement at the fact that human beings have dealt for millennia with life (not even to mention with God) and still face so ineffectually these basic, most immediate, and, in truth, mere tasks (for what else is there to do today and for how much longer?) like so many baffled novices caught between terror and evasion. Is this not incomprehensible? Every time I allow myself to be astonished by this fact I feel myself entering a state of the highest consternation and even a kind of horror, but behind this horror there is something familiar, intimate, and of such intensity that my feelings fail me in deciding whether it is burning hot or icy cold.

It is possible that our nature indeed often takes revenge on us for the inappropriateness and foreignness of what we ask of it, and that between us and our surroundings there run cracks that remain not wholly on the surface. But why did our forebears read about all of those foreign things: by letting these things grow inside them into dreams, wishes, and vague fantastic images, by tolerating that, their heart changed gears, spurred on by some adventurousness or other; when standing at the window with boundless and misunderstood distance inside them and with a gaze that turned its back almost contemptuously on the courtyard and garden out there, they effectively conjured up all of that which we now have to deal with and basically make up for. When they lost sight of their surroundings, which they no longer perceived, they lost sight of all of reality. What was nearby seemed boring and mundane and what was far depended entirely on their mood and imagination. And closeness and distance were forgotten in this way. This is how it became our task not even to decide between proximity and distance, but to assume both and to reunite them as the one reality, which in truth has no divisions or closure and which is not common when it is nearby, but romantic when it is a bit further off, and not boring right here and over there quite entertaining. They were so terribly intent on distinguishing between what was strange and what was common back then; they did not notice how much of each is everywhere most densely intertwined. They saw only that whatever was near did not belong to them, and so they thought that anything of value that can actually be owned they would find abroad, and they longed for it. And their intense and inventive longing seemed proof to them of its beauty and greatness. For they still held on to the view that it is possible for us to take something into ourselves, draw it in and swallow it, while in fact we are so filled up from the beginning that not the tiniest thing could be added. Yet everything can have an effect on us. And all things affect us from a distance, the near as well as the remote things, nothing touches us; everything reaches us across divisions. And just as the most remote stars cannot enter us, the ring on my hand cannot do so either: everything that reaches us can do so only the way a magnet summons and aligns the forces in some susceptible object; in this way, all things can effect a new alignment within us. And in view of this insight, do proximity and distance not simply vanish? And is not this our insight?

I believe that one is never more just than at those moments when one admires unreservedly and with absolute devotion. It is in this spirit of unchecked admiration that the few great individuals whom our time was unable to stifle ought to be presented, precisely because our age has become so very good at assuming a critical stance.

Something is true only next to something else, and I always think the world has been conceived of with sufficient space to encompass everything: that which has been does not need to be cleared from its spot but only needs to be gradually transformed, just as whatever is yet to occur does not fall from the skies at the last moment but resides always already right next to us, around us and within our heart, waiting for the cue that will summon it to visibility.

It seems to me that the only way one can be helpful is to extend one’s hand to someone else involuntarily, and without ever know- ing how useful this will be. If love becomes all it can be through willpower, willpower can achieve even more when one wants to help. But the gods alone can procure help, and when they make use of us to accomplish their acts of charity they like to plunge us into impenetrable anonymity.

Even on days when fate wishes to bestow boundless gifts on them, most people make mistakes in accepting: they don’t accept straightforwardly and consequently lose something while doing so, they take with a secondary purpose in mind, or they accept what is given to them as if they were being compensated for something else.

And yet life is transformation: all that is good is transformation and all that is bad as well. For this reason he is in the right who encounters everything as something that will not return. It does not matter whether he then forgets or remembers, as long as he had been fully present only for its duration and been the site, the atmosphere, the world for what happened, as long as it happened within him, in his center, whatever is good and what is bad—then he really has nothing else to fear because something else of renewed significance is always about to happen next. The possibility of intensifying things so that they reveal their essence depends so much on our participation. When things sense our avid interest, they pull themselves together without delay and are all that they can be, and in everything new the old is then whole, only different and vastly heightened.

We of the here and now are not satisfied for one moment in the time-world nor attached to it; we constantly exceed it and pass over to earlier ones, to our origins, and to those that seem to come after us. In that greatest “open” world everyone is not exactly “contemporary” precisely since the disappearance of time causes them all to be. Transience everywhere plunges into a deep being. And thus all the forms found here are to be used not only within temporal limits but as far as possible to be placed by us into those superior realms of significance in which we participate. But not in a Christian sense (from which I distance myself with increasing fervor) and instead in a purely earthly, deeply earthly, blissfully earthly consciousness it is our task to place what we see and touch here into the wider and widest context. Not into a beyond whose shadow darkens the earth but into a whole, into the whole. Nature and all of the objects of our daily use are preliminary and frail; as long as we are here, however, they are our possession and our friendship, accessories to our suffering and joy, just as they had been the intimates of our predecessors. It is thus our task not only not to malign and take down everything that is here but rather, because of the transience which we have in common with it, to comprehend and transform with an innermost consciousness these appearances and things. Transform? Yes, for it is our task to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.

