Rainer Maria Rilke on the calling of an artist

The excerpt that I have copied below comes from a letter that the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1902 to an aspiring young poet of 19. The whole of these letters, representing five years of correspondence between the two, was eventually collected in a small book, titled Letters to a Young Poet, published in 1929. I include this excerpt here because, on the whole, it is sound advice.

While I may wish to give equal weight to the role that a community, or that a handful of communities, plays in the discernment of an artist's vocation (along with, well, God of course), Rilke's counsel to Franz Kappus echoes the sorts of things that Frederick Buechner offers throughout his writings, not least in his book Listening to Your Life, as well as the bracing remarks of Makoto Fujimura's in Culture Care. Fujimura writes:

“Younger artists often ask me whether their art is ‘good enough’, and whether they are called to be an artist. My answer is: ‘if you are not sure, you are not called’. That may seem harsh, but the reality of the arts requires that we follow our calling no matter what others think, or even what we believe ourselves. When art is simply what we must do to stay true to ourselves, it is a calling”

Rilke, of course, is a man of his times, as are Buechner and Fujimura, and his ideas about the vocation of artists reflect the social, philosophical and artistic traditions to which he belonged. To state the obvious, his counsel to Kappus must be understood in context, which an excerpt like this cannot provide.

But to the extent that each of us must attend to our life--to steward the life that God has entrusted to us, with our own peculiar questions, loves, fears, wants, yearnings, ambitions, attachments, relationships, opportunities and capacities--Rilke's words ring true, no matter the age in which they were spoken. At the very least, they are a warm-hearted encouragement to each of us to take responsibility for our life and to trust that God will give us grace for each day, all along the way, which in some cases may include the provision of a kindred friend for a part of the way.

"You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now.

Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer.

And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.

Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile or commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity.

Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty—describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory.

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses—would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories?

Turn your attention thither. Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away. And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world, verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life.

A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it.

Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself."


Thank you David for starting the Psalms project (I am one of those who never could quite relate to Psalms, nor fully understood its significance and beauty) and I am thankful that my google search on Balthasar somehow led me to your site as you wrote an article about him. As an artist (in ceramics) who is finding my way to understand art making to the glory of God, your writings and resources have been most helpful. God bless your continued work and ministry!
Thanks for the kind note and glad to hear that the blog was helpful!

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