Rainer Maria Rilke

A Selection of Rilke’s French Poems

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved.

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Translator’s Introduction

Rilke’s French poems created during the last four years of his life, after the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, were an expression of gratitude to the landscape of the Valais in Switzerland, which he felt had made the completion of the former works possible. Quiet but subtle, these poems communicate his deep love of the French language, and provide silvery echoes of the elegies and sonnets, ‘in a borrowed tongue’.

Portrait of Scève

‘Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke’
Paula Modersohn-Becker (German, 1876 - 1907) Wikimedia Commons

‘C’est presque l'invisible qui luit’

It’s almost the invisible that gleams

above the winged slope;

a fragment of night’s clarity remains

to a day mixed with silver.

See the light weighs not at all

on these obedient contours;

while someone consoles the villages

out there, for being distant.

‘C’est qu’il nous faut consentir’

We must indeed consent

to such extreme forces;

boldness is our challenge

despite the great repentance.

And then it often happens

that what we face alters:

the calm becomes storm,

the abyss forms the angel.

Do not fear the detour.

The organ must thunder

for the music to resound

with all the notes of love.

‘Cette lumière peut-elle’

Can the light render

a whole world to us?

Is it rather the fresh

shadow, quivering and tender,

that entangles us,

that so resembles us

and turns and trembles

about a strange support?

Shadows of frail leaves

on road and meadow.

sudden familiar gesture,

that adopts and melds us

to a too-fresh clarity.

‘Chemins qui ne mènent nulle part’

Paths that lead nowhere

between two meadows,

diverted from their goal

with art, one might say,

paths which often have

nothing before them

but pure space

and the season.

‘Comme un verre de Venise’

As a Venetian glass knows

this grey, in being born,

and the indecisive clarity

of which it’s to be enamoured,

so your tender hands

have dreamed in advance

of slowly balancing

our over-full moments.

‘Comment encore reconnaître’

How to recognise once more

what sweet life effected?

Perhaps by contemplating

the traces, in my palm,

of those lines and creases

we acquire in closing

this hand of nothingness

on the void.

‘Douce courbe le long du lierre’

Gentle curve beside the ivy,

vague track where the goats linger,

lovely light a silversmith

would mount in stone.

Poplar in its perfect place

opposing its vertical

to the slow robust leafage

that spreads and stretches.

‘Eau qui se presse, qui court - ’

Racing, flowing water – forgetful

water the distracted earth drinks,

stay a moment in the hollow

of my hand, remember!

Clear and rapid love, indifference

almost absence, hastening by,

between your coming and going

over-much, make a trembling stay.

‘Là, sous la treille, parmi le feuillage’ (Eros:IV)

There beneath the vine, among the leaves,

it so happens that we may divine him:

the rustic brow of a savage child,

the ancient mutilated mouth…

The grapes that front him, growing heavy,

and seeming weary of their heaviness,

for a brief moment bring us near the terror

of this fine deceptive summer.

And his raw smile, which he infuses

into all the fruits of his proud scenery,

acknowledges the guile all around,

that gently cradles him to sleep.

‘Doux pâtre qui survit’ (Ivory fragment)

Sweet shepherd who tenderly

survives, in role,

with the remnants of a ewe

on his shoulders.

Sweet shepherd who survives

in yellowed ivory,

to play the shepherd.

Like yourself, your

absent flock endures,

in the slow melancholy

of your attendant figure,

that summarises, in infinity,

the respite from busy pastures.

‘Il suffit que, sur un balcon’

It suffices that, on a balcony,

or at the casement of a window,

a woman hesitates…for her to be

the one we lose

on seeing her appear.

And if she lifts her arms

to tie her hair, tender vase:

how much our loss by that

gains sudden emphasis

and our misfortune, verve.

‘J’ai une telle conscience de ton’

I have such consciousness of your

being, rose entire,

that my assent confounds you

with my heart in celebration.

I breathe you in, as if you were,

rose, all of life,

and feel myself the perfect friend

of such a friend.

‘Ô la biche : quel bel intérieur’

O, the doe: what lovely depths

of ancient forests live in your eyes;

what rounded confidence

mixed with so much fear.

All that borne by the vivid

gracefulness of your leaps.

But nothing ever reaches

the un-possessive

innocence of your brow.

