You Must Change Your Life:
The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2016)
“Travailler, toujours travailler”
“You must work, always work,” were the words of advice Auguste Rodin shared with Rainer Maria Rilke in 1902, days after the struggling young poet arrived in Paris to write an essay on the sculptor. Desperate to figure out how an artist should be, Rilke lived by these words—but it would take until 1914 before he would truly understand their meaning.
In those early years, as Rilke was just beginning to truly know Rodin, he realized almost immediately that the sculptor might be the master from whom he could learn how to truly be an artist. Rodin’s influence upon Rilke is perhaps most vividly captured in Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of Rilke’s own advice to the aspiring poet Franz Kappus, written at the beginning of Rilke’s relationship with Rodin. Passed along a copy of Letters to a Young Poet by her mother just after college graduation, Rachel Corbett’s curiosity about these missives is the starting point of her second book, You Must Change Your Life. What Corbett discovers in her expansive research of the writer and his world is much more than the story of Rilke as a young man serving as the personal secretary and confidante to Rodin. Laced with first- and second-hand accounts of the artists and their milieu, You Must Change Your Life is an examination of the gritty how and why of artistic creation, as well as an acknowledgement of the costs of such a life.
With Rodin as master and Rilke as student, Corbett traces the origins of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet—written between 1902 and 1908—to long conversations between the two in which, as she describes it, “Rodin enjoyed coining new metaphors for his disciple and Rilke dutifully scribbled them down, like a pigeon pecking up bread crumbs.” Thirty-five years Rilke’s senior, Rodin had been denied admittance to the country’s École des Beaux Arts and was forced, therefore, to make his way mostly outside of the salon establishment. In Corbett’s estimation, Rodin’s stern disposition is an understandable response to the criticism and rejection of his work.
To understand the poet, Corbett digs into his insecurities, finding explanations for his actions and words in the life lessons offered by the sculptor. For instance, shortly after Rilke’s arrival, Rodin invited the poet to live with him at his estate in Meudon, outside of Paris. To the sculptor, the bucolic home recalled the “untroubled happiness of childhood,” but to Rilke it was dirty and cramped—an embodiment of the deprivation necessary to being an artist. “It was not enough to make work, the word he [Rodin] preferred to ‘art;’ one had to live it,” Corbett writes of Rodin’s lessons to Rilke. “That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting from the pursuit.” (In fact, Rilke left his wife and infant daughter in Germany to move to Paris.)
During these years in which the poet lived and worked as Rodin’s protégé, Rilke received his first letter from Franz Kappus, a young writer, seeking advice on the very themes Rilke himself was hoping to learn from Rodin. Rilke embraced this opportunity to mentor Kappus, telling the young man to turn inward to discover if he truly must write, and advising that only if he would otherwise die, should he continue. When, in their final exchange in 1908, the younger man shares that he has chosen a military path over the life of a poet, Rilke responds by saying that “art too is only a way of living” and that a military life is better than “unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend proximity to some art, in practice belie and assail the existence of all art, as for instance the whole of journalism does and almost all criticism and three-quarters of what is called and wants to be called literature.”
Rilke was barely thirty-five years old when he wrote his final letter to Kappus. Six years later, in 1914, Corbett writes that Rilke had grown “repelled” by the “sight of Rodin’s graceless aging,” and finally realized what he had misunderstood about Rodin’s life and his teachings. While Rilke had followed Rodin’s advice in choosing art over life, Corbett writes that, “Rilke realized that Rodin had not made any of the sacrifices that he, Rilke, had. He was no martyr for his art. How did he live? Full of pleasure, and exactly as he pleased, it turned out.”
We cannot know what Rilke would have written to Kappus had their correspondence continued, but Corbett’s interpretation is perhaps more lasting:
The best any master could do was encourage their pupil and hope they find satisfaction in the work itself. In art, Rilke had started to realize, there was never anything waiting on the other side: There was no god, no secret revealed, and in most cases no reward. There was only the doing.
SARA ROFFINO is a writer and graduate student in art history.