I lit upon this quote on p. 108 in National Geographic's photo book Sublime Nature. Goodreads has it.

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


This quotation comes from a letter to Franz Xaver Kappus:

I feel that there is nowhere a human being who can answer you those questions and feelings which have a life of their own within their depths; for even the best men go astray with words, when these are to express something very gentle and almost unutterable. But I believe nevertheless that you need not be left without some solution, if you hold to things similar to those on which my eyes now take their recreation. If you hold to Nature, to the simplicity that is in her, to the small detail that scarcely one man sees, which can so unexpectedly grow into something great and boundless; if you have this love for insignificant things and seek, simply as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems to be poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory, not perhaps in the understanding, which lags wondering behind, but in your innermost consciousness, wakefulness and knowing. You are so young,† you have not even begun, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one day live right into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke (16th July 1903). Letter to Franz Xaver Kappus. Translated by Reginald Snell (1945). Letters to a Young Poet, pp. 20–21. London: Sigwick and Jackson.

† Kappus (born 1883) was only seven years younger than Rilke.

We don’t have the text of the letter from Kappus which Rilke is answering here, but we can guess that Kappus was asking for advice about his poetry, and that the questions he was asking were difficult and metaphysical, perhaps along the lines of “what philosophy of life should I try to express in my poetry”? Rilke responds that these questions can’t be solved by pure cogitation: instead, one has to find the answers through lived experience. He suggests that Kappus pay attention to small concrete things, such as the details of Nature, in his poetry, instead of abstract concepts. From these small details, he says, you can draw out great works of art, if you pay attention to them.

Rilke’s advice to Kappus here is similar to Goethe’s advice to Eckermann in your other question:

“Only persist in your present view, and hold fast by the present. Each situation—nay, each moment—is of infinite worth; for each represents a whole eternity.”

Johann Peter Eckermann (1836). Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life, p. 62. Translated by Margaret Fuller (1839). Boston: Hilliard, Gray.


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