RAINER MARIA RILKE:
SONNET TO ORPHEUS #9
Only who sat among shades
Sounding the zither
Will find that the infinite praise
Is his to deliver.
Only who ate with the dead
Of the poppies they brought him
Will never release from his head
The tones that they taught him.
And oft though the face in the pond
Moves and is sundered,
Remember the form.
Not till the land of two lands
Shall voices be rendered
Deathless and warm.
THE EPITAPH OF ÆSCHYLUS
Æschylus son of Euphorion lies here, a true son of Athens.
Sicily’s flame-gold wheat
circles his grave with its fire.
Go ask the plains of Marathon what kind of courage he showed there.
Go ask the long-haired Mede:
he would remember the name.
THE FOX AND THE FARMER
The fox was breathing the forest air.
The farmer sent him a letter there.
“Please do come by! All is forgiven;
There is no need for getting even.
The cock, the hens and all the geese
Will greet you with the kiss of peace.
And so: when should we have the party?
Yours in true friendship,
The fox wrote back in goose’s blood:
“Doesn’t look good:
My wife just had another brood!
I send, as always, my highest regard.
Your friend in the cave,
RAINER MARIA RILKE: AUTUMN DAY
Lord: it is time. The summer has been large.
Lay down across the sundialface thy shadow,
And on the meadow set the winds at large.
Command the fruit be heavy on the vine;
Give them two southern-winded days of leisure;
Propel them to complete themselves; and pressure
The final sweetness in the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, goes without.
Whoever lacks a friend, will long be lacking,
Will spend his time in writing, reading, waking,
And through the tree-lined avenues in and out
Restlessly wandering, when the leaves are flaking.
HUGO VON HOFMANNSTHAL: BALLAD OF OUTWARD LIFE
And children grow, they grow with eyes as deep
As ignorance, grow old and die forgotten;
And every man goes onward on his way.
And bitter fruits cling to the vine and sweeten,
And fall to earth by night like perished birds,
And lie upon the ground and spoil uneaten.
And still the wind is blowing, and again
We notice it, and make a deal of words,
And feel the pleasure in our limbs, and pain.
And roads run through the grass, and there are places,
One here, one there, with lamps and trees and rivers,
And dangerspots…and ghosts, with covered traces…
What purpose are they built for? these that never,
As many as they are, turn out the same,
While laughter, tears, and death change off forever.
What does it profit us? this children’s game,
For us, the ever great and lonely ones,
Who roam but for the roaming, with no aim,
Nor count the points we round to head for home.
And still, how much is said when we say Evening,
A word from which deep thought and sadness runs
Like viscous honey from the hollow comb.
PAUL VERLAINE: CLAIR DE LUNE
Your soul is an elaborate estate
Peopled with strolling harlequins and jesters
Plucking the lute and capering and yet
Somber somehow beneath their motley vestures.
For even as they chant in minor keys
Of love triumphant and life opportune,
Their own good fortune leaves them ill at ease,
Until their song is mingled with the moon,
Is mingled with the moonlight white and solemn
That brings a dream to birds on shady limbs
And puts a tremble in the water-columns,
The slender columns high above marble rims.
STEFAN GEORGE: COME TO THE PARK THEY LEFT FOR DEAD
Come to the park they left for dead, and look:
The shimmer of the distant smiling beaches,
Bright clouds, and the unhoped-for blue that reaches
Above the flowered pathways and the brooks.
Come take the tender silver and deep gold
From birch tree and from beech. It is not cold.
A few late roses have not withered yet.
Take them, and as you wind the coronet,
Take too these asters, blooming at year’s bottom,
The purple round the tendrils of wild vine.
And what remained of living green, entwine
Delicately around the face of autumn.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: EVENING
The evening pauses for a change of vesture,
Which trees hold ready in their patient hands;
You watch, and see the lands in their departure,
A land ascending, and a falling land;
Which leave you there, in neither land quite resting,
Less darksome than the house benumbed in time,
Less able to conjure the everlasting
Than that which turns to star each night and climbs—
And leave to you, entangled and bizarre,
Your life, foreboding and immense and rising,
A thing that, now confined and now comprising,
Reverberates as stone in you and star.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: LAMENT
How everything is far
and lost and gone.
I think the star
whose brightness I welcome in
has been extinct for an age.
