Rainer Maria Rilke
(1875 - 1926) - born in Prague, the son of German speaking parents,
was probably the most influential 20th Century German
poet. He attended military schools from 1886-1891, and at one
time sold his early poems on the streets of Prague. He went to Paris
in the early 1900's and became the secretary to Rodin. His later life
was spent traveling all over Europe as the guest of many influential people
and admirers. His style underwent an important change prior the the
First World War after suffering a personal crisis. His most famous
works are The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. He spent his last
years at Muzot in Switzerland and died of leukemia in 1926.
Whoever you are: in the evening step outside
your room, in which you know everything;
your house is the last thing before the distance:
whoever you are.
With your eyes, which wearily
free themselves of the worn threshold,
you slowly lift a black tree
and place it before the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world. And it is large
and like a word that ripens in silence.
And like your will that understands the sense of it,
your eyes tenderly let it go…
They all have weary mouths
and bright souls without seam.
And a longing (as after sin)
sometimes enters their dreams.
Nearly all of them resemble each other;
in God’s gardens they keep silent,
like many, many intervals
in his might and melody.
Only when they spread their wings
are they wakers of wind;
as if God went with his wide
sculptor’s hands through the pages
of the dark book of the beginning.
From a Childhood
The darkening filled the room like riches
where the boy sat hiding.
And when the mother entered as if in a dream,
a glass quivered in the silent cabinet.
She felt how the room had given her away,
and kissed her boy: are you here?…
Then both looked anxiously toward the piano,
for many an evening she would play a song
in which the child was strangely and deeply caught.
He sat very quietly. His big gaze hung
on her hands, which were bent with rings
as if they were wading through heavy snowdrifts
as they went over the white keys.
I want to be one of those
who drive wild horses through the night
with torches that blow like loose hair
in the great wind of their chasing.
I want to stand in front as if in a small boat,
and unfurl like a large flag,
Dark, but with a helmet of gold,
that shines worriedly. And in a row behind me
ten men emerge from the same darkness
with helmets as unstable as mine,
now clear as glass, now dark, old and blind.
And one stands beside me and blasts us
with the trumpet, which flashes and cries,
and blasts us a black solitude
through which we race like a rapid dream:
behind us the houses fall to their knees,
the streets bend to meet us,
the squares give way: we take hold of them
with our horses rushing in like rain.
The Last Supper
They are gathered, astonished, distraught,
around him who like a sage is resolved to his end
and takes himself away from those he belonged to,
and who flows past them strangely.
The old loneliness overcomes him,
that raised him to perform his deep acts;
now he will again wander through the olive grove,
and those whom he loves will flee before him.
He has summoned them to the last supper
and (as a shot scatters birds out of the sheaves)
he shoos their hands away from the bread
with his word: they fly to him;
they flutter anxiously about the round table
and search for an exit. But he
is everywhere like a dawning.
Strange violin, do you follow me?
In how many cities already
has your lonely night spoken to mine?
Do hundreds play you? Or just one?
Are there in all great cities
those who without you
would have already thrown themselves in the river?
And why does it always find me?
Why am I always neighbor to those
I’m worried feel compelled to sing
and say: life is heavier
than the heaviest of all things?
O, how distant is everything
and long past.
I believe the star
from which I receive light
has been dead for thousands of years.
I believe in the boat
that passed over,
I heard something fearful said.
In the house a clock
In which house?
I would like to step from my heart
under the great sky.
I would like to pray.
And one of all the stars
must be really still.
I believe I would know
which one alone
which like a white city
stands at the end of a beam in the heavens…
Lord: it is time. The summer was enormous.
Lay your shadow on the sundial,
and let the wind loose on the meadows.
Command the last fruits to be full;
give them still two more southern days,
urge them to completion and drive
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, cannot build one.
Whoever is alone now, will remain alone,
will wake, read, write long letters,
and wander up and down the avenues,
restlessly, when the leaves are blowing.
The leaves are falling, falling from afar,
as if a distant garden wilted in the sky;
they fall with denying gestures.
And at night the heavy earth falls
from all the stars into its loneliness.
We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.
And, still, there is one who holds this falling
infinitely gentle in his hands.
Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Passing by the metal bars, his vision
grows so weary it doesn’t hold anymore.
To him there are a thousand bars
and behind those thousand bars no world.
The guided gait of strong, flexible strides
turning in the smallest of circles
is like a dance of strength around a center
where his great will now stands numb.
Only sometimes the curtain of his eye
lifts soundlessly—. Then an image enters,
goes through the strained silence of the limbs—
and when it reaches the heart dies.
