I am almost done with The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Fascinating stuff. Rilke wrote something like 400 poems in French towards the end of his life. Basically a whole Collected Works in another language. He approached his poems in French in the spirit of starting over in a way that he couldn’t in his native German.
What does it mean to start over? Focusing on details.
Case in point, here’s one poem from his series The Roses:
I see you, rose, half-open book
filled with so many pages
of that detailed happiness
we will never read. Magus-book,
opened by the wind and read
with our eyes closed…,
butterflies fly out of you, stunned
for having had the same ideas.
Those last four lines contain within them so much sensation – so much surprise – you read them and go back into yourself, recognizing an experience there in the words.
Rilke’s French poems are where he goes for it and basically becomes a modern version of Rumi – he sings within his praise for the world.
Continuing with last week’s theme of winter, here is Rilke’s take on it.
In the same spirit of starting over, Rilke also left some of his French poems imperfect. The poem below is such an example.
The last line almost takes me out of the poem. It is an unfinished thought. But, read after so many lines of yearning and remembering, the line leaves us lost in as much thought as the speaker.
Winter – Rainer Maria Rilke *
I love those former winters that still weren’t meant for sports.
We feared them a little, they were so hard and sharp;
we confronted them with a bit of courage,
to return into our house, white, sparkling wise-men.
And the fire, that great fire consoling us against them,
was a strong and living fire, a real fire.
We wrote badly, our fingers were all stiff,
but what joy to dream and entertain whatever
helps escaping memories delay a while…
They came so close, we saw them better
than in summer…, we proposed colors to them.
Inside, all was painting,
while outside all became engraving.
And the trees, who worked at home, in lamplight…
* as translated by A. Poulin in The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.