‘Sky within us’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

Oh, not to be separated,
shut off from the starry dimensions
by so thin a wall.

What is within us
if not intensified sky
traversed with birds

and deep
with winds of homecoming?

Rilke must be a sister-soul of Rumi. There is (I think) a tingling stillness about his poetry that also pervades Rumi’s verse, and, like Rumi, he loves to confuse and cross-infuse spirituality with human love. His wisdom, so beautifully expressed (and here so beautifully and musically translated) continues to stun me as I weave through the wonderful Letters to a Young Poet and his poems, which I have been reading on and off for the past few months.

Sky within us is to me extraordinary because of its understanding of many forms of eternity and many forms of love. For me, this piece can be about knowing God, attaining the sublime through art, or attaining perfect love in its human form. Rilke begins with the timeless cry of Man’s soul: “Oh, not to be separated”. Isn’t much of human endeavour an attempt to shake off our sense of separation? When we create religions, or search for God, aren’t we seeking to sever a barrier between ourselves and eternity (or at least some higher truth or purpose)? And when we write poetry, or paint, or sculpt, or compose music, aren’t we doing the same thing, as well as trying to connect with others – to break barriers and truly communicate – which is so hard? And when we fall in love, and have strong connections of love with others, aren’t we continually fighting against the distances, walls and seas between us, endlessly trying to understand and be understood – to get through to the soul that’s seemingly encased within the body of the other?

As Rilke points out, the barriers we long to break are “so thin” – we are always so tantalizingly close to bliss. Rilke understands this, and he also understands that there is greatness in us. He called the poem Sky within us. He tells us that we contain “intensified sky/ traversed with birds // and deep/ with winds of homecoming”. What a beautiful image. Though we are endlessly searching to break through to something exterior, Rilke suggests that perhaps eternity, higher truth and purpose, love and the ability to communicate and connect to others, are in fact already very much within our reach – and exist in our own incredibly powerful minds, within our souls.

I will end with the extract below from in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I thought was quite appropriate when thinking about this poem.

“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

birds-and-blue-sky

‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ by Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

 

Here is my translation:

Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
And our love
It must remind me
That joy always comes after pain.

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
Whilst
Under the bridge of our arms race
Eternal gazes, the weary waves

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Love goes by like this flowing water
Love goes by
How life is slow
And how Hope is rough

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

The days and weeks pass
Neither time past
Nor love returns
Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

This poem has been chiming in my head like a song on repeat for the past few weeks. I live near the Pont Mirabeau, and had read this poem a long time ago, but it had never really meant much to me. However, crossing the bridge the other day I noticed that there is a plaque with the first verse and refrain of this poem inscribed on it. I noticed how the music of the rhyme of the refrain reflects the magic, hypnotic banality of the river’s slow movement, and so I dug up the poem as soon as I got home.

I have tried to translate it as faithfully as possible, but found it difficult to recreate the music and rhyme of the French… For me, Le Pont Mirabeau makes me think about the unending torrents of people that flow through Paris every day. I often think about this, especially when I see old footage of horses and carriages, or men in tailcoats and top hats walking along the Rue de Rivoli or admiring the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The city hardly changes at all, but the people – so flimsy and fragile – live out there lives and loves here, die, and are then replaced by other lives and stories that begin and end. It’s like the water under the solid, seemingly unmovable Mirabeau Bridge.

There is certainly a sadness to the poem, and in the idea of love and time flowing past, as unretreivable as the river flowing under the bridge. But I also find something consoling in the resolute solidity of the bridge, which ‘remains” despite the days going by. Though life (and perhaps love) is transitory, there is still art – what we create and leave behind us – which is immortal. To my mind, the bridge in this poem represents the poem, the painting, the symphony, the building, the city – which man creates as a flag to his experience.

The Pont Mirabeau

The Pont Mirabeau

 

The plaque on the Pont Mirabeau

The plaque on the Pont Mirabeau

 

‘The More Loving One’ by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)

This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.

I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.

The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.

Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.

As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.

The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.

As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.

Here’s a recording of Auden reading the poem himself:

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.

Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.

Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.

