Throughout his life, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 -1926) wrote letters to close friends as well as individuals who had read his poetry but did not know him personally. At the time of his death in 1926 at the age of 51, Rilke had written over 14,000 letters which he considered to be as significant and worthy of publication as his poetry and prose. Among this vast correspondence are 23 letters of condolence. For nearly 100 years, most of their sometimes bracing and always powerful insights have been hidden in plain sight, or rather buried in a disorganized and partly irretrievable set of publications and archives on two continents. They have now been gathered for the first time into a short volume that offers Rilke’s highly original and accessible reflections on loss, grief and mortality. Together they tell a story leading from an unflinching and honest acknowledgment of death to transformation, just as Rilke’s well-known Letters to a Young Poet recounts the story from unflinching self-reckoning and the acceptance of solitude to serious self-transformation. Taken individually, each of the letters on loss, which Rilke wrote to different recipients but with the same single-minded intent to assist someone in mourning, may offer solace for anyone dealing with a personal loss. What can we say in the face of loss, when words seem too frail and ordinary to convey grief and soothe the pain? How can we provide solace for the bereaved, when even time, as Rilke stresses over and over, cannot properly console but only “put things in order”? These letters offer guidance in the effort to recover our voice during periods of loss and grief, and not to let even the most devastating experiences overwhelm, numb and silence us. —Ulrich Baer
To: Mimi Romanelli
(1877 – 1970), the youngest sister of the Italian art dealer Pietro Romanelli known for her beauty and musical talent. Rilke stayed in her family’s small hotel in Venice in 1907. They had a brief romantic relationship and maintained a long correspondence thereafter.
Oberneuland near Bremen (Germany)
Sunday, the 8th of December, 1907
There is death in life, and it astonishes me that we pretend to ignore this: death, whose unforgiving presence we experience with each change we survive because we must learn to die slowly. We must learn to die: That is all of life. To prepare gradually the masterpiece of a proud and supreme death, of a death where chance plays no part, of a well-made, beatific and enthusiastic death of the kind the saints knew to shape. Of a long-ripened death that effaces its hateful name and is nothing but a gesture that returns those laws to the anonymous universe which have been recognized and rescued over the course of an intensely accomplished life. It is this idea of death, which has developed inside of me since childhood from one painful experience to the next and which compels me to humbly endure the small death so that I may become worthy of the one which wants us to be great.
I am not ashamed, my Dear, to have cried on a recent early Sunday morning in a cold gondola which floated around endless corners through sections of Venice only so vaguely visible that they seemed to branch out into another city far away. The voice of the barcaiolo who called out to be granted passage at the corner of a canal received no answer, like in the face of death.
And the bells that I had heard in my room only moments before (my room where I have lived a whole life, where I was born and where I am preparing to die) seemed so clear to me; those same bells dragged their sounds like rags behind them over the swirling waters only to meet again without any recognition.
It is still always that death which continues inside of me, which works in me, which transforms my heart, which deepens the red of my blood, which weighs down the life that had been ours so that it may become a bittersweet drop coursing through my veins and penetrating everything, and which ought to be mine forever.
And while I am completely engulfed in my sadness, I am happy to sense that you exist, Beautiful. I am happy to have flung myself without fear into your beauty just as a bird flings itself into space. I am happy, Dear, to have walked with steady faith on the waters of our uncertainty all the way to that island which is your heart and where pain blossoms. Finally: happy.
To: Adelheid von der Marwitz
(1894-1944), sister of the German poet Bernhard von der Marwitz (1890-1918) who died in World War I and had maintained a correspondence with Rilke. Her brother’s frequent recitations of Rilke’s poetry introduced her to the literary culture of her time. A dedication in a book that her brother gave her before his death quotes a poem from Rilke’s “The Book of Images.”
Soglio (Bergell, Graubünden)
September 11th, 1919
My dear young friend:
The joy brought by your letter has many sides: let me recount at least a few. First, this is what we welcome now above all, that human beings are making a new start here and there to rebuild life with the strength and the faith of their indestructible hearts. There are others who could try this but who still just stand there, staring and trying to make sense, and for whom sadness and sloth finally become utterly insurmountable. And this even though based on feeling and reflection, only one thing is urgently needed: to attach oneself with unconditional purpose somewhere to nature, to what is strong, striving and bright, and to move forward without guile, even if that means in the least important, daily matters. Each time we tackle something with joy, each time we open our eyes toward a yet untouched distance we transform not only this and the next moment, but we also rearrange and gradually assimilate the past inside of us. We dissolve the foreign body of pain of which we neither know its actual consistency and make-up nor how many (perhaps) life-affirming stimuli it imparts, once dissolved, to our blood!
