My college boyfriend introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke. Beauty is only the first touch of terror, he quoted during one of our first conversations, leaving me speechless. I was convinced that he had read my mind; that he had intuited something deeper than I could express as I stumbled through an inarticulate explanation of my junior-year obsession with Blake and the “sublime.” I was more than intrigued. I was dizzy with the rare thrill of feeling implicitly understood. I knew his words were borrowed, but it was all mixed up together in the months that followed – a whirlwind of handwritten letters and a borrowed copy of the Duino Elegies and professions of love. I had never read Rilke before and so I was in awe at the way his beautiful words seemed to expand inside me, making room for new thoughts and carving out places for new feelings.
When the dust settled, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been so much in love with my college boyfriend as with Rilke.
I didn’t read Letters to a Young Poet in college. But, reading it for the first time recently, it still took me right back to junior year, confirming my suspicions. I hadn’t fallen for a boy in my third year American Literature class. I had fallen for a long dead Austrian poet and his ideas of what love should be. The college romance might be a distant memory, but I still hold to Rilke’s singular belief in this exquisite, indomitable vision of love: