Autumn Day (Herbsttag)


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/one final sweetness") and moves briskly, presenting three 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

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