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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 served 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 allegedly 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"), Liebeslied ("Love Song"), and the First Elegy, also known as the First Duino Elegy.



Archaischer Torso Apollos (“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 similar vitality, energy and muscularity 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.



Herbsttag ("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.



Der Panther ("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.



Komm, Du (“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.




Liebes-Lied (“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.




Das Lied des Bettlers (“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.

Translator's note: I believe the last line may be a reference to a statement made by Jesus Christ in the gospels: that foxes have their dens, but he had no place to lay his head. Rilke may also have had in mind Jesus saying that what someone does "to the least of these" they would also be doing to him.

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.



This is my translation of the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Rilke began the first Duino Elegy in 1912, as a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, at Duino Castle, near Trieste on the Adriatic Sea.

First Elegy
by Ranier Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Who, if I objected, would hear me among the angelic orders?
For if the least One pressed me intimately against its breast,
I would be lost in its infinite Immensity!
Because beauty, which we mortals can barely endure, is the beginning of terror;
we stand awed when it benignly declines to annihilate us.
Every Angel is terrifying!

And so I restrain myself, swallowing the sound of my pitiful sobbing.
For whom may we turn to, in our desire?
Not to Angels, nor to men, and already the sentient animals are aware
that we are all aliens in this metaphorical existence.
Perhaps some tree still stands on a hillside, which we can study with our ordinary vision.
Perhaps the commonplace street still remains amid man’s fealty to materiality—
the concrete items that never destabilize.
Oh, and of course there is the night: her dark currents caress our faces ...

But whom, then, do we live for?
That longed-for but mildly disappointing presence the lonely heart so desperately desires?
Is life any less difficult for lovers?
They only use each other to avoid their appointed fates!
How can you fail to comprehend?
Fling your arms’ emptiness into this space we occupy and inhale:
may birds fill the expanded air with more intimate flying!

Yes, the springtime still requires you.
Perpetually a star waits for you to recognize it.
A wave recedes toward you from the distant past,
or as you walk beneath an open window, a violin yields virginally to your ears.
All this was preordained. But how can you incorporate it? ...
Weren't you always distracted by expectations, as if every event presaged some new beloved?
(Where can you harbor, when all these enormous strange thoughts surging within you keep
you up all night, restlessly rising and falling?)

When you are full of yearning, sing of loving women, because their passions are finite;
sing of forsaken women (and how you almost envy them)
because they could love you more purely than the ones you left gratified.

Resume the unattainable exaltation; remember: the hero survives;
even his demise was merely a stepping stone toward his latest rebirth.

But spent and exhausted Nature withdraws lovers back into herself,
as if lacking the energy to recreate them.
Have you remembered Gaspara Stampa with sufficient focus—
how any abandoned girl might be inspired by her fierce example
and might ask herself, "How can I be like her?"

Shouldn't these ancient sufferings become fruitful for us?
Shouldn’t we free ourselves from the beloved,
quivering, as the arrow endures the bowstring's tension,
so that in the snap of release it soars beyond itself?
For there is nowhere else where we can remain.

Voices! Voices!

Listen, heart, as levitating saints once listened,
until the elevating call soared them heavenward;
and yet they continued kneeling, unaware, so complete was their concentration.

Not that you could endure God's voice—far from it!

But heed the wind’s voice and the ceaseless formless message of silence:
It murmurs now of the martyred young.

Whenever you attended a church in Naples or Rome,
didn't they come quietly to address you?
And didn’t an exalted inscription impress its mission upon you
recently, on the plaque in Santa Maria Formosa?
What they require of me is that I gently remove any appearance of injustice—
which at times slightly hinders their souls from advancing.

Of course, it is endlessly strange to no longer inhabit the earth;
to relinquish customs one barely had the time to acquire;
not to see in roses and other tokens a hopeful human future;
no longer to be oneself, cradled in infinitely caring hands;
to set aside even one's own name,
forgotten as easily as a child’s broken plaything.

How strange to no longer desire one's desires!
How strange to see meanings no longer cohere, drifting off into space.
Dying is difficult and requires retrieval before one can gradually decipher eternity.

The living all err in believing the too-sharp distinctions they create themselves.

