Monday, April 30, 2012

Learning from Rilke, Part 1

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) is a poet so intriguing and complex that even a brief biographical summary of his life is difficult to sketch. Basic facts such as his nationality and the language he wrote in are up for grabs. He was born in Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. Prague was then part of the Hapsburg (Austrian) empire. Rilke’s family was among the ten percent of Prague whose native tongue was German, not Czech. But after writing in German for most of his career, Rilke moved to Switzerland towards the end of his brief life and recreated himself as a French poet.

One of my favorite works by Rilke is a short poem he wrote in his early twenties. Rilke published the untitled poem, “If only once it would be completely still…” in his first important collection, The Book of Hours, actually a series of three books he wrote in the persona of a Russian monk speaking directly to God. In the late nineteenth century, many artists and intellectuals, inspired by the works of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, looked to Russia as the wellspring of spiritual authenticity.

Here’s a very free translation I did of the Rilke poem, keeping fairly close to the original rhyme scheme. The German original follows:

If only once it would be completely still.
If that “Almost!” and “Why me?” will
just this once fall silent—and the laughter
next door—if my whirring senses didn’t keep after
me, hobbling me from watching as I ought—:

Then in a thousand-faceted thought
I could think every one of your features
and possess you (as my smile cranks
wide open), to give you to all living creatures
like a thanks.

(translation © 2012 by Zack Rogow)

Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre.
Wenn das Zufällige und Ungefähre
verstummte und das nachbarliche Lachen,
wenn das Geräusch, das meine Sinne machen,
mich nicht so sehr verhinderte am Wachen—:

Dann könnte ich in einem tausendfachen
Gedanken bis an deinen Rand dich denken
und dich besitzen (nur ein Lächeln lang),
um dich an alles Leben zu verschenken
wie einen Dank.

In this short poem Rilke attempts nothing less than a consciousness beyond everyday life. Then he turns that meditative openness into a compassion for all living creatures. For a poem spoken by a Christian monk, it’s a surprisingly Buddhist notion, especially for Europe in 1899, when this poem was published.
Rilke accomplishes these transformations partly by changing the very sound of the German language. We often think of German as being the language of the Kommandant barking rough and harsh orders. Rilke softens the syllables of German in this poem until the words feel almost whispered. No other German I’ve heard approaches this silkiness, except the magic spells in the fairy tales told by the Brothers Grimm.
Try listening to the poem in German. There are several YouTube versions of it, but this is my favorite. Ignore the schmaltzy background music.
In this ten-line poem, Rilke finds numerous ways to use the “ch” combination in German, an aspirated sound that is gentle and tender, using it three times in the space of two words: das nachbarliche Lachen— “the laughter next door.” He uses the “ch” three times again in the phrase dich denken/und dich besitzen (nur ein Lächeln lang): literally—“to think you/and possess you (only as long as a smile lasts).”
Wherever in this poem he uses a hard consonant sound like a “t” or a “k,” he almost always pillows it with a softer consonant before, such as an “s” or an “r” or an “n,” and follows it afterwards with a buffering vowel, an “e” or sometimes an “i” that prevents a hard landing, as in these words: stille, verhinderte, denken, verschenken. A translator can do little to imitate this command of language except to mention it in a note like this. I have tried to mirror the rhymes in my translation, another aspect of the poem’s spell-like language.
The soothing language Rilke uses builds surprisingly to a moment where the speaker talks to God using the intimate “du” pronoun. In a turn right out of the Baroque linking of the spiritual and sensual, like Bernini’s erotic-spiritual altar, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, the speaker of Rilke’s poem says he wants to possess God like a lover.
Writers can learn from this poem that even the sound of our language is not a given. A poet or prose writer can mold language, transfigure it, like a sculptor moving clay. The states of mind that we are taught are normal are not a given either. Rilke shows us we can also change those through writing.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Learning from Rilke, Part 2: "Archaic Torso of Apollo"; Rilke's "Autumn Day"


  1. Rilke has always been one of my favorite poets. Thanks for this translation and the explanation of his softening of the German language. I would not have known of the subtleties you describe.

  2. Teresa: I'm glad you also like Rilke. Sometimes I find him completely enlightening, other times I worry about his distance from the world of human emotion, but his work is always engaging.