22 September (1902): Rainer Maria Rilke to Auguste Rodin

Below, a youthful Rainer Maria Rilke pens an ardently admiring letter to Auguste Rodin, whom he had visited in Paris with the intention of drafting a monograph on Rodin’s life and work. “It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you,” writes Rilke, “it was to ask you: how must one live? And you replied: by working. And I well understood.”


September u, 1902

My dear Master,

It doubtless seems somewhat strange that I am writing you, since (in the greatness of your generosity) you have given me the possibility of seeing you so often. But always in your presence I feel the imperfection of my language like a sickness that separates me from you even at the moment when I am very near.

Therefore in the solitude of my room I spend my time preparing the words I want to say to you next day, but then, when the time comes, they are dead and, beset by new sensations, I lose all means of expressing myself.

Sometimes I feel the spirit of the French language, and one evening, walking in the Luxembourg Gardens I composed the following verses which are not translated from German, and which came to me by I don’t know what secret path, in this form:

Ce sont les jours ou les fontaines vides
mortes de faim retombent de l’automne,
et on devine de toutes les cloches qui sonnent,
les levres faites des metaux timides.

Les capitales sont indifferentes.
Mais les soirs inattendus qui viennent
font dans le pare un crepuscule ardent,
et aux canaux avec les eaux si lentes
ils donnent une reve venitienne…
et une solitude aux amants…

Why do I write you these verses? Not because I dare to believe that they are good; but it is the desire to draw near to you that guides my hand. You are the only man in the world who, full of equilibrium and force, is building himself in harmony with his work. And if that work, which is so great, so just, has for me become an event which I could tell of only in a voice trembling with awe and homage, it is also, like you yourself, an example given to my life, to my art, to all that is most pure in the depths of my soul.

It was not only to do a study that I came to be with you, it was to ask you: how must one live? And you replied: by working. And I well understand. I feel that to work is to live without dying. I am full of gratitude and joy. For since my earliest youth I have wanted nothing but that. And I have tried it. But my work, because I loved it so much, has become during these years something solemn, a festival connected with rare inspirations; and there were weeks when I did nothing but wait with infinite sadness for the creative hour. It was a life full of abysses. I anxiously avoided every artificial means of evoking the inspirations, I began to abstain from wine (which I have done for several years), I tried to bring my life close to Nature itself… But in all this which was doubtless reasonable, I didn’t have the courage to bring back the distant inspirations by working. Now I know that it is the only way of keeping them. And it is the great rebirth of my life and of my hope that you have given me. And that is also the case with my wife; last year we had rather serious financial worries, and they haven’t yet been removed: but I think now that diligent work can disarm even the anxieties of poverty. My wife has to leave our little child, and yet she thinks more calmly and impartially of that necessity since I wrote her what you said: “Travail et patience.” I am very happy that she will be near you, near your great work. One cannot lose oneself near you….

I want to see if I can find a living in some form here in Paris, (I need only a little for that). If it is possible, I shall stay. And it would be a great happiness for me. Otherwise, if I cannot succeed, I beg you to help my wife as you helped me by your work and by your word and by all the eternal forces of which you are the Master. It was yesterday in the silence of your garden that I found myself. And now the noise of the immense city has become more remote and there is a deep stillness about my heart where your words stand like statues…