Fall Day (“Herbsttag,” translation Adam Cooper)
Rainer Maria Rilke

Lord: It is time. The summer has been long.
Let fall your shadows on the sundials now,
And on the meadow, let the wind run loose!
Command the very last fruits to be full.
Allow them still, two more Italian days
And urge them on to their perfection, press
Their final sweetness out, as heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, builds no more!
Whoever is alone, will be alone for long,
Will wake, and read, compose long letters;
Will wander restless byways up and down,
Under the leaves that scatter in the sky.

Comment:

Praying to the Lord, the speaker asks for an end to a long summer. Why this needs to be asked at all is a difficulty. Won’t summer end anyway? Shade needs to replace sun; night feels less like part of a cycle, and more like the end of time (“shadows on the sundials”). The wind needs its freedom, otherwise it cannot be wind. The speaker wants time to end and motion to begin.

This sounds crazy – how could such a wish make any sense? Without time, there is no motion. But consider the fullness of fruits. They reach a perfection in time, and then time needs to be stopped so their sweetness can be savored. It’s as if there is a slowing of time (“two more Italian days”) that is less time and more motion (“press”). The fruits become like an artifact, wine. All human action is an attempt to turn time into our motion, to make our lives ours.

But again, this is a most natural prayer. Did God need to be mentioned? It does seem the speaker undergoes a revelation. There is no need for a construct such as a house. If nature allows for man to perfect it, then man dwells everywhere. Nor is there a need for others, as discoveries and revelations are a regular course of life. We’re all wanderers, just like the leaves being blown around.

That’s the irony of the request. The poet, the maker of things, sees the shadow of death fall upon the poem. Nature may be perfected by man, but man cannot perfect himself. The lack of dwelling and the lack of companionship are the symptoms of just trying to talk aloud to make sense of it all. We ask God for a heightening of our powers, only to confront the fact that we are a curious part of nature, the part that by knowing and using it does not fit in.