“Childhood”-By Rainer Maria Rilke

It would be good to give much thought, before
you try to find words for something so lost,
for those long childhood afternoons you knew
that vanished so completely -and why?

We’re still reminded-: sometimes by a rain,
but we can no longer say what it means;
life was never again so filled with meeting,
with reunion and with passing on

as back then, when nothing happened to us
except what happens to things and creatures:
we lived their world as something human,
and became filled to the brim with figures.

And became as lonely as a sheperd
and as overburdened by vast distances,
and summoned and stirred as from far away,
and slowly, like a long new thread,
introduced into that picture-sequence
where now having to go on bewilders us. 

 

I am fascinated by the long sentence that pushes us breath-takingly forward in Rilke’s imagination.In an almost  mystical turn of phrase  we move  forward from long childhood afternoons, now only a memory in rain, to a state of being when nothing happens to us except to what happens to things and beings, a time of meetings and re-unions, a time of passing on.We live their world as if it is something human, our own little world ,filled to the brim with their figures.

The sentence does not stop there.It moves further on as a lonely shepherd  and as overburdened by vast distances. A beautiful picture of a shepherd overlooking his flock across the vastness of the mountain slopes. “summoned and stirred from far away” by the call of the infinite space, the movement of the shepherd with the flock is as one single mass,as though the world is moving in time,overburdened by vast spaces.

The picture sequence is through a thread that connects the childhood state of nothing happening to us except what happens to things and beings with the bewildering present of having to go now on. The sequence is of a series of images beginning with ‘long childhood afternoons’ , now and then recalled by rain but you are not sure what was lost but only reminded about them. Then you became as lonely as a shepherd  overburdened  by vast distances.Picture the transition from “nothing happens to us except what happens to things and creatures” to a lonely shepherd,  impelled by a summon from the infinite spaces to straddle vast distances in time and space. Now everything happens to us,not what happens to other things and creatures and in this we are a lonely shepherd in the mountains and now are bewildered by having to go on. From a passive childhood state of letting things happen as they would, we are now moving on, summoned by a call of the vast spaces ahead  towards eternity.

There are only two sentences in the poem. The first one deals with childhood, where things happened as they would to other things and beings-a passive state of being and the sentence is relatively shorter, ending with a question-and why?The second one seems going on and on , dealing with a shepherd with vast distances before him stretching infinitely.

Yonder before us lie vast deserts of eternity“(Andrew Marvel)

“Autumn”- By Rainer Maria Rilke

English: The Old Raron Church where the German...

English: The Old Raron Church where the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke is buried Français : L’ancienne église de Rarogne où est enterré Rainer Maria Rilke, poète (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling. 

I love this little Rilke poem about autumn- for the unique and fresh vision of the poet. The poet is not writing a usual nature poem about autumn but much beyond it.

The leaves are not of terrestrial space but  of trees  in the higher space, where orchards are dying, each leaf falling as if motioning “no”. Each leaf is dissolution,a reluctant life dying,its fall signifying a refusal to tear away from the fabric of life. Whatever is falling is no golden harvest of autumn leaves to make way for new green leaves.Autumn is no celebration but a death.

From the leaves of the space the poet moves on to the larger cosmic stage of the earth falling from the space of the stars in its astral loneliness. And when the earth falls we all fall including the poet and the his this hand that is pointing at the stars and the earth falling. The grand spectacle of fall is here seen in the way the poet’s hand falls from whatever it is supporting, the life of the body it is supporting.

The last lines are of unsurpassed beauty and so musical too.Please sing aloud  the song of Rilke’s magical tribute to the Creator whose hands are “holding all this up” from falling:

And yet there is Someone,whose hands

Infinitely calm,holding up all this falling

Someone is with a Big capital “S”

His hands are infinitely calm

He is holding up all this falling

Contrast  falling hands of the poet to His holding hands, calm hands

Look at the other one, its is in them all, in the fallen things.

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“The last house” by Rilke

From the Book of Hours

The last house of this village stands
as alone as if it were the last house in the world.

The road, that the little village cannot hold,
moves on slowly out into the night.

The little village is but a place of transition,
expectant and afraid, between two vast distances,
a passageway along houses instead of a bridge.

And those who leave the village may wander
a long time, and many may die perhaps
along the way.

Rainer Maria Rilke
from The Book of Hours

(tr. Cliff Crego)

One of the most “visual” of Rilke’s poems.The imagery is almost photographic. Just imagine a village,a path that goes through a village ,a road that the village cannot “hold” but only eject it into the night,the last house standing on the edge of the village as if it were the last house in the world. The little village continues to function as the transition point between two vast distances ,just like any other village,a passageway along houses.The village is expectant because it is expecting visitors but at the some time afraid that the people who leave the village may wander and may not return.