I think, in the barge
that passed, a voice was afraid.
Back in the house a clock
But in what house?…
If I could only get out
of my heart and under the wide sky.
If I could pray.
Surely of all the stars, one
must still be there.
I think I’d know
which one alone
has lasted through; which one
at the beam’s end in heaven stands like a silver town.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: LOVESONG
How should I keep my soul in bounds, that it
May not graze against yours? How should I raise
It over you to other things above it?
Ah, if I only knew of someplace lost
That lies in darkness, I would gladly leave it
There in a strange and silent place, somewhere
Where all your depths may swing, and will not move it.
But all the things that touch us, me and you,
Take us together like a stroking bow
As from two strings it draws one voice along.
Upon what instrument have we been spanned?
And who the fiddler has us in his hand?
O sweet the song.
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE: MEDITATION
Be good now, O my Grief, and hold your grieving down.
You called for Evening, and already it descends,
And, in the thick obscurity that cloaks the town,
Brings peace to some, to others fear and troubled minds.
Now while the multitude of mortals with no name,
Whipped on by Pleasure, that relentless overseer,
Goes harvesting remorse in fertile fields of shame,
O my poor Grief, give me your hand, come over here,
Away. Look round the sky, how the departed Years
Lean over balconies in robes of yesteryear;
See from the deepest waves smiling Regret emerge;
See the old Sun asprawl beneath a tattered sky;
And, like a shroud trailing beyond the Eastern verge,
Oh hear, my sister, hear the gentle Night draw nigh.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: PONT DU CARROUSEL
The sightless man upon the bridge who stands,
Gray like the boundarystone of nameless ranges,
He is perhaps the thing, that never changes,
Round which the mainspring of the heavens winds,
The distant planets’ center of repose.
For all around him runs and bumps and goes.
He is the upright sentry at his station,
Set down in many paths perplexed and whorled,
The darkling entry to the underworld
Amidst a surface-loving generation.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: REQUIEM FOR A WOMAN
This poem is a tribute to the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, with whom Rilke carried on a platonic but emotionally intense relationship starting in 1900 and ending with her death in childbirth in 1907. In her lifetime Modersohn-Becker was known more as the wife of painter Otto Modersohn than as a painter in her own right. Today she is viewed as a major innovator in German Expressionist art, while her husband’s work is regarded as competent and conventional.
The conflict between being her own person and being her husband’s wife continued throughout Modersohn-Becker’s career; she tried hard to be both at once. There were trips to Paris to soak up the latest art and trips to Berlin to attend cooking classes. At the end of her life she was preparing for the role of mother, a role she did not live to play.
Rilke, like many of Modersohn-Becker’s associates, was slow to recognize the caliber of her talent. In this poem he renders an anguished and belated appreciation of the depth of her singular artistry.
I have my dead ones, and I let them go
And was amazed to see them so consoled,
So soon at home in being dead, so just,
Unlike their reputation. Only you
Return; you graze me, walking round, about
To bump something and make a sound of you,
Betraying you. Oh do not take from me
What I have learned so slowly. You are wrong
If anything at all can move you so
To homesickness. For we transform these things:
They are not here, but mirrored in to us
From out our being, as we catch sight of them.
I thought you were much farther. It confuses me
That of all people, you should wander back,
Who transformed more than any other woman.
That we were frightened when you died, no, that
Your powerful dying darkly interrupted us,
Cutting the Formerly off from the Henceforth,
Is our concern, and to encompass that
Will be the work that we must do with everything.
But that you were afeared and even now
Harbor the fear, where fear is meaningless;
That you should lose a piece of your eternity;
That you should enter here again, friend, here,
Where nothing yet quite is; that you, confused,
In your first everything, confused and halfway,
Faced with the opening of the endless natures
Could fail to grasp them as you would grasp anything;
That from the circulation that received you,
The wordless sinker of some great unrest
Should pull you down again to counted time—
That wakes me like a burglar in the night.
If I could say you only deign to come
Out of the greatness of your heart’s abundance,
Because you are so certain of yourself
That you walk round, a child not yet afraid
Of places where they’ll do something to you—
But no: you plead. That is what chills my bones,
Pulling at them like sawteeth back and forth.
A grim reproach brought to me by your ghost,
Brought home to me at night, when I draw back
Into my lungs and into my intestines,
Into the last poor chamber of my heart,
Such a reproach would not be as macabre
As this, your pleading. What are you pleading for?
