Prose from Poetry Magazine

From “You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin”

Biographers would begin at the beginning. They would describe a boy too busy etching his dull blade into wood to eat. A young man working at a vase factory in Sèvres. They would identify his early influences — Dante, Baudelaire, and Michelangelo — and his youthful prophetic awakening, the flash point upon which his future genius hinged. It would be both “common and touching.”

But this would be the wrong way to tell the story of Auguste Rodin, or at least not the way Rainer Maria Rilke wanted to tell it. In October, Rodin went to visit a friend in Italy, leaving Rilke with three uninterrupted weeks to write his monograph. At his broken-down desk in the hostel, he began to imagine all the ways he might approach the dreaded first page.

He stared out the window at the brick wall on the other side. He paced and procrastinated. Unaccustomed to shutting his windows, he suffered the fatty stench of pommes frites wafting in and commingling with iodine vapors from the hospitals. When the odor became overwhelming, he took a walk to the Luxembourg Gardens, leaned his head against the gate, and took a deep breath. But even then the smell of flowers, packed too tightly into their sidewalk gardens, 
irritated his delicate senses.

He would always return to the hotel by eight o’clock, before the drunks invaded the streets. Back at his desk, the smell replaced in the evenings by burnt kerosene from the lamp, he considered starting the book with explanations of the sculptures that made Rodin famous. But Rodin’s fame had nothing to do with his work, he decided. He wrote it down on his stationery: “Fame is no more than the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name.”

Nor could it begin with Rodin’s childhood, because, after observing the sculptor in the flesh, Rilke had concluded that Rodin was born great. His eminence felt as eternal as that of a Gothic cathedral, or a chestnut tree in full bloom. To tell that story, Rilke would have to start in the branches and grow backward, reaching down into the trunk, then plunging into the dirt where the cracked seed lay.

Rilke lay down in bed, knowing he wouldn’t sleep. The vibrating 
trams kept him from fully relaxing. Even if he did doze off for a moment, the neighbors would soon be coming home, stomping up the steps so loudly that he’d jolt upright in fear that they would barge right through the door.

Lying there awake, he would often summon Baudelaire, like a guardian angel. Rilke would recite to himself the beginning of his prose poem “One O’Clock in the Morning” from Paris Spleen: “At last! I am alone! ... the tyranny of the human face has disappeared.” But then he would begin to compare himself to Baudelaire and a new anxiety would set in.

Rodin never had this problem. He never questioned why he was an artist, or whether he should be. He knew that such doubts only distracted one from work, and Rilke was beginning to accept that work was all there was. He had spent so much time with the master by now that he could hold an entire conversation with him in his head:

“What was your life like?”
“Good.”
“Did you have any enemies?”
“None that could keep me from my work.”
“And fame?”
“It made work a duty.”
“And your friends?”
“They expected work from me.”
“And women?”
“I learned to admire them in the course of my work.”
“But you were young once?”
“Then I was like all the rest. You know nothing when you are young; that comes later, and only slowly.”

In Rodin’s absence, Rilke sought out the company of other artists he admired. He met the Spanish portrait painter Ignacio Zuloaga, who was only five years older than Rilke but already well established in Europe, with several works on view at the Venice Biennale that year. From his barrel chest and thick black mustache the Basque artist exhaled an effortless confidence. He did not bother making sketches for his paintings, instead outlining figures in black streaks of charcoal directly on the canvas, then filling them in with a dark palette of paints.

Rodin had been so impressed with Zuloaga that he once traded him three bronze sculptures for one painting. Rilke would later conclude that, aside from Rodin, Zuloaga was the only figure in Paris “who affected me deeply and lastingly.” But their connection seems to have been largely one-sided. Despite several letters expressing Rilke’s admiration for the Basque painter, Zuloaga never responded as enthusiastically as Rilke probably would have liked. Yet Zuloaga did allow him to visit his studio once, where he introduced him to another great master: El Greco. The stormy biblical scenes of the Greek-born Spanish Renaissance painter struck Rilke with a violent intensity he had only before known in nightmares. El Greco’s misproportioned bodies, long and sinuous as candle flames, seemed so far ahead of the present day, much less that of the sixteenth century, when they were painted.

