Week 412: Die Spitze, by Rainer Maria Rilke

A favourite theme in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is the sacrifices that the artist must make for the sake of his/her art. In his poem ‘Der Dichter’ (‘The Poet’) he bemoans these: ‘Ich habe keine Geliebte, kein Haus,/keine Stelle auf der ich lebe’ (I have no beloved, no house, nowhere I can live’). Actually one feels he didn’t do too badly: people lent him their castles to compose in; a poet nowadays would be lucky to get the offer of a garden shed.

This poem exemplifies that theme of sacrifice: it is about a lace-maker who goes blind from all the close work involved in the practice of her craft but lives on, Rilke imagines, in one artefact. The poem is actually in two parts: this is just the first part, which I feel is self-sufficient.

The translation that follows is my own.

Die Spitze

Menschlichkeit: Namen schwankender Besitze,
noch unbestätigter Bestand von Glück:
ist das unmenschlich, daß zu dieser Spitze,
zu diesem kleinen dichten Spitzenstück
zwei Augen wurden? — Willst du sie zurück?

Du Langvergangene und schließlich Blinde,
ist deine Seligkeit in diesem Ding,
zu welcher hin, wie zwischen Stamm und Rinde,
dein großes Fühlen, kleinverwandelt, ging?

Durch einen Riß im Schicksal, eine Lücke
entzogst du deine Seele deiner Zeit;
und sie ist so in diesem lichten Stücke,
daß es mich lächeln macht vor Nützlichkeit.

The Lace

What is it to be human? To possess
Nothing for certain, no sure happiness.
Was it inhuman then, that you who made
This thing, this small close-woven piece of lace,
Gave two eyes for it? Do you rue that trade?

You, long departed one, whose end was dark,
Is this the thing wherein you left your bliss,
Great feeling, in the width of trunk to bark,
Diminished as by magic into this?

You found a rift in destiny, a space
To draw your soul out of its time, set free,
And it’s so here, in this light piece of lace,
It makes me smile at the utility.

Week 221: Die Erblindende, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Another of my favourite poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a small masterpiece of delicate, compassionate observation. The translation that follows is my own.

Die Erblindende

Sie saß so wie die anderen beim Tee.
Mir war zuerst, als ob sie ihre Tasse
ein wenig anders als die andern fasse.
Sie lächelte einmal. Es tat fast weh.

Und als man schließlich sich erhob und sprach
und langsam und wie es der Zufall brachte
durch viele Zimmer ging (man sprach und lachte),
da sah ich sie. Sie ging den andern nach,

verhalten, so wie eine, welche gleich
wird singen müssen und vor vielen Leuten;
auf ihren hellen Augen die sich freuten war
Licht von außen wie auf einem Teich.

Sie folgte langsam und sie brauchte lang
als wäre etwas noch nicht überstiegen;
und doch: als ob, nach einem Übergang,
sie nich mehr gehen würde, sondern fliegen.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Going Blind

She sat just like the rest of them at tea.
What struck me first was how she held her cup
Not quite the same as others in the group.
She sometimes smiled. It almost hurt to see.

And when the others rose at last and went
From room to room, taking their random way,
Laughing and talking, with so much to say,
I saw her. She was following, intent

On some thought of her own, like one aware
She soon would have to sing for many people,
While light on her bright eyes, as on a pool,
Gleamed from beyond, reflecting gladness there.

She followed slowly, so long passing by
As if there were still something to surmount;
And yet, once she had mastered that ascent,
She would no more be walking, but would fly.

Week 76: Herbsttag, by Rainer Maria Rilke

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.

Autumn Day

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.