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Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke Paperback – Unabridged, April 22, 1981

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Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke + Letters to a Young Poet + Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

One of the most widely read modern poets, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) first became known and respected with the publication of The Book of Hours, when he was in his twenties. He is now most famous for his Letters to a Young Poet, published during the same time, which continues to inspire generations of writers.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Rilke's first large book, and the first he had confidence in, was Das Stundenbuch, which I have translated as A Book for the Hours of Prayer. The German title suggests a medieval monk's or nun's handbook of prayers. Innigkeit is the German word associated with such poetry, which becomes "inwardness" in English; but the syllables of the German word have so much more drive and finality than the English sounds. Innigkeit has the depth of a well where one finds water. And water is the element of this book, a water whose source Rilke found inside himself.

The first group of poems in the book, called "The Book of Monkish Life," came in a wonderful rush, shortly after Rilke returned home from a trip to Russia with Lou Andreas-Salome and her husband in 1899. He was twenty-three years old. Until then he had felt his life to be constricted and restrained: the narrow streets of his native Prague seemed stiflingly provincial, and his mother's love and her piety left little space for him. He later said of her:

In some heart-attic she is tucked away and Christ comes there to wash her every day.

The power of Lou Andreas-Salome's personality and the open spaces of the Russian plains astounded him. He understood Russia's outer space as inner space. It lay east of "Europe":

Sometimes a man stands up during supper and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking, because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house, stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses, so that his children have to go far out into the world toward that same church, which he forgot.

He doesn't mean any orthodox church, but says that if a man walks toward that inner space, he will free his children. It is not too late.

Because One Man wanted so much to have you, I know that we can all want you.He is astonished to realize that this wanting and having are perfectly possible right now, even for twentieth-century man. Growth is growth into space, as a tree grows through its rings, as the snail grows in spirals and the solar system moves in circles:

I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.

In his surprise he doesn't even identify himself as a man; he could be a falcon or a storm.

Before his Russian trip, Rilke had spent a few months in Italy, and he loved the religious paintings of the early Renaissance, the heavy gold frames, the gold flake: he noticed that the Mediterranean psyche associated gold with religious feeling. But he saw something different when he looked within himselfwhat we could call a North European unconscious.

I have many brothers in the South. Laurels stand there in monastery gardens. I know in what a human way they imagine the Madonna, and I think often of young Titians through whom God walks burning.

Yet no matter how deeply Igo down into myself my God is dark, and like a webbing made of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.He then realizes that he may have claimed too much for himself, and he delicately suggests how unformed he is:

I know that my trunk rose from his warmth, but that's all, because my branches hardly move at all

near the ground, and only wave a little in the wind.

The language broods; it stays in the moist mood of the North European unconscious. The holy is below us, not above; and a line moves to descend, to dip down, to touch water that lies so near we are astonished our hands haven't dipped into it before. The lines suggest holy depth, always distant, always close.

I love the dark hours of my being in which my senses drop into the deep.He becomes aware that he has two separate lives.

My life is not this steeply sloping hour, in which you see me hurrying. . . . I am only one of my many mouths, and at that the one that will be still the soonest.He loves the tension between the poles, hurry and quiet, life and death. Even though death's note wants to dominate, he is the rest between two notes:

. . . in the dark interval, reconciled, -they stay there trembling.

And the song goes on, beautiful.The problem is not whether the song will continue, but whether a dark space can be found where the notes can resonate. This dark space resembles the hub of a wheel, a pitcher, the hold of a ship that carries us "through the wildest storm of all," the grave earth under the tree, the lower branches of a pine, the darkness at the edge of a bonfire. The dark space is the water in the well. This hub, or hold, or dark space, is not a Pre-Raphaelite preciosity, nor the light of narcissism; the dark space can be rough and dangerous. It is something out there, with the energy of an animal, and at the same instant it is far inside. Once a man or a woman inhabits that space, he or she finds it hidden inside objects, in walnuts or tree roots, in places where people don't ordinarily look for it...