That month, Rilke also had to arrange for the imminent arrival of his wife, Clara Westhoff, in Paris. He rented them each apartments a few blocks south of his Latin Quarter hostel, at 3 rue de l’Abbé de l’Épée. They would share the same roof, but keep separate rooms. The couple saw each other only on Sundays, when they often read each other passages from Niels Lyhne. For her birthday, Rilke bought her a volume of Gustave Geffroy’s essays, The Artistic Life, and inscribed it, “To Clara. The beloved mother. The artist. The friend. The woman.” No mention of the wife or the lover. But Westhoff may not have minded the omission then. She had already received several sculpture commissions within that first month, so this second residency in Paris was already proving far more rewarding than her first.

Most importantly, she finally had Rodin’s eyes. She brought him her work for critique nearly every Saturday, when he hosted an open house at his studio. “The nearness of Rodin, which does not confuse her, gives to her effort and becoming and growth a certain security and peace — and it proves to be good for her to be in Paris,” Rilke wrote. Of a visit to Meudon with her husband, she recalled a feeling “of being set free, of being surrounded by everything that did one good. The beautiful figures and fragments stood next to one in the grass or against the sky, the lawn invited one as if to children’s games, and in the middle of a little depression an antique torso stood in the sun.”

By this time, Rilke had nearly finished writing the monograph. He had observed and considered Rodin’s art from every angle and it had changed the way he saw the world: “Already flowers are often so 
infinitely much to me, and excitements of a strange kind have come to me from animals. And already I am sometimes experiencing even people in this way, hands are living somewhere, mouths are speaking, and I look at everything more quietly and with greater justness.” But while Rilke was learning to see like an artist, he had not yet mastered the handicraft of one. Where was the “tool of my art, the hammer, my hammer?” he wondered. How could he build objects out of words? How could he apply the principles of Rodin’s art to his poetry?

Rodin suggested that Rilke try out an assignment that he himself had undertaken as a student many years earlier. Regardez les animaux, professor Barye had told young Rodin. To the aspiring figurative sculptor, staring at beasts had seemed a second-rate task. But Rodin soon understood why animals have been objects of reverence for artists dating back to the cave painters.

Zoos at that time were research centers for the study of heretofore undiscovered specimens and symbols of colonial might. Displaying a lion or monkey at home paid tribute to France’s brave explorers abroad. For artists, they were museums of animals, providing contact with previously unseen aesthetic forms. For Barye, the Jardin des Plantes “was his Africa and Asia,” the author Henry James once said. The painter Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau also spent years seated on a bench there, taking inspiration for his dreamlike jungle tableaux.

For Rilke, the menagerie of bears, gazelles, flamingos, and snakes was a sanctuary compared to the human zoo on the other side of the gates. He began to study the caged animals, displayed behind bars like objects, the way Rodin looked at sculptures on pedestals. Each one was a frontier to be discovered. To guide him on this journey, Rilke recalled the teachings of his old professor from Munich, Theodor Lipps, and devised a process of conscious observation, which he would come to call einsehen, or “inseeing.”

Inseeing described the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection. Rilke made a point of distinguishing inseeing from inspecting, a term which he thought described only the viewer’s perspective, and thus often resulted in anthropomorphizing. Inseeing, on the other hand, took into account the object’s point of view. It had as much to do with making things human as it did with making humans thing.

If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.

“Though you may laugh,” Rilke wrote to a friend, “if I tell you where my very greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss was, I must confess to you: it was, again and again, here and there, in such in-seeing — in the indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments of this godlike in-seeing.”

In describing his joy at experiencing the world this way, Rilke echoed Lipps’s belief that, through empathy, a person could free himself from the solitude of his mind. At the same time that Rilke was studying at the zoo in Paris, Lipps was in Munich working on his theory of empathy and aesthetic enjoyment. In his seminal paper on the subject he identified the four types of empathy as he saw them: general apperceptive empathy, when one sees movement in everyday objects; empirical empathy, when one sees human qualities in the nonhuman; mood empathy, when one attributes emotional states to colors and music, like “cheerful yellow”; and sensible appearance empathy, when gestures or movements convey internal feelings.

Animals provided Rilke with a uniquely rewarding case study of his old professor’s teachings. One can relate to animals on the basis that they possess drives similar to those of people, but because they do not share with people a common language they remain fundamentally mysterious to us. Artists can scrutinize animals as curiosities, 
then, but unlike objects, animals look back. The two-way gaze tethers 
these separate lives together and fulfills the “beholder’s involvement,” which the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl argued was a necessary component in a successful work of art.