We looked at this poem in a poetry workshop I went to recently, and I found this a fascinating piece. In it, the poet expresses the notion that the spirit is “too blunt” or vague a thing to create the intricate perfection that is a human baby.”Nothing so unskilful as human passions” could have “managed the intricate/exacting particulars”, writes Stevenson. This statement puzzled me, when I first read it. I think it is true (but also untrue!) and ironic, because human passions are exactly what create new life… Of course, something other than human passion is needed to create a baby (and the poem goes into great, clinical detail about “meshings of ganglia” and “neural filaments”) but you still need passion in order for two people to come together (whatever passion that might be — lust, love, or something hateful).

The poet talks about “the body’s ignorant precision”. This line really stood out for me, and I think it sums up what Stevenson is saying about the body in this poem. She is presenting the body to us as an unthinking, efficient machine. It is something quite miraculous, and I find it very interesting that she goes into such detail about its inner workings in the medical, scientific language that is so seldom found in poetry. I think Anne Stevenson does this because, although she is praising the great machine of the body, she is also subtly hinting at the coldness or pointlessness of a perfectly working body if there is no passion or love.

Any “passion” — any “desire or affection” — is depicted as vague and imprecise in the poem, and incapable or creating anything so useful as the human body. For me, this evokes the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but this poem reminded me of a person trying to disprove God’s existence by saying how precise the body’s chemical reactions are, and insisting that the “spirit is too blunt an instrument” to be the cause of life. It is not love that creates life, but rather the ignorantly precise and obliviously diligent chemical reactions in the body. It is left to “the vagaries of the mind to invent/ love and despair and anxiety/ and their pain”.

I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what Stevenson wants to say in this poem. I suspect her intention is to provoke thought, rather than to offer any definitive argument. It certainly made me think! I am fascinated by the conflict in the poem between the forces of “vague love” and “ignorant precision”. But I don’t  see why they should necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I hope you all enjoy this beautiful poem by Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was an anglican priest, as well as a poet, but I think this piece is full of profound wisdom for everyone, regardless of creed.

The Bright Field speaks about those shining moments in life — moments of grace, beauty, inspiration, epiphany — where we fleetingly encounter the divine or feel a deep connection to the universe. This image of the bright field evokes for me various ideas: the moment you see your child’s face for the first time, the moment you realise you’ve fallen in love, or when you read and understand some complicated scientific theory about the universe, become transfixed by Shakespeare or an incredible piece of music… or, of course, when you pray or meditate, and feel a connection to the divine.

The poet confides that he has often seen the sun “illuminate a small field” for a moment, and continued on his way and “forgotten it”. But, says Thomas, he knows that that field was “the pearl of great price”; that moment was something rare and beautiful, to hold on to and spend your life searching for. He is admitting here that he has experienced moments of profound connection to God, but that he has proceeded to move on, without dwelling on it. However, he has now come to realise that he must “give all that I have/ To possess” that moment — that “bright field” — again.

Another quality of these “bright” moments becomes clear as we enter the second stanza; the poem says that life is not “hurrying on/ to a receding future” or “hankering after/ and imagined past”. These lines deliver to me the notion that these bright moments of grace are in fact moments where we are intensely present. These are the moments we are most alive, and when we feel most connected to life, the universe, and/or God. This is as relevant for prayer and meditation as it is for all the other instances I have mentioned where one might experience a moment of exhilarating and glorious connection to the universe.

The poem ends with the beautiful image of the burning bush from the story of Moses. Thomas tells us that life — and these moments — is about “turning/ like Moses to the miracle/ of the lit bush”. Again, there is a real sense of intense presence in this image. I think the way the bright light — which is God, and grace — is described in the final lines is just exquisite: though it had once seemed “as transitory as your youth”, it is in fact “the eternity that awaits you.”

bright field

‘Last night’ by Jalalud’din Rumi

Last night
I begged the Wise One to tell me
the secret of the world.
Gently, gently he whispered,
“Be quiet,
the secret cannot be spoken,
it is wrapped in silence”.

This poem is taken from the collection of Rumi’s quatrains called Whispers of the Beloved, translated by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin. This particular poem really touched me when I read it, and I thought it would be a lovely one to post on here.

There is not much I want to say about it; my usual reaction to Rumi poems is quiet reflection! I will say, however, that the wisdom of this piece is just so beautifully expressed (beautifully translated!), and that I am in love with that final line, “it is wrapped in silence”.