How good life is. How fair, how incorruptible, how impossible to deceive: not even by strength, not even by willpower, and not even by courage. How everything remains what it is and has only this choice: to come true, or to exaggerate and push too far . . .

All of our insights occur after the fact.

I basically do not believe that it matters to be happy in the sense in which people expect to be happy. But I can so absolutely understand the kind of arduous happiness that consists in rousing forces through a determined effort, forces that then start to work upon one’s self.

History is not all of humanity but only an index of the water levels, of the low tides and floods; it is not the rushing water itself, nor the current nor the river’s bed. The surges and destructions by which men are occupied, impassioned, elevated, and annihilated can be nothing but an allegory, like a retracing and vanishing of invisible architectures that constitute the true world-shape of our existence.

In life, in all of its forms, the static principle, which is our ultimate concern, has been realized: the principle that does not consist in establishing ourselves continually anew in instability but in coming to rest in the center to which we return from each risk and change. There you rest like a die in a cup. Surely, an unknown gambler’s hand shakes the cup, casts you out, and out there you count upon landing either for a lot or very little. But after the die has been cast, you are put back into the cup and there, inside, in the cup, no matter how you come to lie, you signify all of its numbers, all of its sides. And there, inside the cup, luck or misfortune are of no concern, but only bare existence, being a die, having six sides, six chances, always again all of them—along with the peculiar certainty of not being able to cast oneself out on one’s own and the pride in knowing that it takes a divine wager for anyone to be rolled from deep within this cup onto the table of the world and into the game of fate. This is the actual meaning of A Thousand and One Nights and the root of its suspense for those listening to these stories: that the porter, the beggar, the herder of camels—anyone who was cast without adding up to much—is scooped back into the cup to be wagered once more. And that it is the world into which one tumbles, among stars, to girls, children, dogs, and garbage; that there is nothing unclear about the circumstances into which one may fall. There might be something too great or too evil, too deceptive or plainly doomed there . . . but one is dealing either with other dice or with the throws and ghosts that shake the cups and wager their own stake in doing so. It is an honest game, unpredictable, and always begun anew, beyond one and yet played in a way that no one is ever worthless even for an instant, or bad, or shameful: for who can be responsible for falling this way or that out of the cup?

How old one would have to become to have truly admired enough and not to lag behind with regard to anything in the world. There is still so much that one underestimates, overlooks, and misrecognizes. God, how many opportunities and examples that invite us to become something—and in response to those, how much sluggishness, distractedness, and half-will on our side.

What we all need most urgently now: to realize that transience is not separation—for we, transient as we are, have it in common with those who have passed from us, and they and we exist together in one being where separation is just as unthinkable. Could we otherwise understand such poems if they had been nothing but the utterance of someone who was going to be dead in the future? Don’t such poems continually address inside of us, in addition to what is found there now, also something unlimited and unrecognizable? I do not think that the spirit can make itself anywhere so small that it would concern only our temporal existence and our here and now: where it surges toward us there we are the dead and the living all at once.

I believe in old age; to work and to grow old: this is what life expects of us. And then one day to be old and still be quite far from understanding everything—no, but to begin, but to love, but to suspect, but to be connected to what is remote and inexpressible, all the way up into the stars.

How wonderful to grow old when one has worked on life like a true craftsman; then there are no memories left that have not become thing, then there is nothing that has passed away: everything is there, real, ravishingly real, it is there and is and has been acknowledged by and entered into something greater, and it is linked to the most remote past and impregnated with future.

Is it not peculiar that nearly all of the great philosophers and psychologists have always paid attention to the earth and nothing but the earth? Would it not be more sublime to lift our eyes from this crumb, and instead of considering a speck of dust in the universe, to turn our attention to space itself? Just imagine how small and insignificant all earthly toils would suddenly appear at the moment when our earth would shrink to the tiniest, swirling, aimless particle of an infinite world! And how the human being would have to grow in size on his “small earth”!

Peculiar. Each bird that builds its home under the roof beams first examines the spot it has chosen and over which a minuscule part of its life shall now be dispersed. And the human being, meanwhile, is entirely satisfied with approximately and scarcely knowing the earth and leaves the wide worlds above to waver and to change their ways. Does it not seem as if we are still positioned quite low since our gaze is so consistently fixed on the ground?

We have to be committed not to miss or neglect any opportunity to suffer, to have an experience, or to be happy; our soul arises refreshed from all of that. It has a resting place at those heights that are difficult to reach, and it is at home where one can advance no further: up there we have to carry it. But as soon as we put it down for dead at those extreme spots it awakens and takes flight into skies and celestial depths that from now on belong to us.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Rilke, Rainer Maria, -- 1875-1926 -- Correspondence.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, -- 1875-1926 -- Translations into English.
Authors, German -- 20th century -- Correspondence.