Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Tag: rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke, “Fall Day” (Herbsttag)

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.


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.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Panther”

The Panther (trans. Adam Cooper – 3 new translations of Rilke)
Rainer Maria Rilke

From passing over bars, his gaze is tired,
And takes in nothing more.
To him, there are a thousand bars–behind
A thousand bars, no world.

His massive footpads’ silent tread revolves
In ever smaller rounds,
Like power dancing round a midpoint, where
A mighty will stands numbed.

But then, a noiseless eyelid lifts. An image
Enters in, runs down
The tensile stillness of his limbs, and ends
Its being, in the heart.


Go read Adam’s translations – I can safely tell you that what he’s doing isn’t easy. With the Cavafy paraphrases, I’m hit or miss: I’m mainly aiming to narrow the focus of his ideas to make something stick in the reader’s head. Getting the poems to be musical is another challenge altogether and I’m not very good at it yet. Adam’s got something special going and I know you’ll love it.

I wish I had translated this poem.  Adam has Rilke’s speaker see the panther in terms of being and image, in terms of lines that confine and define. The first stanza concludes that there’s no world for the panther, as images you can never interact with establish nothing. In a weird way, the fact of seeing implies distance from an object. Even those of us who are more active have to wonder about a world constructed from our perceptions: we may be trapped ourselves.

The second stanza takes the problem of line and gives us an almost classical image. Once, circular motion was held perfect motion, as objects that were accomplishing their end would move in circles (i.e. celestial beings. See Heidegger, “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics”). This panther has some kind of power that isn’t just perception. He almost dances; he has a kind of grace which allows the massive to move in the miniscule.

What is that power exactly? The panther sees an image and all of a sudden reawakens. The panther only temporarily lapsed from seeing and desiring. The world is shaped by our perceptions and desires, the latter having a certain priority. Even more interesting is what the panther may be seeing – the speaker, an intelligent, perceiving being, who may be a threat, potential food, or a kindred spirit. Those bars do not prevent an end to the “tensile stillness” of the speaker’s heart.

“Closing-piece,” Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. me)

Death is great.
We are His
laughing mouths.
If we mean ourselves in the middle of life,
he dares to cry out
in the middle of us.


1. “His” is how I am translating Seinen, which is capitalized in the German. “Wir sind die Seinen / lachenden Munds.” I don’t know if the capitalization is relevant, but I’m not going to guess at what that specifically means just yet.

2. “We mean ourselves” – yes, this is as literal as I can be. “Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen.” I have placed “meinen” between “wir” and “uns” in the translation, as the fact “wir” and “uns” are next to each other in the literal text seems to beg for a verb to separate them, and that parallel structure with the end of the poem is maintained by placing “in the middle of life” at the end of the sentence. Feel free to disagree with my work; this is entirely preliminary.

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