This has to be one of my all time favorite poems. I had to translate it once in a sonnet workshop with R.S. Gwynn, and I don’t know any German. It was a hoot. One of my first poetry mentors, Adrienne Bond, introduced me to Rilke when I was a teenager, but I didn’t come across this poem until I had a class with Dana Gioia. Adrienne just told me to read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” and it ruined my life … in a good way, mostly. Still, this poem … OMG! I just love it!
I tend to have a thing for sonnets anyway, especially ones in the petrarchan variety. But this poem just blows me away. It’s a shame it’s not more well known in its German form, as the the last line has a bit more punch in the German. It actually ends on the word change (Your life must change!) but no one has ever satisfactorily translated it into English that way because change is a difficult rhyme within the context of the poem.
I just love that this poem is dripping with a certain sort of poignant spiritual awareness, yet endeavors to do so by examining the vestige of a pagan god. Well done, Rilke, well done! If you’ve never gotten to study Rilke and his whole deal with thing poems, do your self a favor and google it sometime.
I think about this poem often, especially in the last year or so – ever since being diagnosed with cancer. Cancer has that effect … it makes you realize you must change your life … even if you were living well and enjoying life prior to the diagnosis, as I was. For me, it has been an inspiration to spend more time with what matters, make more time for what matters: family, time with family, creativity, and time being creative. This is why I’ve been getting more and more into game development, as I see that as the key to more family time, plus my kids love to play games and even enjoy helping to make them. But I digress … without further ado, here is the POTD, enjoy:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
A specail thanks to poets.org for having this one on the interwebs.