RUMI

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder les gens tant qu’y en a
Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort ou qui r’viendra
En serrant dans ma main tes p’tits doigts

Puis donner à bouffer à des pigeons idiots
Leur filer des coups d’ pieds pour de faux
Et entendre ton rire qui lézarde les murs
Qui sait surtout guérir mes blessures

Te raconter un peu comment j’étais mino
Les bonbecs fabuleux qu’on piquait chez l’marchand
Car-en-sac et Minto, caramel à un franc
Et les mistrals gagnants

A r’marcher sous la pluie cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder la vie tant qu’y en a
Te raconter la Terre en te bouffant des yeux
Te parler de ta mère un p’tit peu

Et sauter dans les flaques pour la faire râler
Bousiller nos godasses et s’marrer
Et entendre ton rire comme on entend la mer
S’arrêter, r’partir en arrière

Te raconter surtout les carambars d’antan et les cocos bohères
Et les vrais roudoudous qui nous coupaient les lèvres
Et nous niquaient les dents
Et les mistrals gagnants

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder le soleil qui s’en va
Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort et je m’en fou
Te dire que les méchants c’est pas nous

Que si moi je suis barge, ce n’est que de tes yeux
Car ils ont l’avantage d’être deux
Et entendre ton rire s’envoler aussi haut
Que s’envolent les cris des oiseaux

Te raconter enfin qu’il faut aimer la vie
Et l’aimer même si 
le temps est assassin
Et emporte avec lui les rires des enfants

Et les mistrals gagnants
Et les mistrals gagnants

 

 

My Translation:
‘Le Mistral Gagnant’
 
(A note about the title: the ‘mistral’ is a well known wind that blows in the south of France. ‘Gagnant’ gives the idea of a wind that is gaining ground — advancing and taking things from the singer… it is difficult to express this with just one word as in French and so I have translated it in the song as “the advancing winds”.) 

To sit down on a bench, five minutes with you
and watch the people while they’re still there;
to tell you about the good days that are gone, or that will return,
while holding your little fingers in my hand.

Then to feed the stupid pigeons,
and pretend to kick them,
and to hear your laugh that crawls up the walls
and that, most of all, knows how to heal my wounds.

To tell you a bit about when I was a kid,
the fabulous sweets that we nicked from the shopkeepers,
Car-en-sac, Minto, and caramel for a franc.
And the advancing winds.To walk in the rain, five minutes with you,
and watch life going by, while it’s there;
to tell you about the World, while scaring you with my eyes,
to tell you about your mum a little bit.

And to jump in the puddles to get her annoyed,
to wreck our shoes, and laugh about it,
and to hear your laugh like one hears the sea —

it stops, then starts off again backwards.To tell you especially about the carambars of the past
and the coco boheres (these are all sweets; so are roudoudous)
and the real roudoudous that cut our lips
and screwed up our teeth.

And the advancing winds.

To sit down on a bench, five minutes with you,
and watch the sun going down;
to tell you about the good times that are gone, and I don’t care,
and to tell you we’re not the bad guys.

That if I’m crazy, it’s only about your eyes,
because they have the advantage of being two;
and to hear your laugh fly off as high
as the cries of the birds fly.

To tell you at last that you must love life,
and love it even if time is a murderer;
and takes with him the children’s laughter,

and the advancing winds.
and the advancing winds.

My thoughts:

This is a song that I completely fell in love with the first time I heard it. I was also fascinated by the lyrics, because they have a strange beauty and are full of French slang. I didn’t understand the slang the first time I heard it, but these words have now become very familiar to me, and I think they are so cleverly used in this piece. It is about fatherly love, and it’s so sad and sweet and (I think!) wise.

Lyrics are extremely important in modern French music, and I think that is perhaps why some of the great singers like Brel, Brassens and Gainsbourg have not travelled so well to the UK and elsewhere. It makes me sad because for me these songwriters are poets, just as much as Bob Dylan is a poet, and their lyrics are incredibly rich and rewarding.

I have tried to translate ‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ to the best of my ability, but of course, the lyrics are great in French because of the assonance and the rhyme etc… So you must listen to it, too. My favourite thing about this song, (and I think this is the great appeal of many of Renaud’s lyrics) is how very common slang expressions have been made poetic… I find it quite wonderful.

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