Just before I went up to Cambridge for my entrance examinations in 1962, my headmaster took me to one side. He was aware of my admiration for the work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and equally aware of my devotion to Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Just a word of advice’ he said. ‘Go with the Rilke. Don’t mention Tolkien!’. I was then as cheerfully ignorant of the OK-ness of writers in academic circles as I am now cheerfully indifferent to it, so I was a little puzzled, but it seemed only polite to talk to other people about things they too were interested in, so I duly obliged. And Rilke really is very good, though I prefer the sensuous, concrete shorter lyrics to the more philosophical ‘Duino Elegies’, just as I prefer Tolkien’s weather and landscapes to his theology (sorry, Cambridge, just had to slip that one in). Here’s one of my favourites. The translation that follows is my own.
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südliche 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.
Lord, it is time. The great summer is done.
Let loose the winds upon the meadows, let
Your shadows count the last hours of the sun.
Bid the late fruits to swell upon the vine,
Allow them two more days of southern heat,
Cram the last ripeness into them, complete
Their sweet fulfilment in full-bodied wine.
Who has no house now shall not make a home,
Again; who is alone now long shall be so,
Will sit up, read, will write long letters, go
Along the autumn avenues to roam
Restless, as the leaves drift, to and fro.