Friday, April 05, 2013

Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Rilke
My very first post in 2005 was a notice about Jay Wright; my second offered a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a poet who needs little introduction, one of the most original versifiers in late 19th and early 20th century German-language and European poetry, a poet whose vision into the inner heart of things can often provoke a feeling beyond the limits of astonishment. Every so often I will read a bit of Rilke to disorient my sense of language, beginning with the German and then with English translations or, if it is simple enough, a rarity with Rilke, with my own English versions.

Take the poem below, its title declaring its aptness for this month's selections. It opens with the personification of the evening (Der Abend) changing its robes, which Stephen Mitchell adroitly translates as "puts on the darkening coat," held for it by a row of old trees, and then we get one of those abruptions Rilke is famous for--the semicolon, followed by the direct address, familiar, du schaust--you look, or watch, which of course you have already been doing, and before your eyes, as evening settles in, from you (von dir) the lands grow different (scheiden), or as Mitchell says, grow distant (distinct), one "himmelfahrendes" (traveling to the sky, to heaven) and one that falls (fällt)...okay, by this point, what began as a fairly simple conceit has turned into something quite strange. That is Rilke. He is already beyond the mere image, impression, vision, into something deeper, beyond.

By the second stanza you are utterly unsettled; the lands' departures have left you in nowhere, in a no-place, which is an inner space and outer one, one material as those houses but not those houses, and one like that feeling, barely expressible, that surges up to the sky, like, as he says, never losing the exactitude of the German rhymes, like a star (Gestirn). (There is also the play on the word "Stirn," which in German means "end," to which you have come though the scope of the poem bursts through the plane of the screen. And there is the repetition and echo of the opening line's Abend...wechselt [evening changes] in the final line's abwechselnd [alternated; taken turns].) Earthly, unearthly, at the same time. There are poets, and there are poets. And there is Rilke.

Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewänder,
die ihm ein Rand von alten Bäumen hält;
du schaust: und von dir scheiden sich die Länder,
ein himmelfahrendes und eins, das fällt;
und lassen dich, zu keinem ganz gehörend,
nicht ganz so dunkel wie das Haus, das schweigt,
nicht ganz so sicher Ewiges beschwörend
wie das, was Stern wird jede Nacht und steigt -

und lassen dir (unsäglich zu entwirrn)
dein Leben bang und riesenhaft und reifend,
so dass es, bald begrenzt und bald begreifend,
abwechselnd Stein in dir wird und Gestirn. 


The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees:
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;
and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;
and leave you (inexpressively to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

Copyright © Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation © by Stephen Mitchell from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Vintage, 1989.

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