Rilke returned to the zoo day after day, practicing his inseeing skills before returning home at night to draft rough portraits of the creatures he had seen. He found himself especially drawn to a solitary panther, pacing in its cage. It reminded him of a small plaster panther that Rodin kept in his studio. The sculptor adored the thing so much — “‘C’est beau, c’est tout,’ he says of it” — that Rilke had gone to the Bibliothèque Nationale to see the original bronze version it was modeled after. He visited that display cabinet again and again until he finally began to understand what Rodin saw in it:

And from this little plaster cast I saw what he means, what 
antiquity is and what links him to it. There, in this animal, is the same lively feeling in the modeling, this little thing (it is no higher than my hand is wide, and no longer than my hand) has hundreds of thousands of sides like a very big object, hundreds of thousands of sides which are all alive, animated, and different. And that in plaster! And with this the expression of the prowling stride is intensified to the highest degree, the powerful planting of the broad paws, and at the same time, that caution 
in which all strength is wrapped, that noiselessness.

The plaster panther stirred in Rilke a sensation much like what Rodin had felt when he stumbled upon Barye’s greyhounds in a shop window, when he realized that an inanimate object could move with as much vitality as a living beast. Rilke had this in mind when he began to describe the panther in one of his impressionistic zoo sketches, which he called his “mood-images,” and later when he developed it into “The Panther,” one of his most celebrated poems. It begins with an image of the cat circling its cage:

His vision from the passing of the bars
is grown so weary that it holds no more.
To him it seems there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.
— Translated by M.D. Herter Norton

A reader might be tempted to see the panther’s pacing as a reference to Rilke’s own artistic plight. Yet there is no poet present here. Rilke does not draw attention to himself with his old florid descriptions. He tells us nothing about the panther’s size, for example, or the texture of its fur. He instead defines it only in terms of its captivity: it becomes the freedom it does not possess. The “passing” bars move, while the animal has become the cage, become thing.

The perspective then shifts from Rilke’s to the panther’s when it begins to hear the sound of its feet padding around. In doing so, Rilke makes the circuit of empathy itself a subject of the poem. Near the end, Rilke returns to the panther’s eyes: “the curtain of the pupil / soundlessly parts — .” Then images enter its vision, tunnel into the center of its body and into its heart, where they are captured and consumed for eternity.

Rilke had at last found a way out of himself and into the material world of objects. Just as young Rodin memorized paintings in the Louvre, the poet now allowed images to gather and take shape inside him before writing. He received them rather than created them, waiting while they formed him. It was as his future protagonist Malte Laurids Brigge would say, “Poems are not, as people think, feelings (those one has early enough) — they are experiences.”

Written in November 1902, “The Panther” was Rilke’s first composition for his breakthrough collection of New Poems, which he often referred to as his “thing-poems.” This sculpturally composed work, deeply bearing the mark of Rodin, was also his first attempt at a kind of alchemy of mediums. It was a radical poetic experiment, “as revolutionary in its way as anything by Eliot or Pound,” wrote John Banville in the New York Review of Books years later. But this one poem did not bring about the artistic transformation that Rilke sought so desperately then.

As fall turned into winter and the wordless days turned to months, “still nothing has happened,” he said. He continued to see Rodin as a stream rushing in its path, leaving behind the people and facts of his daily life to “lie there like an empty riverbed through which he no longer flows.” But the poet could not stop his creativity from splintering off into dozens of aimless channels, no matter how badly he wanted to “course through one riverbed and become great.”

Was he too weak? Did he want it too desperately? He had once believed that digging his roots into the ground with a house and a family would render him “more visible, more tangible, more factual.” But while the reality was certainly more concrete, “it was a reality outside me,” he said. It did nothing to help him achieve the existential change “for which I yearn so strongly: To be a real person among real things.”

That fall, while Rilke was writing “The Panther,” a nineteen-year-old Austrian cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus sat in the shade of a hundred-year-old chestnut tree with a book of poetry. A student at the Theresian Military Academy, Kappus was an aspiring writer disguised in a soldier’s uniform. When he heard about a radical new poet who was modernizing German Romanticism, he picked up the author’s recent collection In Celebration of Myself and settled into the grass.

