‘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

‘Autumn’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.

And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.

My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,

Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.

Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.

Herbst


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.

Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses 

Fallen
undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.

This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.

Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.

In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”

Rainer_Maria_Rilke,_1900

 

‘The Swan’ by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I am so sad that my German is non-existent, apart from the odd greeting or pleasantry. I would so love to be able to read and understand this poem in its original language, but for now Bly’s superb translation will have to do.

From what I can tell, this translation is brilliant. It reads very seamlessly, and I love the attention to the sounds as well as to the accuracy of meaning — particularly in the first line, where I love the assonance of “This clumsy living that moves lumbering”. Translating a poem is not an easy task; a poem is such a complex, loaded thing. It is not like holding up a mirror, but rather creating a new poem that captures the essence of the original, losing neither meaning, implied meaning, tone nor beauty. It seems an almost impossible task.

Rilke’s poem describes the clumsiness of swans as they walk, and then compares it to when the swan “lets himself down/ into the water”, and is suddenly transformed into the embodiment of grace. Although on land swans lumber “as if in ropes” and are terribly “awkward”, on the water, a swan is one of the most graceful sights on this earth.

Rilke takes this image and uses it to suggest that Man is like the clumsy swan in life — stumbling along as if in the dark — and that in death (“which is letting go/ of the ground we stand on and cling to every day” ) Man might be like the swan on water. On water, the swan is “pleased to be carried”, and “more like a king, further and further on”. I think this is a very beautiful, inspiring and comforting image.

The Swan reminds me of Baudelaire’s poem, ‘L’albatros’ (‘The Albatross’), which uses a very similar image to evoke an idea of the nature of the artist. More on that tomorrow…

P.S. If any of you speak German, please let me know what you think of Bly’s translation. Is there anything that you would have done differently?

THE SWAN