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New edition edition (April 22, 1981)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060907274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060907273
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #614,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Boris Bangemann on March 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
Mr. Bly's collection includes the two most famous poems by Rilke, Der Panther ("The panther") and Herbsttag ("October Day"), but mostly it reflects the editor's personal taste. For example, he omits the Duino Elegies because, among other things, he is not convinced they belong to Rilke's best work: "There's something about them that is admirable but not likeable."

Bly has a good sense for the troubled life of Rilke and the inner strength that enabled Rilke to produce his art (a situation not unlike that of Hermann Hesse, whose poems Rilke once classified as being "on the verge of art"). Despite Rilke's neuroticism, his rootlessness, and his difficult relationships, for Bly, Rilke "stands for toughness, freedom from self-pity, ability to work, whatever one's life situation."

Bly states that he wants to be true to the sound of the poems, but his translations are quite matter-of-fact and lose a lot of the lyrical qualities of the German original. If you are looking for a translation that captures the spirit and sound of Rilke's poetry better than Bly's efforts, try Stephen Mitchell's The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (also available in this fine electronic store).

To give you an idea of the difference in quality, let me compare the translations of the first stanza of the first of the Sonnets to Orpheus. The original in German is: Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Uebersteigung! / O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr! / Und alles schweigt. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung / ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.

Bly translates: A tree rising. What a pure growing! / Orpheus is singing! A tree inside the ear! / Silence, silence. Yet new buildings, / signals, and changes went on in the silence.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
Unable to read German, I had always found Rilke's poetry inaccessible and vaguely repellent until I found this translation. Stephen Mitchell's much-vaunted translation left me cold. Perhaps Mitchell captures the sonority of the poems better than does Bly, but he strains so hard to do so that the life goes out of the verse. It does not quite read like living English. Each poem seems to be wearing a mask that says, "This is what I really look like!" You never get to look the poem directly in the face. Bly's translation, by contrast, while perhaps excessively plain-spoken (which is why I give it 4 stars and not 5), has a transparency and vivacity that has allowed me finally to glimpse what all the fuss is about. I am not sure that Rilke stands in the front rank of great poets - he is too resolutely, narrowly interior for that - but he definitely belongs among them and I am very glad to have made his acquaintance at last. Especially helpful is Bly's interspersed commentary, intelligently and sensitively relating the poetry to Rilke's life with perceptions that could only come from a master poet who feels himself in some way a kindred spirit. Perhaps that, in the end, is why Bly's translation is more satisfying to me than Mitchell's. Bly's seems to proceed from human fellow-feeling, an engagement of the heart that is both playful and serious. Mitchell's seems to be more in the spirit of Service to Art, an altogether stiffer and stuffier affair. If you want a good example of Mitchell's genius, try his Book of Job. If you want to find a way in to Rilke's genius, buy this book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
Many of the complaints about Bly's translations are justified. Even as one who does not read or write German, I can look over at the original german text and see that the translations lack a good deal of precision. It would be easy to conclude from this that Bly takes too many liberties, or as some have assumed, that he had too poor an understanding of the German language
I have read most of Bly's writing (poetry, prose, and translations), and I certainly believe that he has contributed immeasurably to the existence of poetry in the English language. He has championed many important poets (many non-Americans) and revealed them to those like myself who are sadly the victims of typically American multi-linguistic laziness. If not his translating ability, I definitly complement his taste.
But there is more to Bly's seemingly "bad" translations then most reviewers have touched upon. The first thing that should be known is that Bly's taste for language differs from that of many poets. It probably differs a good deal from Rilke's sense of poetic language. Bly likes simple words and relatively straight forward talk, language that could be spoken "on the farm", as it were, wisdom that is not dressed up in philosophical, intellectual, or academic language, something "downhome." It is probably a good thing, because his prose is generally vague, suggestive rather than demonstrative, and prone to metahporical "leaps" that can and have frequently left readers saying, "Huh?" If his prose was academic on top of this it would be nearly unreadable.
This preference for downhome language is not precise for translation or true to Rilke's original.
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