Hermann Hesse: On talent and vocation

All these virtues […] are the hallmarks of the true human being per se, of the un-enslaved, unmechanised man, of the reverent and responsible human being, no matter what his profession.“  

Hermann Hesse’s brilliant and sensible presentation - in the form of a letter- of the relation between talent and vocation is a timely message for today’s artists. I’ve been fortunate to have access to his book of essays entitled  My Belief: Essays on Life and Art which is not easy to get hold of as it hasn’t been published many times in English. His essay Letter to a young poet gives a deep insight into what is required to become an artist. You can read below the synopsis of the message it conveyed to me.

Letter to a young poet (1910)

         […] You present me with your poetic efforts and request me to read them and tell you what I think of your talent. You ask for severe judgement and candid appraisal, flattery will be of no use to you. Simply put, your question is: am I a poet? Am I talented enough to be entitled to publish poems and, if possible, to make writing my calling? I would like nothing better than to be able to give a simple answer to this simple question, but that is not possible. […] Whether you have talent, can of course be made out, but talent is no rarity, the world is teeming with talent. […]  

        At best I will be able to discover traces of your experiences and attempt to form a picture of your character. More is not possible, and whoever promises on the basis of your early efforts to appraise your literary talent or your hopes for a poetic career is a highly superficial character, if not a swindler. […] No, the judgement of your talent is not as simple as you think. […] But the matter has another side to which we should devote a moment’s attention. Why do you want to be a poet? If it is from ambition for fame, then you have chosen a poor field: the German of today doesn’t care very much about poets and get along quite well without them. It is the same with making money: if you were to become the most famous poet in Germany, you would, in comparison with a director or an assistant manager of a stocking or a needle factory, be a little better than a beggar.

         But perhaps you have hit upon the ideal of being a poet because you see a poet as an original, a perceptive and a pious man, pure in heart, with delicate sensibilities and an exalted emotional life, a man who is capable of awe, who yearns for an inspired, in some way ennobled existence. Perhaps you see the poet as the opposite pole to the moneyman, to the man of power. Perhaps you strive for a poet’s career not on account of the verses or fame but because you feel that the poet only seems to enjoy a certain freedom and isolation but actually is responsible in the highest degree, and must dedicate himself totally if his poetic vocation is not to be a masquarade. If this is so, then you’re following the right road with your verses. But in that case too it is of no consequence whether in time you become a poet or not. For these high qualities, tasks, and goals which ascribe to the poet, that loyalty to himself, that awe in the face of nature, that acceptance of unusual self-sacrifice, that responsibility which is never satisfied with itself and gladly pays the price of sleepless nights for a successful sentence, a well-turned phrase - all these virtues (if we may call them so) are the hallmarks of the true human being per se, of the un-enslaved, unmechanised man, of the reverent and responsible human being, no matter what his profession

            Now if you have this ideal of a human being, if you are not inspired by a desire for notoriety and fame, money and power, but rather desire a life entered in itself and unshakable by worldly influences, then, to be sure, you are not yet a poet, but you are the poet’s brother, you belong to the same species. And then too there is profound meaning in the fact that you write poetry. […]

           To follow the way of the poet, not simply to practice the use of language but to learn to know oneself more profoundly and more accurately, to advance one’s individual development farther and higher than the average of mankind succeeds in doing, through setting down unique and wholly personal psychic experiences, to see better one’s own powers and dangers, to define them better - that is what writing poetry means to the young poet, long before the question may be raised as to whether his poems perhaps have some value for the world at large.

Rising sun. kingdom of lead/oil on canvas/122x91cm

Notes from the attic is exactly what it says. I’m living in a tiny attic, the place of the creative joy and struggle of my life. These blog notes are timely fragments of the books that make me wonder about life, about the journey between my birth and death. This journey seems to have only one purpose: to find the way to myself. You are welcome to explore my paintings on this website  and connect with me through instagram or facebook, or you can subscribe to my monthly newsletter to hear about new works or notes from the attic.

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