Angels (men say) don't know whether they move among the living or the dead.
The eternal current merges all ages in its maelstrom
until the voices of both realms are drowned out in its thunderous roar.

In the end, the early-departed no longer need us:
they are weaned gently from earth's agonies and ecstasies,
as children outgrow their mothers’ breasts.

But we, who need such immense mysteries,
and for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit's progress—
how can we exist without them?

Is the legend of the lament for Linos meaningless—
the daring first notes of the song pierce our apathy;
then, in the interlude, when the youth, lovely as a god, has suddenly departed forever,
we experience the emptiness of the Void for the first time—
that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and aids us?



Second Elegy
by Rainer Maria Rilke
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you,
one of the soul’s lethal raptors, well aware of your nature.
As in the days of Tobias, when one of you, obscuring his radiance,
stood at the simple threshold, appearing ordinary rather than appalling
while the curious youth peered through the window.
But if the Archangel emerged today, perilous, from beyond the stars
and took even one step toward us, our hammering hearts
would pound us to death. What are you?

Who are you? Joyous from the beginning;
God’s early successes; Creation’s favorites;
creatures of the heights; pollen of the flowering godhead; cusps of pure light;
stately corridors; rising stairways; exalted thrones;
filling space with your pure essence; crests of rapture;
shields of ecstasy; storms of tumultuous emotions whipped into whirlwinds ...
until one, acting alone, recreates itself by mirroring the beauty of its own countenance.

While we, when deeply moved, evaporate;
we exhale ourselves and fade away, growing faint like smoldering embers;
we drift away like the scent of smoke.
And while someone might say: “You’re in my blood! You occupy this room!
You fill this entire springtime!” ... Still, what becomes of us?
We cannot be contained; we vanish whether inside or out.
And even the loveliest, who can retain them?

Resemblance ceaselessly rises, then is gone, like dew from dawn’s grasses.
And what is ours drifts away, like warmth from a steaming dish.
O smile, where are you bound?
O heavenward glance: are you a receding heat wave, a ripple of the heart?
Alas, but is this not what we are?
Does the cosmos we dissolve into savor us?
Do the angels reabsorb only the radiance they emitted themselves,
or sometimes, perhaps by oversight, traces of our being as well?
Are we included in their features, as obscure as the vague looks on the faces of pregnant women?
Do they notice us at all (how could they) as they reform themselves?

Lovers, if they only knew how, might mutter marvelous curses into the night air.
For it seems everything eludes us.
See: the trees really do exist; our houses stand solid and firm.
And yet we drift away, like weightless sighs.
And all creation conspires to remain silent about us: perhaps from shame, perhaps from inexpressible hope?

Lovers, gratified by each other, I ask to you consider:
You cling to each other, but where is your proof of a connection?
Sometimes my hands become aware of each other
and my time-worn, exhausted face takes shelter in them,
creating a slight sensation.
But because of that, can I still claim to be?

You, the ones who writhe with each other’s passions
until, overwhelmed, someone begs: “No more!...”;
You who swell beneath each other’s hands like autumn grapes;
You, the one who dwindles as the other increases:
I ask you to consider ...
I know you touch each other so ardently because each caress preserves pure continuance,
like the promise of eternity, because the flesh touched does not disappear.
And yet, when you have survived the terror of initial intimacy,
the first lonely vigil at the window, the first walk together through the blossoming garden:
lovers, do you not still remain who you were before?
If you lift your lips to each other’s and unite, potion to potion,
still how strangely each drinker eludes the magic.

Weren’t you confounded by the cautious human gestures on Attic gravestones?
Weren’t love and farewell laid so lightly on shoulders they seemed composed of some ethereal substance unknown to us today?
Consider those hands, how weightlessly they rested, despite the powerful torsos.
The ancient masters knew: “We can only go so far, in touching each other. The gods can exert more force. But that is their affair.”
If only we, too, could discover such a pure, contained Eden for humanity,
our own fruitful strip of soil between river and rock.
For our hearts have always exceeded us, as our ancestors’ did.
And we can no longer trust our own eyes, when gazing at godlike bodies, our hearts find a greater repose.



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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