Speak: should I travel? Is there anywhere
A thing you left behind that is tormented
And straining after you? Should I explore
A land you never saw, although it was
As close as your brain’s other half to you?
Then I will navigate its rivers, I
Will go on land and ask of ancient customs,
And I will speak with women in the doorways,
Observing how they call their children to them.
I’ll notice how they take the landscape in
Around them as they go to the old work
Of fields and meadows; will desire that I
Be led into the presence of the king,
And will pay off the priests sufficiently
To set me down before the strongest icon
And go away and close the temple doors.
And finally, when I know these many things,
Then I will simply watch the animals,
That something of their movements may transpire
Into my joints; will have a short existence
There in their eyes, that hold me and then slowly
Let go, peaceably, without prejudice.
I then will cause the gardeners to recite
Long lists of flowers, so that in the shards
Of their fine Christian names I may bring back
Some trace of all their hundred fragrances.
And I will buy its fruits, its fruits that have
The land inside, as far up as the sky.
For that was your department: ripened fruits.
You used to put them in the pans before you
And weigh them out upon a scale of colors.
And as you saw the fruits, so you saw women,
And saw the children so, from inside out
Driven into the forms of their existence.
Finally you came to see yourself as fruit;
You peeled yourself of clothes and set yourself
Before the mirror, eased yourself on in,
All but your looking, which remained outside
And did not say I am but said This is.
So void of curiosity was your looking,
So stripped of gain, of such true poverty,
It no longer desired you even: holy.
I’d like to keep you where you used to put
Yourself: deep in the mirror, far away
From everything. Why do you come so differently?
Why do you contradict yourself? Why do
You try to make me think that in those beads
Of amber round your neck there was still gravity,
The kind of gravity that does not exist
In the beyond of peaceful images?
Why does your posture show me your misgiving?
What makes you lay your body’s contours out
Like lines upon your palm, so that henceforth,
Seeing them, I must read your fate in them?
Come in the candlelight. I do not fear
To look upon the dead. For when they come,
They have the right to stand there for a moment
Before our eyes, the same as other things.
Come here: we will be still a little while.
Look at this rose upon my writing-desk:
Is not the light round it just as reluctant
As that round you? It should not be here either.
Out in the garden, unconfused with me,
It should have stayed or perished, but instead
It’s here: what does it care about my consciousness?
Don’t be afraid if now I grasp, for oh,
I feel it rise in me, I cannot help it,
I have to grasp, and though it meant my death,
To grasp that you are here. There, I have grasped it.
Just as a blind man grasps something around him,
I feel your plight and know no name for it.
Come let us mourn together that someone
Pulled you out of your mirror. Can you cry still?
You can’t. The strength and pressure of your tears
Is changed now to a riper looking-on.
You were about to channel all your sap
Into the currents of a stronger being
That rises up and flows, balanced and blind—
Had chance not pulled you back, ultimate chance
That pulled you from your farthermost advancement
Into a world again where the blood wills.
Not all at once; only a piece at first;
But as from day to day around this piece
The realness added on and made it heavy,
You needed all of you: and so you went
And broke yourself out of the law in pieces
Painstakingly, because you needed you.
Then you went down and dug out of your heart’s
Nocturnal earth and warmth the still-green seeds
From which your death was meant to sprout: your own,
Your special death, the death of all your life,
And ate them then and there, your seeds of death,
Ate the death-seed like any other seed,
And had an aftertaste of sweetness in you,
All unintended, sweetness on the lips,
You: who were sweet already in your senses.
Oh let us mourn. Do you know how your blood,
Caught up in a circulation like no other,
Reluctantly came back because you called it?
With what confusion it took up again
The body’s smaller circulation, and
With what amazed distrust entered the womb,
Suddenly weary from the long way back.
You drove it on; you pushed it to the fore,
You dragged it toward the furnace, as one drags
A herd of victims to the sacrifice,
And asked it to be happy in the bargain.
And finally you compelled it: it came running
And gave itself up happily. You thought,
Being accustomed to the other measures,
That it was only for a while; except
Now you were back in time, and time is long.
And time goes on, and time adds up, and time
Is like the relapse of a chronic sickness.
