Source of book: I started out reading this as a library loan, but liked it enough to purchase my own copy.
First of all, because I read this book in English translation, the approach by the translators is important. In effect, this book has three authors: Rilke, and the two women who translated it, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. One could make the argument that there are four authors - at least in Rilke’s view, because he considered the Divine to be a co-author of this volume. (Rilke was a non-practicing Catholic, and more of a mystic in practice.)
Barrows and Macy chose to translate freely, rather than adhere to Rilke’s rhymes. His forms are traditional, with alternating rhymes predominating. As they show in the preface, trying to duplicate this in English tends to make the poems sing-song-y, rather than stately as they are in German. Thus, the feel of the translated poems in this case is very modern. The lines are kept intact, but not the meter, so they read as free verse. I recognized a few of the poems as they are translated here, so I suspect that this translation remains popular - particularly for those who tend to quote poetry as soundbites. No knock against the translation for that. It is beautiful enough, and its quotability should be seen as a sign of its universal appeal.
If anything, this reflects Rilke’s current moment of popularity. His mysticism and focus on art for its own sake are refreshing, particularly after the recent period (say, the ‘60s and ‘70s) where so much of poetry became overtly political. (These things go in cycles, of course. And, some political issues wear better than others. For example, Milton’s works on freedom of speech are still powerful, while Yeats’ references to Irish conflicts and personalities are largely lost on modern Americans.)
Rilke wrote The Book of Hours as a young man in his mid-20s, after a visit to Russia. He met with Tolstoy and Pasternak, and became acquainted with Eastern Orthodox monasticism. The very title of the book reflects that influence. The Medieval “Book of Hours” contained prayers and devotions, much like Rilke’s work, which he subtitled, “Love poems to God.”
Rilke at the age when he wrote The Book of Hours.
I was reminded of another devotional work that I read nearly three years ago, Gitanjali, by the Bengali poet Tagore. That work’s name is “song offerings,” and is likewise a gorgeous expression of a longing for the Divine. In contrast to George Herbert (recently read and reviewed) or Christina Rossetti (reviewed here), Rilke and Tagore do not incorporate much theology into their poems. To the extent that they do, it is of a mystical - and occasionally pantheistic - sort, with a sort of kinship with nature, life, and the whole of experience. I hesitate to use “pantheistic” because that is such a loaded - and negative - word in the circles I grew up in. I rather would describe it as an acknowledgement that we experience the Divine from more than just prescribe religious rituals. The stars above us as well as the dirt beneath sing to us, and we can worship just as well in the open air cathedral of the mountains. As Rilke puts it:
For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.
With that, here are some of my favorites.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.
There is so much that is truth in that one. Throughout history, we have always understood the Divine through the lens of our own cultural systems; and so we find difficult to lay aside the old paints and colors and open our hearts to the untamed lion, as C. S. Lewis put it. Or, as another once said, we insist on putting new wine into those old wineskins.
Because Rilke writes these from the viewpoint of the monk, he captures the introvert experience so well. Perhaps poets are all introverts - it is hard to say for sure, but there is strong evidence in that direction. Either way, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful portrait than this one:
I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots
a dream once lost among sorrows and songs.
Or this one:
Why am I reaching again for the brushes?
When I paint your portrait, God,
But I can choose to feel you.
At my senses’ horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.
Yet standing here, peering out,
I’m all the time seen by you.
All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
Or, there is the one that led me to take a look at this volume. In one of the more peculiar, perhaps laughable, connections, I heard a line from this in Flora and Ulysses, a kids’ book about a squirrel with superpowers my kids introduced me to on one of our trips. (You can read my thoughts on this one here.) At a significant moment, this poem is quoted. Under circumstances which can only be described as ludicrous. But the line itself is good (“flare up like flame”) and in context, makes for a moving metaphor of serving as the hands and feet of God on earth.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Occasionally, bits and pieces of this collection attach themselves to the outside world. A great example of this is one poem that many have noted seems prophetic in hindsight. Rilke published these in 1905, but began writing them in 1899. The end of the century, the fin de siecle, as it came to be known. And, standing on that divide, he wrote these words:
I’m living just as the century ends.
A great leaf, that God and you and I
have covered with writing
turns now, overhead, in strange hands.
We feel the sweep of it like a wind.
We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen.
Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
and look at one another, saying nothing.
Another poem surprised me in that I knew I had heard a version of it before. It is found in a song by Sixpence None The Richer (another C. S. Lewis reference there…) entitled “Still Burning.”
Here is Rilke’s original:
Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
And without feet I can make my way to you,
without a mouth I can swear your name.
Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.
Here is the Sixpence version:
you are the burning
the flame that is turning
my smoldering ash into a bird
so stay close my brother
I couldn't stand the loss
you are the bridge of action
I need you to help me cross
I need you to help me
so when you break,
my arms I'll take hold of you
I know your heart is a hand that takes hold of me
my hand that is breaking
is the hand that is making
all the dead things in me grow
a gift of a holy loss
this burning at the dross
This vision of longing and brokenness resonates with those of us who feel deeply and cannot always utter our deepest and darkest needs and fears. We call out to the Divine, and wish to take hold with our hearts when we cannot with our hands.
Likewise, for those of us who have not had a serene journey, and who often feel that our own wrestling fails to even make sense to those around us, can find in this poem a sense of a kindred spirit.
I am praying again, Awesome One.
You hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.
I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.
In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
the eyes with which I once beheld you.
I am a house gutted by fire
where only the guilty sometimes sleep
before the punishment that devours them
hounds them out into the open.
I am a city by the sea
sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown
had poisoned my mother as she carried me.
It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart-
oh let them take me now.
Into them I place these fragments, my life,
and you, God - spend them however you want.
I’ll end with a final poem, about endings.
God, give us each our own death,
the dying that proceeds
from each of our lives:
the way we loved,
the meanings we made,