Rilke: Is it better to choose one's career carefully, or to know oneself through trial and error?

Monument to the poet Rainer M. Rilke in the city of Ronda, Spain. In the gardens of hotel Reina Victoria.
Photo by Wwal [Public domain] via Wikimedia

Letters to a Young PoetLetters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rilke wrote a series of letters to the young poet, Franz Xaver Kappus, beginning in 1902. Kappus was reading Rilke's poetry under the chestnut tress at the Military Academy in Wiener Nuestadt when his teacher, Horaček, noticed the volume. Rilke had been a pupil at the Military Lower School in Sankt Pölten when Horaček was a chaplain there, and Horaček had known Rilke personally. 

The military proved not to be for Rilke, and he continued his studies in Prague. Kappus, however, felt that his own choice to pursue a military career was "directly opposed to my own inclinations", yet would continue his military career for years after. In the meantime, Kappus decided to write to Rilke to ask for feedback on his own poetry, and Rilke maintained their correspondence despite his constant travels. 

By Rilke's tone in the letters, it is obvious that he enjoyed his correspondence with Kappus, and often told Kappus that if he wished to be a poet, he would need to change careers, or, at worst, he might find time in barracks life to keep at his poetry. The book provides Rilke's correspondence to Kappus, beginning with his return letter of 1903 and continuing until 1908. 

The book also includes a second work, The Letter from the Young Worker, which adopts a letter format to "a polemic against Christianity". This style recalls the dialogues of Plato and others, but in this case is one side of a potential written conversation. In many ways, the style mirrors the way we read Rilke's correspondence with Kappus, only having (mostly) one side of the narrative. In his first response, Rilke provides some important feedback. He suggests that Kappus' poetry lacks an identity. He suggests that Kappus is looking to the outside, but the answer is (pp. 6-7):
Go into yourself. Examine the reason that bids you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night's quietest hour: must I write? Dig down deep into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple "I must', then construct your life according to this necessity; your life right into its most inconsequential and slightest hour must become a witness to this urge... A work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity... Accept this answer as it is, without seeking to interpret it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist... Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking after the rewards that may come from outside.
Imagine having such a mentor? Rilke was patient, kind, and wise. His connection with Kappus has, perhaps, something to do with being a poet while in the military system, something I identify with personally (having found that the military was, once I neared the tell-tale signs of the evening of my youth, "directly opposed to my own inclinations"). 

There is so much in such a short work, with Rilke's advice becoming "Candidean" - "take refuge in [subjects] offered by your own day-to-day life" - and focused on the individual rather than the work (and not in a mean-spirited way but as a mentor). 

Given that Kappus continues his military career and does not become a poet of any note, and that Rilke was the opposite in springing from the military's well, it makes me wonder: should we take care in choosing our careers so we do not waste time in the wrong station? Or should we learn what really floats our boat through trial and error? I suspect, based on Rilke's care for Kappus' work, that Rilke really knew himself as a result, while I felt that, perhaps, Kappus had taken the easy option.

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