8/1 Bliitenstrasse, Munich April 1 6, 1897
Dearest, much honored master, when one has a very dark childhood behind one, in which the everyday resembles walking in dank cold streets and a holiday is like a resting in some narrow, gray, inner court, one becomes diffident. And ever more diffident if, at the age of ten, from these troubled and yet enervated days one is deposited in the rough activity of a military institution where, above the longing for love that has scarcely come to consciousness, an icy, wild duty rages away like a winter storm, and where the lonely, helpless heart after unhealthy coddling experiences unreasonable brutality. Then comes the crisis: the child becomes either indifferent or unhappy. I became the latter. A strong disposition toward excessive piety grew to a kind of madness under the influence of the spiritual loneliness and the coercion of an odious duty hard as fate. The blows I often endured from mischievous comrades or coarse superiors I felt as happiness and went in for the idea of a false martyrdom. The continual excitement of this almost ecstatic joy in torment, the passing of the hours of recovery in the institution chapel, the excruciating sleeplessness of nights frantic with dreams all that together was bound finally to exercise a detrimental influence upon my resistless growing organism. After an added inflamma- tion of the lungs, I was sent for six weeks as "highly nervous" (!) to Salzburg for a salt cure. Had I been allowed to leave then! But everybody thought it perfectly natural that, having borne it four years, I should remain for the six to come, which would be better, in order to become a lieutenant and to provide for myself.
In the fifth year of my military training (the fifteenth of my life) I finally forced my departure. Things didn't get much better. They put me in a commercial school in Linz, where I saw a cheerless office future darkening before me. After scarcely a year's time, I tore myself away against everyone's will by an act of violence and have since been accounted a kind of prodigal son.
They wanted to try the last resort. Since in both previous institutions and in my family it was noticed with scorn and uneasiness that I "made poems," they wanted to make college possible for me. At that time it was my father's brother, who played a considerable role in Prague as lawyer and deputy to the assembly of Bohemia, who put in a good word for me and with generous financial assistance made possible the costly private study my father could never have afforded. For that I thank him far beyond the grave. After three years of serious but joyous work I had gone through the entire eight-grade grammar school so well, even after the thoroughly defective preparatory training of the military school, that in the summer of '95 I passed my entrance examination with distinction. Unfortunately my uncle could no longer look upon this success . . . and he probably took with him under the earth the opinion that I would not amount to much. He left no stipulations of any kind in his will save that his daughters, my cousins, should allow me to study up to the entrance examination and, under certain circumstances, the university years.
Now it seems to me that all people do not give alike. And in the two years of my university study I have got the feeling rather strongly that I am a burdensome duty to the two ladies. Much more burdensome to me is the feeling of slavery in such helpless dependence at my age when others may already support their parents. And then: on this road I have no objective at all. For I keep costing more and more money, and if I become a doctor and do not want to pine away as a high-school instructor then I shall be costing money again until I get some professorship or other which, however, I do not in the least desire.
With every day it becomes clearer to me that I was right in setting myself from the start against the phrase my relatives like: Art is something one just cultivates on the side in free hours, when one leaves the government office, etc. That to me is a fearful sentence. I feel that this is my belief: Whoever does not consecrate himself wholly to art with all his wishes and values can never reach the highest goal. He is not an artist at all. And now it can be no presumption if I confess that I feel myself to be an artist, weak and wavering in strength and boldness, yet aware of bright goals, and hence to me every creative activity is serious, glorious, and true. Not as martyrdom do I regard art but as a battle the chosen one has to wage with himself and his environment in order to go forward with a pure heart to the greatest goal, the one day of celebration, and with full hands to give to all successors of the rich reconciliation finally achieved. But that needs a whole man! Not a few weary leisure hours.
I do not know, dearest master, in how far you agree with me and whether you are perhaps wisely smiling at the impetuousness of this youthful resentment; then you will forgive too. Now I am free of the university. The time has come. Dear sir, you yourself once offered to give me help if I needed it. Now then: today I have come to you.
I would like through agreement with a publisher or some steady engagement on a newspaper to earn enough to be able to live soon and well on my own. I would like to spare my cousins their wanting-to-give-gladly and, by grateful renunciation of my monthly allowance, to enable my dear father, who is somewhat ailing, to allow more for his health. I cannot work in peace before that happens. I myself, of course, need little. . . .
Full of profoundest trust I lay this whole avowal in your kind hands and sincerely beg you: counsel me, help me. . . . Be assured that I shall never and nowhere bring discredit upon your recommendation . . . and to you all the gratitude I can prove to you through deeds for a lifetime.
-from The Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 1892-1910 translated by Jane Bannard Greene and H. D. Herter Norton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1945)