Rilke’s rules of love

The road to love is paved with difficulties. Few people have been able to push the ideas of love, sexual experience, femininity, humanity, creative work and death out of their earthly limits and place them on a mystical realm the way poet, essayist, dramatist and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke did through his life’s work. As it is widely known Rilke was a prodigious letter writer, for many years, he most generously and tenderly corresponded with a young officer cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus, who had asked him to send him advice on his poems that came enclosed with the letters. Not surprisingly, the exchanges went beyond critiques of the young man’s poetry, and covered Rilke’s outlook towards life. These ten letters, written over six years, were later published as Letters to a Young Poet (can be read here).

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926; photograph via Google)

A long-time Rilke scholar and translator John J. L. Mood translated and provided commentary upon a selection of some of Rilke’s meditations on love, extracted from the aforementioned letters and essays, along with his best love poems to include in a compendium titled Love and Other Difficulties – Translations and Considerations.

In this book Mood takes us right into the heart of the themes of love, self-transformation solitude and death – all or most of which we think so much about, and yet know so little. Gleaning from this precious book I have attempted at condensing what I term as “Rilke’s five rules of love”.

Still from Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959; photograph via @lovefrenchmovies; Instagram)

#1 Of there being no closure

Among other things, Rilke urges young people to comfortably settle in with the questions and confusions themselves rather than maniacally look around for answers, or immediate closures for that matter. Maybe the answers will come to us one day, maybe they won’t. To my mind this first rule is the most difficult one to follow:

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the Questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Resolve to be always beginning — to be a beginner!

#2 Of love’s labour

In what may as well be the foremost rule of love, Rilke makes it quite plain that loving is a difficult job and relationships are basically messy. Loving is most challenging because it involves vulnerability, which is an ultimate act of bravery. It requires us to devote ourselves completely to the slow, patient and persistent work of building and rebuilding love.

There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another. That it is work, day labor, day labor, God knows there is no other word for it. And look, added to this is the fact that young people are not prepared for such difficult loving; for convention has tried to make this most complicated and ultimate relationship into something easy and frivolous, has given it the appearance of everyone’s being able to do it. It is not so. Love is something difficult and it is more difficult than other things because in other conflicts nature herself enjoins men to collect themselves, to take themselves firmly in hand with all their strength. While in the heightening of love the impulse is to give oneself wholly away.

The poet reminds us of the virtue of love’s labour and the sweetness that it can bring to our lives. Not only should we rise to each occasion in holding and supporting our loved ones, we also need to figure out how our loved ones want to be loved every day. We could ask them directly, if not intuit, what kind of care and attention they need. While our love need to be expressed though our presence, attention, affection, gestures, service as well as words, like any skill, the sincere job of loving involves daily and thorough practice. Let us, then, keep no room for frivolity and lethargy in doing this work.

To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this it is what young people need.  Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work.

#3 Of love and individualism

Love’s main purpose is to teach us to become who we really are. Interpersonal relationships serve as the best opportunity to grow and transform ourselves. This learning, like any other, comes from being in seclusion. And it is a lover’s duty to protect their lover’s solitude. In other words, to stay attached to a lover it is also necessary to learn how and to what degree they must stay detached from them. Rilke writes:

But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is — solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate?); it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake; it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.

#4 Of marriage

Rilke seems to be reflecting upon the questions: Why should we marry at all? and How can we deepen our bonds with our marital partners?

Marriage is, in many respects, a simplification of one’s way of life, and the union naturally combines the forces and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than before. Only, those are sensations by which one cannot live. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness, — a new challenge to and questioning of the strength and generosity of each partner and a great new danger for both.

#5 Of loneliness and togetherness

Rilke examines the idea of “togetherness” that is how we arrange our lives around those with whom we share our lives. He makes us wary of the fact that just by getting married our we do not get cured of our loneliness, nor are our problems eliminated. We will learn, if we have not already, that at every turn we are faced with our own problems, as each one has their own burden to bear. Rilke says, “At bottom no one in life can help anyone else in life; this one experiences over and over in every conflict and every perplexity: that one Is alone. All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes…

While making an existential inquiry into the idea of togetherness Rilke seems to suggest that we need to juxtapose the conflicting ideas of aloneness alongside togetherness and be comfortable in experiencing both by turns. Above all, we must guard each other’s solitude for love and friendship to flourish.

A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This altogether wonderful anthology demands deep and careful reading, as it also serves as a great introduction to a brilliant mind that encourages us to tease out the difficult questions of life, without being in a hurry to settle for easy answers. Love and Difficulty deals with all the major themes of our lives with such elegance and clarity that it can easily be regarded as a guide to lifelong growth and self-transformation.


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