Rebelling against the Romantic tradition, Rilke had begun filling his pages with saints, angels, and gods, harnessing the potency of religious symbolism, but secularizing it. In one work, a Christ character sleeps with prostitutes and mourns his failure to impregnate Mary Magdalene. Rilke’s irreverence made him a hero among a younger generation. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled how he and his classmates used to copy Rilke and Nietzsche verses into their textbooks to read while the teacher delivered some “time-worn lecture” about Friedrich Schiller.

One can imagine that Kappus, not two years younger than Zweig, felt similar awe at discovering Rilke’s disaffected verses for the first time. The cadet became so engrossed in the book that afternoon that he almost did not notice one of his favorite teachers, Franz Horaček, had come over. The professor took the book from Kappus’s hands and looked at the cover: “Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke?” He flipped through the pages, glancing at the verses and running a finger along the binding. Then he shook his head and said, “So our pupil René Rilke has become a poet.”

Horaček explained that he had been chaplain of St. Pölten some fifteen years earlier, when the pale, sickly boy was a student there. He described Rilke as “a quiet, serious, highly endowed boy, who liked to keep to himself.” He had “patiently endured” life at the junior academy until his fourth year, but after he graduated on to the next level of military school, his parents withdrew him. Horaček had not heard any news of him since.

Kappus could not help but begin lining up the similarities between Rilke and himself. Both poets had come to military academies from Slavic cities in the east, Rilke from Prague and Kappus from the Romanian town of Timișoara. They both had lingered at the threshold of military careers that they felt were “entirely contrary” to their nature, as Kappus put it. As he thought about how the two young men had stood on the same soil, worn the same uniform, and shared the same dream, Kappus thought to write a letter to Rilke, the poet in whom he “hoped to find understanding, if in anyone.” He told Rilke about their mutual acquaintance Horaček and enclosed a few of his own poems, asking for Rilke’s opinion.

Rilke was hardly qualified to give career advice at that point in his life. In December, he turned in the Rodin monograph, but the measly fee hardly made a difference. He still could not even afford to send friends copies of his books — “I cannot buy them myself,” he admitted at the time. Meanwhile, royalties from previous projects were running thin.

He and Westhoff spent the holidays in Paris, lonely for their friends and family abroad. Rilke wrote Otto Modersohn a New Year’s letter to soften the tensions with his old friend. He complained about Paris, saying that “the beautiful things there are here do not quite compensate, even with their radiant eternity, for what one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people, and things.” He urged Modersohn to “stick to your country!” The only good thing about Paris was Rodin, he said. “Time flows off him, and as he works thus, all, all the days of his long life, he seems inviolable, sacrosanct, and almost anonymous.”

Rilke did not need to convince Modersohn. “That dreadful wild city is not to your taste — Oh I can believe that,” he wrote back to Rilke. To him, cities bred the sicknesses of egotism, Nietzscheanism, and modernism. “Nothing, nothing at all is more important to me than my peaceful, serious countryside. I could never endure living in such a city — I should look at and enjoy the art that is stored up there and then quickly return to my peace and quiet.”

But while Modersohn was content to sink into the sofa, pipe in mouth, and stay there all night, his wife had not yet exhausted her curiosities about foreign landscapes. Paula Becker was, at twenty-six, too young to give up and become one of those hard Worpswede peasant women, bitter and “bound to the plow,” as Rilke once wrote. The village’s monotonous routines, and the staid landscape painting it had been producing, was starting to dull her senses. Ever since she and Westhoff had gone to Paris three years earlier, German artists seemed so obedient compared to the French. No one in Paris seemed to care whether their work achieved consensus. The mere thought of returning there quickened Becker’s pulse to this day.

Now that the Rilkes were back in touch, she saw her chance. Modersohn did not love the idea of his wife traveling alone. But he knew he still owed her for the sacrifice she made by attending a ghastly cooking school, and agreed that she could make the trip in February 1903. Becker could barely contain her excitement when she boarded the train for Paris that winter, just in time for her twenty-seventh birthday. She imagined her Parisian life picking up right where it had left off, with days occupied by art galleries, champagne, and philosophical 
discussions with Westhoff, then Saturdays spent galavanting around the countryside. When she arrived, Becker rented the same little hotel room where they had stayed as students.

