Date of Submission

Spring 2020

Academic Program

Foreign Languages, Cultures, and Literature; Literature

Project Advisor 1

Thomas Wild

Abstract/Artist's Statement

In 1929, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was published, a text which quickly became one of his most renowned works. 1932 saw the publication of Virginia Woolf’s “A Letter to a Young Poet,” a text which is not held by critics as one of her best. Yet Woolf’s letter should not be ignored, as it allows for a comparison between herself and Rilke, two modernists who are rarely put into conversation. Though this comparison originates from the surface level—the curious similarity between the titles of these works—I have found that it is their nearness in content that makes reading these texts in conversation meaningful. Writing from the shared context of modernity, both Woolf and Rilke are concerned with what it means to be an artist at a time in which the idea of “subjectivity” was called into question. Each work closely focuses upon the relationship between the writer and the world. As Woolf explains, it is the problem of the poet to “to find the right relationship ... between the self that [they] know and the world outside.” For Rilke, the poet’s solitary inner life is chiefly important because it allows them to examine the outside world with more accuracy and clarity.

The relationship between artist and world is revisited in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, along with the issues of artistic perception, vision, and imagination. Though To the Lighthouse has been called “a work of art about art,” the main focus of Woolf’s novel is the artistic process, not its product. The task of the artist to make “life stand still” is undertaken by Woolf’s fictive painter, Lily Briscoe, as well as Woolf herself: Lily’s difficulty in portraying the ephemerality of the everyday upon her canvas mirrors Woolf’s own endeavor to convey the dynamic artistic process in static prose. If Woolf’s novel focuses on the artistic process, then Rilke’s focuses on the process of becoming an artist. Rilke writes from the perspective of a semi-fictional persona, Malte, an aspiring poet who must “learn to see” the world around him, a world which leaves him terrified. However, Malte knows that his experiences in the world, as well as the memories he has of these experiences, are what will allow him to write good poetry. My comparative reading of these works will reveal the similarities and differences in what these writers believe being an artist under the modern condition entails.

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