“You, you only, exist” -BY Rainier Maria Rilke

You, you only, exist.
We pass away, till at last,
our passing is so immense
that you arise: beautiful moment,
in all your suddenness,
arising in love, or enchanted
in the contraction of work.

To you I belong, however time may
wear me away. From you to you
I go commanded. In between
the garland is hanging in chance; but if you
take it up and up and up: look:
all becomes festival!

Rainer Maria Rilke

“You only exist/We pass away,till at last/Our passing is so immense/that you arise :beautiful moment”- the contrast here is between our transient existence and the permanence of the beautiful moment. The paradox is amusing: while we pass away , the moment exists and our passing is so immense that a beautiful moment arises. Our semi-permanent(slightly longer) existence contrasts with the brevity of the beautiful moment ,which by its definition is only a moment but exists for all time to come.

“To the beautiful moment” the poet belongs ,however much time wears him away.He moves between one beautiful moment and another. Then come the most beautiful lines of Rilke one has ever come across :

“…In between
The garland is hanging in chance: but if you
take it up and up:look:
all becomes festival!”

In between the beautiful moments,the garland is hanging in chance and it is up to you to take it up and up so that it becomes a festival. It is a matter of chance that you pick some precious moments filled with happiness and if you can do it , happiness is all yours. One of the most optimistic poems of Rilke .

There is a vertical progression between one beautiful moment and another (from you to you I go commanded).In between the garland is hanging in chance . You should take it up and up,then look (down)
:all becomes festival .

Loneliness” by Rainer Maria Rilke


Being apart and lonely is like rain.
It climbs toward evening from the ocean plains;
from flat places, rolling and remote, it climbs
to heaven, which is its old abode.
And only when leaving heaven drops upon the city.
It rains down on us in those twittering
hours when the streets turn their faces to the dawn,
and when two bodies who have found nothing,
dissapointed and depressed, roll over;
and when two people who despise eachother
have to sleep together in one bed-

So typical of Rilke ,yet so different in the treatment of the subject.The comparison here is of the loneliness to the rain,not just loneliness but being apart and lonely while at the end of the poem the poet speaks about being together in the bed and experiencing loneliness.At first the temptation is to trace the comparison through the process of rain making but it does not work out exactly.First the vapor from the oceans ,rivers and plains climbs up to the heaven which was its former home and only when leaving the former home,it rains down on us in those “twittering hours when the streets turn their faces to the dawn” .This  is an exquisitely crafted image – fitting beautifully into the It rains down on us in those twittering hours when the streets…The streets which have woken up from their sleep as the birds started twittering and have turned their faces to the dawn .The bodies ,which have tried to fuse together have found nothing and in disappointment ,roll over.

When two bodies have to sleep together and find nothing except despising each other at the end,that is when loneliness is no longer silver slanting rain in the twittering hours but quick flowing rivers . A beautiful poem.

“The Future” by Rilke

The future: time’s excuse
to frighten us; too vast
a project, too large a morsel
for the heart’s mouth.

Future, who won’t wait for you?
Everyone is going there.
It suffices you to deepen
the absence that we are.

Translated by A. Poulin

“Time’s excuse to frighten us ” – an image reminiscent of John Donne or Andrew Marvell. But the next image
“Too vast a project” sounds more ‘modern’ ,conveying a conscious plan to mould future activities to the achievement of a pre-decided objective.
The next image draws from the sensory experience of taste-“too large a morsel for the heart’s mouth”-a very graphic image.

But the most fascinating image is “it suffices you to deepen the absence that we are” .Just think about it : as future grows ,the past deepens and with it our absence.

“For Hans Caroussa” by Rilke


“Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting

still has a shape in the kindgdom of transformation.

When something’s let go of, it circles; and though

we are rarely the center of the circle,

it draws around us its unbroken, marvelous curve.”

First ,when I saw the poem I thought Rilke was being merely clever .With usages like “losing too is still ours” I thought Rilke was out of form.In the second line Rilke got back to his original form. So I think. Forgetting still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation sounded so much like an epigrammatic saying. But actually it comes out as a poetic image if you look at it closely.Reality is built by consciousness which works only by remembering .Things exist only if your mind perceives them. Forgetting things is consciousness not recognising reality which means that forgetting has no shape or feel but in the world of constant flux when matter remains the same but only transforms into other matter or energy forgetting does not mean things losing their shape or form .The forgetting of things continues to circle around us although we may not be the at the centre of the circle . We are not the centrifuges in which energy flows from the centre to the perimeter but the curve remains around us impinging on our cconsciousnes.

An interesting use of imagery is the illustration of an abstract thought by the use of an abstract image ,concretising an abstract thought by use of an abstract image.In this case “forgetting” , (an abstract thing) is illustrated by the use of an abstract shape ‘the circle” .