On the first evening Rilke and Westhoff were free to meet, Becker rushed over to their Latin Quarter building, eager as a puppy. She regaled them with gossip about Worpswede, but they seemed not to care, as if her small-town stories were beneath them. It wasn’t that they were rude; it was worse than that. They were cordial. There was no warmth, no familiarity, and, on top of it all, they seemed totally miserable. All they did was complain about money and feeling over-worked. When Becker tried to convince them to take some time off and join her on a day-trip to the country they declined, insisting they had to work.

The Rilkes “trumpet gloom,” Becker wrote to her husband the next day. “Ever since Rodin said to [them], ‘Travailler, toujours travailler,’ they have been taking it literally; they never want to go to the country on Sundays and seem to be getting no more fun out of their lives at all.” Rilke spoke incessantly about Rodin and the monograph, a project that Becker believed was little more than thinly veiled social climbing. “Rilke is gradually diminishing to a rather tiny flame that wants to brighten its light through association with the radiance of the great spirits of Europe: Tolstoy, Muther, the Worpsweders, Rodin, Zuloaga, his newest friend,” she wrote to her husband. Westhoff’s latest work, a series of fragmented bodies, was also beginning to resemble Rodin’s a little too closely. “We shall see how she plans to avoid becoming a little Rodin herself,” Becker wrote.

The only benefit to the Rilkes’ obsession with Rodin was that it opened the door for Becker to meet the famous sculptor herself. Rilke told her that Rodin hosted an open house for friends and 
colleagues at his studio every Saturday. Rilke would write a note identifying her as the “wife of a very distinguished painter” — an 
insult not lost on Becker — which should secure her entry.

When she arrived the following weekend a crowd had already gathered at the studio. She hesitated at the edge of the room, attempting to compose herself before approaching the master to present her pass. When she finally summoned the nerve, she cautiously went up to him and held out the note. He nodded her along, not even glancing at it.

Once inside, Becker was free to examine the sculptures standing around the room as closely as she liked. Not each work resonated with her, but they gathered such force collectively that she decided she trusted Rodin’s intentions completely. “He doesn’t care whether the world approves or not,” she thought. On her way out she worked up the courage to ask him if she might one day visit his studio in Meudon. To her amazement, he didn’t flinch: Come next Sunday, he said.

When she arrived by train that weekend, an assistant informed her that Rodin was busy at the moment but she had his permission to wander the grounds on her own. Becker took a walk and revisited the pavilion of works she had first seen at the World’s Fair, recognizing now how deeply they expressed their maker’s “worship of nature.” After a while Rodin joined her and brought her to the studio. When he pulled out several reams of drawings, she was surprised to see how his process began with simple pencil lines that were then doused with watercolors. How unusual that such wild, blazing colors could come from such a mild man, she thought.

Before long Rodin launched into a familiar soliloquy: “Work,” he said, “that is my pleasure.” It was the precise rhetoric that exasperated her when it came from Rilke, but out of Rodin’s mouth every word was intoxicating. Becker believed that Rodin truly lived by his words; the proof surrounded her in every corner of this very room. But Rilke, who had only a few mediocre books to show for all his complaining, merely quoted Rodin’s words. Becker wrote to her husband that he must come to Paris at once, if only to be near Rodin. “Yes, whatever it is that makes art extraordinary is what he has.”

Becker’s exhilaration was cut short as soon as she returned to the Rilkes and their contagious misery, however. For a while she had been determined to salvage her trip and accommodate their interests over hers. Instead of a picnic in the countryside she went with them to see a show of Japanese paintings that contained flowing, childlike lines unlike anything she’d ever seen. But in March, Rilke fell ill again with his third bout of flu that winter. Becker brought tulips to him in bed but announced afterward that “I can’t stand him anymore.” She kissed her wedding ring and decided to cut her stay in Paris short.

As she waited for the train back to Worpswede she wrote to her husband that she believed Westhoff would be better off if Rilke went away for a while. Her bust commissions were picking up and his 
wallowing only brought her down.

Rilke’s opinion of himself was not much higher than Becker’s at that time. Having finished the Rodin monograph, he was left worrying once again where his next paycheck would come from, and where — or if — the inspiration for his next book would arise. “I cannot bring myself to write at all; and the consciousness alone that a connection exists between my writing and the days’ nourishment and necessaries, is enough to make my work impossible for me,” he wrote that spring to his friend Ellen Key, a Swedish psychologist and patron of the poet. “I must wait for the ringing in the silence, and I know that if I force the ringing, then it really won’t come.”