How short your life was in comparison
With these long hours where you sat before
The many energies of your great future
And calmly bent them down to the new child-seed,
Which was a fate once more. Oh bitter labor,
Labor beyond all strength. And yet you did it.
Day after day you dragged yourself to work
And pulled the lovely weaving from the loom
And used your threads again a different way—
And finally put good face on your bad fortune.
When it was done, you wanted your reward
Like children when they’ve drunk bittersweet tea
That hopefully will make them well again.
You found your own reward; you were too distant,
As always, from all others for another
To have imagined what reward would please you.
But you knew, and you sat up in your childbed.
And there before you was a looking-glass
That gave you back yourself completely. Now
That was all you, all out there, and inside
Only the sweet deceit of every woman
Who puts on jewels and combs and styles her hair.
And so you died, as women used to die,
Old-fashioned dying in a cozy house,
The death of women in their childbearing
Who try to close themselves again and can’t
Because the darkness that they also bore
Comes back again and forces its way in.
But even so, shouldn’t someone have hired
Some wailing-women? Women who weep for money,
And who, if you pay them right, will start a wail
At any hour of the night that grows too still.
More customs, please! We’re running short on customs.
Everything goes and falls into disuse.
So you, the dead one, must come here to me
To get your mourning. Do you hear me mourn?
I wish my voice could be a cloth for you,
To drape across the fragments of your death;
I’d rip at it until it was in shreds,
And everything I say would have to go
Ragged and freezing in this voice—if just
Complaints were needed. But now I accuse:
Not the one man who pulled you out of yourself
(I cannot find him out; he’s like the others),
But I accuse them all in him: the Man.
If there should rise from deep within me somewhere
A child-that-has-been, something yet unknown,
Perhaps the purest childhood of my childhood,
I do not want to know of it. I’ll take it
And shape it into an angel without looking,
And I will throw it into the first row
Of screaming angels that remind the Lord.
For all this suffering has gone on too long.
No one can keep it up; it is too hard for us,
The crazy suffering of an unjust love,
That, building on seniority and habit,
Claims rights and lets injustice grow like weeds.
Where is the man who has the right to own?
And who can own what does not keep itself
But only sometimes makes a happy catch
And throws it back again like a child’s ball.
As little as the captain can hold fast
To winged Victory figured on his bow
When, by the secret lightness of her godhead,
She is whisked off into the sparkling sea-wind:
So little can we call out to the woman
Who does not see us any more but walks
Miraculously, without accident,
On down the narrow strip of her existence—
Unless we have a taste for what is wrong.
For that is wrong, if anything is wrong:
Not to increase the freedom of a loved one
By all the freedom that you find in you.
And everywhere we love, we have but this:
To let each other go; since holding on
Is easy, and we don’t have to learn it first.
Are you still there? What corner are you in?
You used to know so much of everything,
Could do so many things, as you walked out
Open to everything like breaking day.
Women suffer, true lovers are alone,
And artists at their labors sometimes sense
That everywhere they love, they must work change.
You started to do both; both are in that
Which fame distorts in taking it away.
But you were distant from all fame. You were
Inconspicuous, having softly taken
Your beauty in, as one takes down a pennant
On the gray morning of a working day.
You wanted nothing but a lifetime’s work,
Which is undone for all that, still undone.
If you are still there, if within this darkness
There still is any spot in which your spirit
Vibrates in sympathy with the shallow soundwaves
Which, lonely in the night, a single voice
Stirs up in the currents of a high-walled room,
Then hear me: help me. See, we are afloat,
Not knowing when we’ll slide out of our progress
And into something we don’t mean, in which
We get ourselves caught up as in a dream
And die in it and never do wake up.
No one is wiser. Anyone who puts
His blood into a lifelong work can find
One day he just can’t keep holding it up there
And so its worthless poundage drags it down:
Because there is an ancient enmity,
Somewhere, between man’s life and his great works.
That I may see it and may say it, help me.
Come back no more. If you can bear it, be
Dead with the dead. The dead are occupied.
