A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 24 November 2013


Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my favourite poets, though I suppose some may find him a little too melancholy and introspective. I was fortunate enough to study Rilke under the sensitive aegis of poet, translator and short story writer David Constantine (he is now co-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and a commissioning editor for Carcanet Press) at university many years ago.

Rilke's poetry and other writings deal with solitude, transience, beauty, longing, love, life, death, God, angels, creativity, the created universe and our place in it: all the important things. Rilke struggles for meaning and connection and, in the very act of creating his beautiful, transcendent poems, achieves both.

The following three pieces (two poems and one journal entry) are translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, and can be found in their book A Year with Rilke on the pages headed November 21, November 23 and December 1 respectively.  

Autumn Tree

Oh tall tree of our knowing, shedding its leaves:
It's a matter now of facing the preponderance
of sky appearing through its branches.
Filled by summer, it seemed deep and thick,
filling our minds, too, so comfortably.
Now its whole interior is an avenue of stars.
And the stars do not know us.

Uncollected Poems


Friends can only be compared to dance and music. You cannot approach them intentionally, but only out of some involuntary need.

Friends must be the ends and not the means. Otherwise they can get in the way.

Early Journals

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29


Ruth said...


You make an important point: . . . in the very act of creating his beautiful, transcendent poems, achieves both.

"Autumn Tree" describes in such a small space what has happened as I've aged, losing knowledge, like leaves. And then he takes that empty sky and makes it darkness, then a bell tower. Yesterday I reread his lines about living the questions now, and maybe someday you will live the answer. Take this unknowing, this emptiness, and live it!

I miss the daily readings at AYWR, and the discussions we had with friends! Something shifted for me in that year of 2011. Lucky you to study him at school.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes. That first poem sets a challenge, doesn't it? The older we get, the less we know? Because we're more maturely aware that we know so little, as opposed to the innocent and necessary arrogance of youth? More sky, more emptiness. An emptiness that was there all along, but we weren't always conscious of it. We must live it, the leafed as well as the leafless, the darkness as well as the light, the apparently known as well as the infinitely unknown, in the face of the beautiful but uncaring stars.

George said...

Great insights by Rilke. I'm really moved by the thought that the whole interior of our "tall tree of knowing" is now "an avenue of stars," and "the stars do not know us." I also really enjoyed your comment, Robert, about the humility that comes with the passage of time, the growing recognition that we must live fully with "the leafed as well as the leafless" and the "beautiful but uncaring stars." Some small part of me, however, holds on to the notion that these stars that do not know us, stars that are unconcerned with our individual needs and egos, are still caring in some larger, universal sense — perhaps in the sense of Julian of Norwich's observation that "all shall be well . . . and all manner of things shall be well."

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this excellent comment, George. Yes, I understand what you mean… we are all made up of stardust, after all.

Wendy said...

George, you read Rilke in the German, don't you? Some have criticized Macy's translation for its … liberty, I guess and I wonder what your take on that is. I know, translation=can of worms.

Vagabonde said...

I do not know much of Rilke’s poetry apart from the poems he wrote in French (400 of them I believe.) I heard criticisms that they are not as good as those he wrote in his language, that they are simpler. But then, it certainly is hard to write poetry in another language. I have his French poems; I still like them as they seem a bit mysterious but visual. I like the two verses from this one, I feel the same about what he says there:
Ô nostalgie des lieux
Ô nostalgie des lieux qui n'étaient point
assez aimés à l'heure passagère,
que je voudrais leur rendre de loin
le geste oublié, l'action supplémentaire !

Revenir sur mes pas, refaire doucement
- et cette fois, seul - tel voyage,
rester à la fontaine davantage,
toucher cet arbre, caresser ce banc ...

Wendy said...

oops, I meant to address my comment to you, Robert, but happened be looking over at the other comments where George's name was….

urgh. So, can you re-read my comment in that light? :)

dritanje said...

'now its whole interior is an avenue of stars' and 'move back and forth into the change' and 'be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses' are a few favourite lines here, but glad so glad for all of them. Because reading them I feel this sense of relief, something relaxes, as if it says at last at last, someone is writing this, saying this, that I so much desire to hear, like an answering sound, a response to a call or a question or a longing...
Thank you again solitary walker for posting these words.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I do read German, Wendy. I haven't gone into all the different Rilke translations in detail, but some older ones have read very strangely — particularly those translations which tried to force rhymes in English. Much better to do what Macy and Barrows have done and make the poem sound good, using tricks of assonance etc. to compensate for full rhymes. As for liberties with translation, I think they are pretty faithful, actually. The last poem, 'Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower', pretty accurately reflects the words and the sense of the original German. I really like these Macy and Barrows renderings.

The Solitary Walker said...

Rilke wrote many poems in French, Vagabonde, as you say. This was in the latter period of his life when he lived in Castle Muzot near Sierre in the Valais region of Switzerland. He came to adore this area, and many of his poems reflected his love for its landscape.

My account of visiting the place in Jan 2012 is here: http://solitary-walker.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/rilke-at-muzot.html

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm so glad these poems provoked such a profound response in you, Dritanje!