Simply she stands on the cathedral’s
great ascent, near the rose window,
with the apple in the apple-pose,
guiltless-guilty once and for all
for the growing which she gave birth to,
since lovingly she left the circle
of eternity, to struggle her way
about the earth, like a child.
O, she would have gladly lingered
in that country a little longer, heeding
the harmony and understanding of the animals.
But since she found the man determined,
she went with him, striving after death;
and still she had hardly known God.
Now my misery becomes full, and nameless
it fills me. I am stark as the stone’s
insides are stark.
Hard as I am, I only know one thing:
… and grew,
in order to withstand
this great pain
completely beyond my heart’s grasp.
Now you lie straight across my lap,
now I can no longer
give you birth.
Sonnets to Orpheus/I
There a tree rises. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was silent. But even in that concealment
a new beginning, hint and metamorphosis preceded.
Animals of silence penetrate the clear
unfixed forests from dens and nests;
and it was apparent their inner silence
arose not from cunning or fear,
but out of listening. Roar, cry, and growl
seemed small in their hearts. And where
hardly a hut existed to receive this,
a shelter built from their darkest desire
with an entrance of trembling timber,—
there you created for them temples in hearing.
Sonnets to Orpheus/I
And barely yet a girl, and stepped forth
from this united fortune of song and lyre
and shone clear through her veil of spring
and made herself a bed in my ear.
And slept in me. And everything became her sleep.
The trees, which I always marveled at, this
tangible distance, the sensed meadow
and every amazement which filled me with awe.
She slept the world. Singing god, how did
you perfect her so that she did not first desire
to be awake? See, she arose and slept.
Where is her death? O, will you invent
this motif further before your songs are consumed.
Where does she sink to from me?… barely yet a girl …
Sonnets to Orpheus/I
A god can do it. But, tell me, how can
a man follow him through the narrow lyre?
His mind is forked. At the junction of two
heart arteries stands no temple for Apollo.
Singing, as he taught you, is not desire,
not promotion of another achievement.
Singing is being. For a god it is easy.
But when do we exist? And when does he
rotate the earth and stars on our being?
It is nothing, young man, that you love, though
your mouth is pushed open by your voice,-- learn
to forget that you sing out. It trickles away.
True singing is a different kind of breath.
A breath around nothing. A breeze in god. A wind.
Sonnets to Orpheus/I
O you tender ones, step at times
into the breath that is not meant for you;
let it part at your checks,
behind you it trembles, then joins again.
O you blessed ones, o you who are healed,
you who seem to be the beginning of hearts.
Bows of arrows and the arrow’s targets,
perpetually your tear-stained smile glistens.
Don’t be afraid of suffering, the weight,
give it back to the earth to lift:
the mountains are heavy, so are the seas.
Even as children you planted trees
that before long became too heavy; you don’t deceive them.
But the breezes… but the spaces….
Sonnets to Orpheus/I
Erect no memorial stone. Only leave the rose
to bloom each year to remind us of him.
Because it’s Orpheus. His metamorphosis
is in this, and this. No other name
should trouble us. Once and for all
it’s Orpheus when there’s song. He comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough that now and then he can
outlive the bowl of roses a few days?
O how he must fade away so that you understand!
Even though he too was afraid of fading away.
By his word the moment is transcended,
he is already there, where you can’t accompany.
The lyre’s lattice does not coerce the hands,
And he obeys, even as he transcends.
Sonnets to Orpheus/I
Is he a local? No, out of both
realms his vast nature grew.
The expert who would bend willow branches
must first know the root of the willow.
You go to bed, so don’t leave bread and milk
on the table; the dead ones see it—
But he, the conjurer, under
the mildness of the eyelids
mixes her appearance into all looking;
and the magic of earth-smoke and diamond
is as true to him as the clearest reference.
Nothing can worsen the valid image of him.
From graves, from rooms,
he praises finger ring, clasp and jug.
Sonnets to Orpheus/II
Breath, you invisible poem!
Constantly around one’s
Being in a pure exchange of space. Counterbalance,
in which I occur rhythmically.
The only wave, whose
gradual sea I am;
you the sparest of all seas,--
winning the universe.
How many of these regions of space have been
inside me already. Some winds
are like my son.
Do you recognize me, air, you, who once filled my
You, once smooth bark,
curve and leaf of my words.
— Translated from the German by Jim Doss
© James B. Doss
Loch Raven Review Fall 2005 Vol. I, No. 1
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