Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke
Enchanted thing: how can two chosen words
ever attain the harmony of pure rhyme
that pulses through you as your body stirs?
Out of your forehead branch and lyre climb
and all your features pass in simile through
the songs of love whose words as light as rose-
petals rest on the face of someone who
has put his book away and shut his eyes:
to see you: tensed as if each leg were a gun
loaded with leaps but not fired while your neck
holds your head still listening: as when
while swimming in some isolated place
a girl hears leaves rustle and turns to look:
the forest pool reflected in her face.
The laboring through what is still undone
as though legs bound we hobbled along the way
is like the awkward walking of the sawn.
And dying-to let go no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day-
is like his anxious letting himself fall
into the water which receives him gently
and which as though with reverence and joy
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while infinitely silent and aware
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent he condescends to glide.
All this stood upon her and was the world
and stood upon her with all its fear and grace
as trees stand, growing straight up, imageless
yet wholly image, like the Ark of God,
and solemn, as if imposed upon a race.
As she endured it all: bore up under
the swift-as-flight, the fleeting, the far-gone,
the inconceivably vast, the still-to-learn,
serenely as a woman carrying water
moves with a full jug. Till in the midst of play,
transfiguring and preparing for the future,
the first white veil descended, gliding softly
over her opened face, almost opaque there,
never to be lifted off again, and somehow
giving to all her questions just one answer:
In you, who were a child once-in you.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
She sat just like the others as the table.
But on second glance she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.
And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly as chance selected them they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed)
I saw her. She was moving far behind
The others absorbed like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes which were radiant with joy
light played as on the surface of a pool.
She followed slowly taking a long time
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though once it was overcome
she would be beyond all walking and would fly.
Before Summer Rain
Suddenly from all the green around you
something-you don't know what-has disappeared;
you feel it creeping closer to the window
in total silence. From the nearby wood
you hear the urgent whistling of a plover
reminding you of someone's Saint Jerome:
so much solitude and passion come
from that one voice whose fierce request the downpour
will grant. The walls with their ancient portraits glide
away from us cautiously as though
they weren't supposed to hear what we are saying.
And reflected on the faded tapestries now:
the chill uncertain sunlight of those long
childhood hours when you were so afraid.
Portrait of My Father as a Young Man
In the eyes dream. The brow as if it could feel
something far off. Around the lips a great
freshness-seductive though there is no smile.
Under the rows of ornamental braid
on the slim Imperial officer's uniform:
the saber's basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it going nowhere calm
and now almost invisible as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve.
And all the rest so curtained with itself
so cloudy that I cannot understand
this figure as it fades into the background-.
Oh quickly disappearing photograph
In my more slowly disappearing hand.
The stamina of an old long-noble race
in the eyebrows' heavy arches. In the mild
blue eyes the solemn anguish of a child
and here and there humility-not a fool's
but feminine: the look of one who serves.
The mouth quite ordinary large and straight
composed yet not willing to speak out
when necessary. The forehead still na?ve
most comfortable in shadows looking down.
This as a whole just hazily foreseen-
never in any joy of suffering
collected for a firm accomplishment;
and yet as though from far off with scattered Things
a serious true work were being planned.
As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.
And all at once it is completely fire.
One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.
And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die -
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.
The First Elegy
Who if I cried out would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
I that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror which we still are just able to endure
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note
Of my dark sobbing. Ah whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels not humans
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world. Perhaps there remains for us
some tree on a hillside which every day we can take
into our vision; there remains for us yesterday's street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
Oh and night: there is night when a wind full of infinite space
gnaws at out faces. Whom would it not remain for-that longed-after
mildly disillusioning presence which the solitary heart
so painfully meets. Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.
Don't you know yet? Fling the emptiness out of your arms
Into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds
will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.
Yes-the springtime needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past or as you walked
under an open window a violin
yielded itself to your hearing. All this was mission.
But could you accomplish it? Weren't you always
Distracted by expectation as if every event
announced a beloved? (Where can you find a place
to keep her with all the huge strange thoughts inside you
going and coming and often staying all night.)
But when you feel longing sing of women in love;
for their famous passion is still not immortal. Sing
of women abandoned and desolate (you envy them almost)
who could love so much more purely than those who were gratified.
Begin again and again the never-attainable praising;
remember: the hero lives on; even his downfall was
merely a pretext for achieving his final birth.
But Nature spent and exhausted takes lovers back
into herself as if there were not enough strength
to create them a second time. Have you imagined
Gaspara Stampa intensely enough so that any girl
deserted by her beloved might be inspired
by that fierce example of soaring objectless love
and might say to herself Perhaps I can be like her ?
