Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Grief

Rainer Maria Rilke in The Paris Review:

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.

More here.