15 October 2011

Catching Rilke’s Autumn

Because Rainer Maria Rilke’s most famous autumn poems evoke the season so strongly, it becomes hard, after years of living with these lines, to distinguish between your own recurring autumn experience - & Rilke’s framing of that experience. Harder, still, in days of climate change, to catch those “two final southerly days” that Rilke refers to in “Autumn Day”, which was published in his 1902 volume “The Book of Images.” Yet while our Hamburgian grapes rot on the vine – sweeter & bigger than last year but still too sour to eat many of – I feel it’s my last chance for this year to post my translations of ‘Autumn Day’ & of ‘Autumn’.

Autumn Day

Lord – it is time. The summer was so big.
Lay your shadows down upon the sundials,
and down the dales let the winds fly loose.

Order fullness from the last few fruits;
give them two final southerly days,
push them into ripeness – and hunt
the last sweetness in the heavy grape.

If you’ve no house yet, you’ll not build one now.
If you’re alone now, you’ll stay that way for long,
you’ll wake, read, write long letters,
and wander here and there through the avenues,
restlessly, as the leaves tumble down.


The leaves are falling, falling from afar,
as if withered in the heavens’ furthest gardens;
they’re falling with a gesture of negation.

And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
out of all stars into loneliness.

We’re all falling. That hand, there, falls.
And take a look around you: it is in everything.

And yet there’s One, who holds this Falling
infinitely gently in his two hands.

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