Shouldn't this most ancient suffering finally grow
more fruitful for us? Isn't it time that we lovingly
freed ourselves from the beloved and quivering endured:
as the arrow endures the bowstring's tension so that
gathered in the snap of release it can be more than
itself. For there is no place where we can remain.
Voices. Voices. Listen my heart as only
Saints have listened: until the gigantic call lifted them
off the ground; yet they kept on impossibly
kneeling and didn't notice at all:
so complete was their listening. Not that you could endure
God's voice-far from it. But listen to the voice of the wind
and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence.
It is murmuring toward you now from those who died young.
Didn't their fate whenever you stepped into a church
In Naples or Rome quietly come to address you?
Or high up some eulogy entrusted you with a mission
as last year on the plaque in Santa Maria Formosa.
What they want of me is that I gently remove the appearance
of injustice about their death-which at times
slightly hinders their souls from proceeding onward.
Of course it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer
to give up customs one barely had time to learn
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one's own first name behind forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one's desires. Strange
to see meanings that clung together once floating away
in every direction. And being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity. -Though the living are wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don't know whether it is the living
they are moving among or the dead. The eternal torrent
whirls all ages along in it through both realms
forever and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar.
In the end those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth's sorrows and joys as gently as children
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we who do need
such great mysteries we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit's growth-: could we exist without them?
Is the legend meaningless that tells how in the lament for Linus
the daring first notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;
and then in the startled space which a youth as lovely as a god
had suddenly left forever the Void felt for the first time
that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps us.
The Second Elegy
Every angel is terrifying. And yet alas
I invoked you almost deadly birds of the soul
knowing about you. Where are the days of Tobias
when one of you veiling his radiance stood at the front door
slightly disguised for the journey no longer appalling;
(a young man like the one who curiously peeked through the window).
But if the archangel now perilous from behind the stars
took even one step down toward us: our own heart beating
higher and higher would bear us to death. Who are you?
Early successes Creation's pampered favorites
mountain-ranges peaks growing red in the dawn
of all Beginning -pollen of the flowering godhead
joints of pure light corridors stairways thrones
space formed from essence shields made of ecstasy storms
of emotion whirled into rapture and suddenly alone:
mirrors which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their face
and gather it back into themselves entire.
But we when moved by deep feeling evaporate; we
breathe ourselves out and away; from moment to moment
our emotion grows fainter like a perfume. Though someone may tell us:
Yes, you've entered my bloodstream, the room, the whole springtime
is filled with youˇ -what does it matter? he can't contain us
we vanish inside him and around him. And those who are beautiful
oh who can retain them? Appearance ceaselessly rises
in their face and is gone. Like dew from the morning grass
what is ours floats into the air like steam from a dish
of hot food. O smile where are you going? O upturned glance:
new warm receding wave on the sea of the heartˇ
alas but that is what we are. Does the infinite space
we dissolve into taste of us then? Do the angels really
reabsorb only the radiance that streamed out from themselves or
sometimes as if by an oversight is there a trace
of our essence in it as well? Are we mixed in with their
features even as slightly as that vague look
in the faces of pregnant women? They do not notice it
(how could they notice) in their swirling return to themselves.
Lovers if they knew how might utter strange marvelous
Words in the night air. For it seems that everything
hides us. Look: trees do exist; the houses
that we live in still stand. We alone
fly past all things as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspire to keep silent about us half
out of shame perhaps half as unutterable hope.
Lovers gratified in each other I am asking you
about us. You hold each other. Where is your proof?
Look sometimes I find that my hands have become aware
of each other or that my time-worn face
shelters itself inside them. That gives me a slight
sensation. But who would dare to exist just for that?
You though who in the other's passion
grow until overwhelmed he begs you:
No moreˇ ; you who beneath his hands
swell with abundance like autumn grapes;
you who may disappear because the other has wholly
emerged: I am asking you about us. I know
you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves
because the place you so tenderly cover
does not vanish; because underneath it
you feel pure duration. So you promise eternity almost
from the embrace. And yet when you have survived
the terror of the first glances the longing at the window
and the first walk together once only through the garden:
lovers are you the same? When you lift yourselves up
to each other's mouth and your lips join drink against drink:
oh how strangely each drinker seeps away from his action.
Weren't you astonished by the caution of human gestures
on Attic gravestones? Wasn't love and departure
placed so gently on shoulders that is seemed to be made
of a different substance than in our world? Remember the hands
how weightlessly they rest though there is power in the torsos.
These self-mastered figures know: "We can go this far
This is ours to touch one another this lightly; the gods
Can press down harder upon us. But that is the gods' affair."
If only we too could discover a pure contained
human place our own strip of fruit-bearing soil
between river and rock. For our own heart always exceeds us
as theirs did. And we can no longer follow it gazing
into images that soothe it into the godlike bodies
where measured more greatly if achieves a greater repose.