He had now cleared his desk bare, apart from a stack of unanswered mail. Finally, in February 1903, he sat down to respond to a letter that had come from a student at a military academy like the one he had attended as a boy. Rilke did not know this young man by the name of Franz Xaver Kappus, but he was pleased to see a reference to Professor Horaček. Rilke had always liked the man, who was the only teacher on staff who wasn’t also a military officer.

“My Dear Sir, Your letter only reached me a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great and kind confidence. I can hardly do more,” Rilke wrote in his looping black calligraphy.

Kappus had almost given up on a reply when the envelope bearing a blue seal and a Paris postmark arrived. The address was written in “beautiful, clear, sure characters,” he said. It “weighed heavy in the hand.”

When he opened it he found that Rilke had sent eight full pages in response to his two. Rilke, knowing how anxiously he had been waiting for his own bell of creativity to toll again, advised the young poet now to consider carefully whether he was prepared to bear the burden of the artistic condition.

“Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart,” Rilke wrote. Then ask yourself, would you “die if it were denied you to write. This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write?” If the heart utters a clear, “I must, then build your life according to this necessity,” but be prepared to surrender to the imperative forever, for art was not a choice, but an immutable 
disposition of the soul.

Rilke declined to critique the poems Kappus sent, other than to say that they possessed no distinctive voice and were “not yet independent.” He urged the poet not to send them to editors or critics again, himself included. That could only provide external validation, and a poet’s testament must come from within. Besides, nothing was further removed from art than criticism, Rilke said, and reviews “always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.”

Rilke’s response moved Kappus to write back immediately. We do not know what he said because his side of the correspondence was never published, but we know that they exchanged some twenty letters over the next five years. We also know that Kappus found Rilke’s wandering reflections on solitude, love, and art so touching, so deeply felt, that he predicted, in an astute understatement, that the letters would also stir the hearts of other “growing and evolving spirits of today and tomorrow.” Shortly after Rilke’s death he brought the letters to Westhoff and their daughter Ruth Rilke to ask if they’d like to have them published.

Rilke viewed his prolific letter-writing habit as a part of his poetic practice. He took such care in composing his correspondence — he would sooner rewrite an entire page of script than mar its surface with a crossed-out word — that he gave his publisher permission to posthumously release it. When Rilke died in 1926, Ruth and her 
husband, Carl Sieber, began sifting through the surviving seven thousand letters. They took several collections to his publishers: a set that Rilke wrote to the head of his Dutch publishing house in the last year of his life appeared in 1927, while another to his biographer Maurice Betz came out in 1928, as did his series of letters to Rodin. In 1929, Insel-Verlag released his correspondence with Kappus under the title Letters to a Young Poet.

Little is known about Kappus because Rilke’s family decided not to include the cadet’s name or biography in the original publication, although some later editions include a brief introduction by him. Nor is it known why Rilke maintained such a long correspondence with a stranger from whom he had nothing to gain. But from the way his letters often read as though they were written to his younger self, it is clear Rilke empathized with this young poet and fellow victim of that “long terrifying damnation” known as military school.

More importantly, however, was probably Kappus’s timing. His letter reached Rilke just as the poet had been trying to locate his own footing within Rodin’s in Paris, so he appreciated the imperative to find one’s form. Just as the puppet Pinocchio became “a real boy” once his father saw the good in him, young artists are affirmed when they see their reflection in a master’s eye.

Even though Rilke was himself sublimely naive at the time, Kappus had tacitly made himself Rilke’s disciple, and the older poet accepted this responsibility. He wrote Kappus letters in a tone of authority that only an amateur would dare — trying on the master’s robe and liking the way it fit. But Rilke knew he was in no position to offer career advice then, having told a friend that spring, “I have written eleven or twelve books and have received almost nothing for them, only four of them were paid for at all.” Instead of advising Kappus on the profession of poetry, he opted to guide him on the poetic life. That was what Rilke had asked of Rodin, and from then on his letters to Kappus would serve as his field notes.

This is reprinted from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett. Copyright © 2016 by Rachel Corbett. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Originally Published: August 31st, 2016

Rachel Corbett is the author of You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (W.W. Norton, 2016).

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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  1. September 18, 2016
     Carlos Pittella

    Pure joy reading this excerpt. Through your words, I could follow Rilke following Rodin and the famous panther, walking in circles in its "dance of strength"... as the poet walked around the rediscovery of his own voice. Can't wait for the entire book. Thank you.