Help me so that it does not scatter you,
As things most distant often help: in me
RAINER MARIA RILKE: THE ROMAN FOUNTAIN AT BORGHESE
Two basins, one the other half concealing,
Rising from old and rounded marble bands,
And from the topmost water gently kneeling
To meet the lower water where it stands,
Hearing its soft words dumbly, and revealing,
In secrecy, as if from hollow hands,
Behind the green and darkness, heaven’s ceiling,
Like some as yet unnoticed circumstance;
Itself at peace, and in the lovely basin
Spreading without nostalgia, loops from loops,
Where now and then, and dreamingly, the drops
Lower themselves along the mossy trimmings
To the last looking-glass, whose basin sleeps
And smiles from underneath with overbrimmings.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: From SONGS OF YOUNG GIRLS
Young girls sing:
The time of which our mothers told,
It never reached inside the fold
Where we lay sleeping, smooth and clear.
They say to us that they were felled
By thunderstorms, one stormy year.
What is a storm? We cannot say.
Deep in our tower tucked away
We have to listen from afar
To hear the forest sigh.
One night there was a strange star
That passed by.
And in the garden where we sing,
We tremble, feeling it begin;
Each day we are on guard—
But nowhere is there any wind
To bend us hard.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: THE FLAMINGOS
In mirror images like Fragonard’s
Is nothing of their redness nor their whiteness
Beyond what could be given in a likeness,
Saying about a lovely girl: She was
Still soft with sleep. For if, amid the planting,
On coral stems adroitly pivoted,
They stand in clumps, like blossoms in a bed,
They court themselves with courtship more enchanting
Than Phryne’s: till their necks reflex to harbor
Their pale eyes in their own sweet feather-arbor,
Where black and apple-red in hiding lies.
A sudden envy shrieks through the partition;
They, having stretched themselves in arch surprise,
Go stalking off into sheer supposition.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: THE GAZELLE
Enchanted creature, how can words aspire,
Though paired in tune, to learn the rhyming spells
That come and go in you like signal-bells?
From out your forehead rises leaf and lyre;
A likeness sends your qualities aloft
In songs of love, in which the lyrics, soft
As roseleaves, settle on the hand that puts
A volume down, and on the eye that shuts
To look at you: transported, so to speak,
As if the legs were charged with ammunition,
Kept back for now from springing while the neck
Holds up the head to hear—in such a fashion
As when the woodland bather halts in place,
The forest lake in her averted face.
WILHELM BUSCH: THE HUMORIST
Stuck fast in birdlime on his tree,
The bird flaps hard, but can’t get free.
A big black cat comes creeping low;
His claws are sharp, his eyes aglow.
On up the tree and ever higher,
The murderous beast approaches nigher.
The bird thinks: “Well, since that is that—
I must be eaten by the cat—
I will not let a moment go,
I’ll practice all the trills I know
And whistle merrily, undeterred.”
I call that humor in a bird.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: THE LAST SUPPER
They sit assembled, credulous and furtive,
With him who like a sage is closed in thought,
Who takes himself from these whom he was part of,
And flows beyond their heads, and knows them not.
He feels the coming-on of loneliness,
In which his deep necessity was nourished;
Now he will wander in the olive forest;
Who love him most, will flee him in distress.
He asked to eat with them before he leaves;
And, as a bullet scatters birds from sheaves
Of grain, he scatters their fingers from the loaves
With this, his word. They crumple at his knee;
They flutter vaguely through the hall, intending
To find a window or a door. But he
Is all around them, like the dusk descending.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: THE LONELINESS
The loneliness is like a rain.
It rises toward the evening from the main.
Up from the surfaces of distant plains
It gains the sky, its home. And only down
From out the sky it falls upon the town.
It drizzles downward in the halfway watches
When all the alleys turn and head for morning;
And when, no wiser for their one-night matches,
The bodies part, and set about returning;
And when the ones with hatred in them burning
Must share their bed, and cannot share their dreams:
Then loneliness down rivers and streams…
RAINER MARIA RILKE: THE PANTHER
His gaze, from the revolving bars that bound him,
Has grown so weary that it will not hold,
As if there were a thousand bars around him,
And then behind the thousand bars no world.
The supple steps, here hardened and here softened,
Turned round upon each other like a spring,
Suggest a dance of strength around a deafened
Will, fixed in the center of the ring.
At random points of time the pupil’s valance
Goes softly up: A picture hits the eyes,
Goes through the members in their tightened silence,
And reaches to the heart and dies.
LEONIDAS TARANTINOU: THE TOMBSTONE OF TELLEN
I am the tombstone of Tellen, the old man is buried beneath me.
He used to write funny songs
back when nobody knew how.