One autumn in Paris: Rilke's "Herbsttag"

Le Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Lord, it is time. The summer was so great.
Now lay your shadow across the sundials,
And let the winds of the field run free.

Tell the last of the grapes to ripen:
give them two more days of southern warmth,
urge them to completion, and then chase
one final sweetness into the heavy vines.

He who has no home now will never have one.
He who is alone will be that way a long time.
He’ll lie awake and read and write long letters,
and, up and down along the avenues,
will wander anxiously, when brown leaves scatter.

Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Frank Beck

At the end of August 1902, Rilke left his wife Clara Westhoff and their infant daughter Ruth in Munich and went to Paris to work on a monograph about Rodin. He found a room in a small hotel in the rue Toullier, two blocks from the Jardin du Luxembourg, which seemed to promise "thinking, rest, solitude, everything I longed for."

Rilke spent his days wondering through Rodin's studio, taking notes and talking with the artist. At 27, Rilke had doubts about his writing, and it thrilled him to see the 62-year-old sculptor so confidently and diligently at work. The nights, however, were lonely (Clara didn't join her husband until early October), and out of that loneliness, on September 21, he wrote "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day").

I've tried to reproduce Rilke's economical German, which contains few adjectives, uses only one metaphor ("chase/the one final sweetness") and moves briskly, presenting four separate scenes in just 12 lines. "Herbsttag" first appeared in the second edition of The Book of Images (Das Buch der Bilder) in 1906. It has become one of Rilke's most widely anthologized and translated poems.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her

The first song history gives us



While you live, be joyful;
grief must know its measure.
The span of life is brief;
time will claim its treasure.

Listen to the only song to come down to us from Ancient Greece, and consider its message. Known as the Seikilos Epitaph, its words and accompanying musical notation were inscribed on a tombstone discovered in 1883 near Aiden, in what is now Turkey.

The song was written by someone known to us only as Seikilos and dedicated to Euterpe, thought to be his wife. Archeologists believe that the tombstone was made about the time of Jesus.


Generally, I believe that songs and poems should preserve the meter of the original, if possible. Here, however, I've been loyal to our tradition of rhyming epitaphs. 
This song about the transience of life is the only musical composition from that era to survive. Does Fate have the heart of a poet?


Here is the original poem, in Classical Greek:

Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν
τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος  παιτεῖ

transliterated in the Roman alphabet:

Hoson zēis phainou
mēden holōs sy lypou
pros oligon esti to zēn
to telos ho chronos apaitei

and in a literal translation from the Greek:

While you live, dance and sing;
grieve not and be joyful.
For a lifetime is too short,
and time bears death's prize away.

Translation by Frank Beck, 2015
(Fresco from the Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia, Italy)


Sappho: An evocative fragment

Fresco associated with Sappho (from Pompeii, first century CE)

Dropping out of sight go the moon  
and Pleiades. Midnight slides
by me, then hour on hour.
I lie here awake and alone.

Anne Carson says, "Sappho is a musician," and her own Sappho translations are some of the most musical English versions of Classical Greek poetry I've ever read (see the first link below). Many translators simply put the poet's thoughts into modern English, without trying to reproduce Sappho's music. 

In this translation of one of the best known fragments attributed to Sappho (no. 168b), I've maintained the eight-syllable count of the Greek lines and echoed the meter as closely as I could. I've also been mindful of the caesura (the mid-line pause in Classical verse): in lines 2, 3 and 4, it falls in the same place as in the Greek.


I have also matched the position of key vowels, although I had to juggle the four long vowels in the last line that give the  poem's closing its plaintive feeling in Greek. (Note that I intend "Pleiades" to be spoken with the accent on the second syllable, as in Greek, not on the first syllable, as in English.) 

In order to replicate Sappho's meter, I've altered a few line-to-line meanings. For example, in lines 2 and 3 the Greek words mean "It is the middle of the night". I've changed that to "Midnight slides by me" in order to meet the needs of the meter. However, my English reflects the idea of time in motion, which is present in line 3 of the Greek (literally, "the hour passes by"). 

Anyone who reads Greek can judge how faithful I've been to Sappho's music and where I've strayed from her literal meaning:
Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

"Sappho and Alcaeus" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881 (click to enlarge)

"Aeolian song is suddenly revealed as a mature work of art in the spirited stanzas of Alcaeus. It is raised to a supreme excellence by his younger contemporary, Sappho, whose melody is unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled, among all the relics of Greek verse." 

                                    British classicist Richard Claverhouse Jebb (1841-1905)