‘Je ne veux qu’une seule leçon, c’est la tienne,’ (The Fountain)

I only wish one lesson, which is yours,

fountain who plunge back into yourself –

that of the dangerous jet to whom falls

a heavenly return to terrestrial life.

Nothing is such an example to me

as your multiple murmur;

you, light temple column

destroyed by your own nature.

In your fall, how each stream of water

that ends its dance, moulds itself.

Let me be the student, emulator,

of your innumerable nuances!

Yet, more than your song, what sways me to you,

is that moment of delirious silence,

when, at night, across your liquid flair,

passes your own return, a breath removes.

‘Le silence uni de l’hiver’

The universal silence of winter

is replaced, in the air,

by a singing silence;

each voice that woos

adds a contour there

perfects an image.

And all this is only the depth

of what might be the action

of our heart, that surpasses

the multiple design

of this silence, full

of inexpressible daring.

‘N’es-tu pas notre géométrie,’

Are you not our geometry,

window, so simple a form,

that effortlessly circumscribes

our vast life?

She, whom we love, never more beautiful

than when she appears

bordered by you; since you indeed

render her almost immortal.

All danger is abolished. Being

stands there in the midst of love,

around it this little space,

which one controls.

Ô mes amis, vous tous, je ne renie’

O my friends, all of you, I deny

none of you; not even that passer-by,

who was only an open, hesitant

glance of inconceivable life.

How many times, a being, despite itself,

halts, with eye or gesture,

the imperceptible flight of others

by, for a moment, rendering it manifest.

Those unknown. They form a large part

of our fate which every day completes.

O discreet unknown, my heart entertains

perfect possession, attracting your gaze.

‘Ce ne sont pas des souvenirs’

It is not the memories

that maintain your presence in me;

neither are you mine

by the force of a fine desire.

What renders you here,

is that ardent detour

a slow tenderness

described in my blood.

I have no need

to see you appear;

it sufficed me to be born

to lose you a little less.

‘Puisque tout passe, faisons’

Since everything passes, let us forge

a passing melody;

that which quenches our thirst

conquers us.

Let’s sing what leaves us,

with love and art;

let us be quicker than

the swift departure.

‘Qu’il est doux parfois d'être de ton avis,’

How sweet sometimes to share your opinion,

O my body, elder brother,

how sweet to be strong

with your strength,

to feel you, leaf, stem, bark,

and all you still may become,

you, so close to the spirit.

You, so frank, so whole,

in your manifest joy

at being this tree of gestures,

which, for an instant, slows

the pace of the heavens,

to set its life there.

‘Rose, eût-il fallu te laisser dehors,’

Rose, was it necessary to leave you

outside, exquisite beloved?

What can a rose do there, where

the spell cast on us is exhausted?

Point of return. Here you are

who, distraught, share

this life with us, this life

not so old as you.

‘Sur le soupir de l’amie’

With a friend’s sigh

the whole night rises,

a brief caress

traversing a dazzled sky.

It’s as if an elemental force

of the universe, became

once more the bearer

of all lost love.

‘Tout ici chante la vie de naguère,’

Everything here sings the life of long ago,

not in the sense that consumes tomorrow;

one divines, brave in their primal strength,

the wind and sky, the hand, the bread.

It’s not a yesterday encroaching everywhere,

fixing these ancient contours forever,

it’s the earth, content with its own image,

consenting now to its first day.

‘Une rose seule, c’est toutes les roses’

A single rose is every rose,

and this: the irreplaceable one,

the perfect, the flexible term,

framed by the text of things.

How, without her, ever to utter

whatever our hopes were,

and those tender intervals

within continual departure.

‘Vers quel soleil gravitent’ (The Orchard: II)

Towards what sun gravitate

so many weighty desires?

Of this ardour you utter

where is the firmament?

To please one another

must we lean so much?

Let us be light, light

on the earth disturbed

by so many opposing forces.

Look at the orchard, then:

so inevitably weighty:

yet of that same ill

it forms the summer’s virtue.

‘V’oici encor de l’heure qui s’argente,’

Here once more, the hour that’s silvered

mixed with soft evening the pure metal,

and adds to the slow beauty

the slow return of a melodious calm.

Ancient earth resumes, and changes:

a bright star survives our efforts.

Scattered sounds, fleeing the day, gather,

returning all to the voice of the waters.