Death, especially the most completely felt and experienced death, has never remained an obstacle to life for a surviving individual, because its innermost essence is not contrary to us (as one may occasionally surmise), but it is more knowing about life than we are in our most vital moments. I always think that such a great weight with its tremendous pressure somehow has the task of forcing us into a deeper, more intimate layer of life so that we may grow out of it all the more vibrant and fertile. I learned this experience very early on through various circumstances, and it was then confirmed from pain to pain: what is here and now is, after all, what has been given and is expected of us and we must attempt to transform everything that happens to us into a new familiarity and friendliness with it. For where else should we direct our senses, which after all have been exquisitely designed to grasp and master what is here? And how may we evade the duty to admire what God has entrusted to us, for this surely prepares us completely for all future and eternal admiration! So, if I understood your cheerful and lively words in this sense and with utmost agreement, then it only added to my joy that I thought to recognize you in it quite clearly: somehow I had long suspected that such a decisive leap would come from you. There it was—and I now feel a kind of pride and satisfaction in having guessed and anticipated quite correctly from your earlier letters what you are capable of. You have been able to establish yourself anew in a place which had grown familiar during many years of your childhood and youth. That you feel blessed again in that place to tackle new tasks and desired projects and that the warmth of accomplishing something each day lets you experience a new degree of feeling alive: this is so much that there is nothing left for your friend to wish for besides hoping that everything may remain like this. Your youth, your untainted will, and the heartfelt and natural direction of the path you’ve so courageously chosen all vouch for the likelihood that this will be the case. The fact that you could make the effort to engage fully in the activities of people your age who share your aspirations is a sign of the most noble and admirable courage, and you are experiencing already how these efforts are paying off on the inside. What you told me gave me a sense of the affection of your small and harmonious yet vibrant circle, and I would like for you to return their expression of sympathy. I would be delighted to contribute an hour to your gatherings by giving a bit of myself and receiving from all of you in turn, and to share in your joy and happiness!
I have not yet been able to get back to working productively. It is therefore my task to chastise and reproach myself for not yet being far enough along to grow some new vines and extend a few leaves over the ruination of the past few years. Perhaps they are pushing through somewhere but the surface is only rubble and desolation, with no new growth in sight. I ought to begin in any random spot, right now, today, immediately, but it’s not a matter of my being picky when, in spite of this realization, I am waiting for certain conditions that I expect to provide a kind of peculiar support. I am hoping for a small, old house and an old garden where I may enter into a long period of being apart, close to nature and to a few things humming with the gentle beating of the past. Without this kind of assistance, I do not think I will be able to muster the concentration that would reveal to me the quietest, most guarded spot of my inner nature where new sources well up. I have already talked with your brother Banni of this need which he understands completely and wholeheartedly!
Now it’s a matter of finding out whether something like this exists somewhere. It almost came to pass here, if only on a provisional basis. I’ve taken up residence in this tiny mountain spot (barely an hour from the Italian border) in an ancient Palazzo Salis that has managed to hold on to its ancestral furnishings and an old garden edged by trimmed boxwood, even though decades ago all of it was turned into a hotel. To top it off, they have granted me access to the Count’s old library (otherwise off-limits for guests) with a room perfectly after my innermost taste that seems related to earlier arrangements where I had been most comfortable. Take good care of yourself. I will remain in Switzerland as long as it remains feasible, at this address—please write to me again.
To: Sidonie Nádherná von Borutín
(1885-1950, née Sidonie Amálie Vilemína Karolína Julie Marie Nádherná von Borutín), host of a well-known salon and partner of the Viennese writer and journalist Karl Kraus. She first met Rilke in 1906 and maintained a long friendship and correspondence with him. Her brother Johannes Nádherný von Borutín committed suicide (1884-1913).
Baltic Sea Spa Heiligendamm, Mecklenburg
Grand Hôtel, August 1st, 1913
My Dear Sidie,
Your letter really touches my heart. On the one hand, I want to encourage you in your pain so that you will completely experience it in all its fullness, because as the experience of a new intensity it is a great life experience and leads everything back again to life, like everything that reaches a certain degree of greatest strength. But on the other hand, I am very concerned when I imagine how strangled and cut off you currently live, afraid of touching anything that is filled with memories (and what is not filled with memories?). You will freeze in place if you remain this way. You must not, dear. You have to move. You have to return to his things. You have to touch with your hands his things, which through their manifold relations and attraction are after all also yours. You must, Sidie, (this is the task that this incomprehensible fate imposes upon you), you must continue his life inside of yours insofar as it has been unfinished; his life has now passed onto yours. You, who quite truly knew him, can quite truly continue in his spirit and on his path. Make it the task of your mourning to explore what he had expected of you, had hoped for you, had wished to happen to you. If I could just convince you, my dear friend, that his influence has not vanished from your existence (how much more reliably I feel my father to be effective and helpful in me since he no longer dwells among us). Just think how much in our daily lives misleads and troubles us, and renders another person’s love imprecise for us. But now he is definitely here, now he is completely free to be here and we are completely free to feel him … Haven’t you felt your father’s influence and compassion a thousand times from the universe where all, truly all, Sidie, is beyond loss? Don’t believe that something that belongs to our pure realities could drop away and simply cease. Whatever had such steady influence on us had already been a reality independent of all the circumstances familiar to us here. This is precisely why we experienced it as something so different and independent of an actual need: because from the very beginning, it had no longer been aimed at and determined by our existence here. All of our true relationships, all of our enduring experiences touch upon and pass through everything, Sidie, through life and death. We must live in both, be intimately at home in both. I know individuals who already face the one and the other without fear and with the same love—for is life really more demystified and safely entrusted to us than that other condition? Are not both conditions in a place namelessly beyond us, out of reach? We are true and pure only in our willingness to the whole, the undecided, the great, to the greatest. Alas, if I could tell you just how I know it, then deep within your mourning, a tiny kernel of dark joy would take shape. Make it your ambition to take heart. Start doing so this very evening by playing Beethoven; he also was committed to the whole.
Please give my very best to Charlie.
Ulrich Baer is a writer, translator and editor of books and articles on poetry, photography, and cultural issues, including Rilke: Letters on Life, 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, and Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. He is the recipient of Getty, Humboldt, and Guggenheim fellowships, and teaches at New York University. In 2018 he’ll publish In Defense of Snowflakes: On Free Speech, Equality, and Truth in the Age of Trump. You can hear him also on his podcast, Powered by Ideas.
Excerpt from The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and edited by Ulrich Baer, copyright © 2018 by Ulrich Baer. Used by permission of Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.