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Rainer Maria Rilke: English Translations

Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926] was a Bohemian-Austrian poet generally considered to be a major poet of the German language. He also wrote more than 400 poems in French. He was born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in Prague, then the capital of Bohemia and part of Austria-Hungary. During Rilke's early years his mother, who had lost a baby daughter, dressed him in girl's clothing. In 1895 and 1896, he studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich. In 1902 Rilke traveled to Paris to write about the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rilke became deeply involved with the sculpture of Rodin and for a time acted as Rodin's secretary. Under Rodin's influence Rilke transformed his poetic style from the subjective to the objective. His best-known poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," was written about a sculpture by Rodin and speaks about the life-transforming properties (and demands) of great art. Rilke died the most poetic of deaths, having been pricked by a rose. He was in ill health, the wound failed to heal, and he died as a result.

The poems translated here include Herbsttag ("Autumn Day"), Der Panther ("The Panther"), Archaïscher Torso Apollos ("Archaic Torso of Apollo"), Komm, Du ("Come, You"), Das Lied des Bettlers ("The Beggar's Song"), and Liebeslied ("Love Song").



Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

We cannot know the beheaded god
nor his eyes' forfeited visions. But still
the figure's trunk glows with the strange vitality
of a lamp lit from within, while his composed will
emanates dynamism. Otherwise
the firmly muscled abdomen could not beguile us,
nor the centering loins make us smile
at the thought of their generative animus.
Otherwise the stone might seem deficient,
unworthy of the broad shoulders, of the groin
projecting procreation's triangular spearhead upwards,
unworthy of the living impulse blazing wildly within
like an inchoate star—demanding our belief.
You must change your life.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: This is a poem about a major resolution: changing the very nature of one's life. While it is only my personal interpretation of the poem above, I believe Rilke was saying to himself: "I must change my life." Why? Perhaps because he wanted to be a real artist, and when confronted with real, dynamic, living and breathing art of Rodin, he realized that he had to inject the same vital and muscular elements into his poetry. Michelangelo said that he saw the angel in a block of marble, then freed it. Perhaps Rilke had to find the dynamic image of Apollo, the God of Poetry, in his materials, which were paper, ink and his imagination.—Michael R. Burch

Archaïscher Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle
und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.



Autumn Day
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Lord, it is time. Let the immense summer go.
Lay your long shadows over the sundials
and over the meadows, let the free winds blow.
Command the late fruits to fatten and shine;
O, grant them another Mediterranean hour!
Urge them to completion, and with power
convey final sweetness to the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, never will build one.
Who's alone now, shall continue alone;
he'll wake, read, write long letters to friends,
and pace the tree-lined pathways up and down,
restlessly, as autumn leaves drift and descend.

Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.



The Panther
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

His weary vision's so overwhelmed by iron bars,
his exhausted eyes see only blank Oblivion.
His world is not our world. It has no stars.
No light. Ten thousand bars. Nothing beyond.
Lithe, swinging with a rhythmic easy stride,
he circles, his small orbit tightening,
an electron losing power. Paralyzed,
soon regal Will stands stunned, an abject thing.
Only at times the pupils' curtains rise
silently, and then an image enters,
descends through arrested shoulders, plunges, centers
somewhere within his empty heart, and dies.



Come, You
by Ranier Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This was Rilke’s last poem, written ten days before his death. He died open-eyed in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926, in the Valmont Sanatorium, of leukemia and its complications. I had a friend who died of leukemia and he was burning up with fever in the end. I believe that is what Rilke was describing here: he was literally burning alive.

Come, you—the last one I acknowledge; return—
incurable pain searing this physical mesh.
As I burned in the spirit once, so now I burn
with you; meanwhile, you consume my flesh.

This wood that long resisted your embrace
now nourishes you; I surrender to your fury
as my gentleness mutates to hellish rage—
uncaged, wild, primal, mindless, outré.

Completely free, no longer future’s pawn,
I clambered up this crazy pyre of pain,
certain I’d never return—my heart’s reserves gone—
to become death’s nameless victim, purged by flame.

Now all I ever was must be denied.
I left my memories of my past elsewhere.
That life—my former life—remains outside.
Inside, I’m lost. Nobody knows me here.

Komm, Du

Komm du, du letzter, den ich anerkenne,
heilloser Schmerz im leiblichen Geweb:
wie ich im Geiste brannte, sieh, ich brenne
in dir; das Holz hat lange widerstrebt,
der Flamme, die du loderst, zuzustimmen,
nun aber nähr’ ich dich und brenn in dir.
Mein hiesig Mildsein wird in deinem Grimmen
ein Grimm der Hölle nicht von hier.
Ganz rein, ganz planlos frei von Zukunft stieg
ich auf des Leidens wirren Scheiterhaufen,
so sicher nirgend Künftiges zu kaufen
um dieses Herz, darin der Vorrat schwieg.
Bin ich es noch, der da unkenntlich brennt?
Erinnerungen reiß ich nicht herein.
O Leben, Leben: Draußensein.
Und ich in Lohe. Niemand der mich kennt.




Love Song
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

How can I withhold my soul so that it doesn’t touch yours?
How can I lift mine gently to higher things, alone?
Oh, I would gladly find something lost in the dark
in that inert space that fails to resonate until you vibrate.
There everything that moves us, draws us together like a bow
enticing two taut strings to sing together with a simultaneous voice.
Whose instrument are we becoming together?
Whose, the hands that excite us?
Ah, sweet song!

Liebes-Lied

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Geiger hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied.




The Beggar’s Song
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I live outside your gates,
exposed to the rain, exposed to the sun;
sometimes I’ll cradle my right ear
in my right palm;
then when I speak my voice sounds strange,
alien ...

I'm unsure whose voice I’m hearing:
mine or yours.
I implore a trifle;
the poets cry for more.

Sometimes I cover both eyes
and my face disappears;
there it lies heavy in my hands
looking peaceful, instead,
so that no one would ever think
I have no place to lay my head.

Das Lied des Bettlers

Ich gehe immer von Tor zu Tor,
verregnet und verbrannt;
auf einmal leg ich mein rechtes Ohr
in meine rechte Hand.
Dann kommt mir meine Stimme vor,
als hätt ich sie nie gekannt.

Dann weiß ich nicht sicher, wer da schreit,
ich oder irgendwer.
Ich schreie um eine Kleinigkeit.
Die Dichter schrein um mehr.

Und endlich mach ich noch mein Gesicht
mit beiden Augen zu;
wie's dann in der Hand liegt mit seinem Gewicht
sieht es fast aus wie Ruh.
Damit sie nicht meinen ich hätte nicht,
wohin ich mein Haupt tu.



The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Miklós Radnóti Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa

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