A Christmas poem by Rilke

In September 1900, the 27-year-old painter Heinrich Vogeler showed his friend Rainer Maria Rilke a sketch depicting an angel's announcement of the birth of Jesus. Rilke, just 24 but already the author of several collections of verse, was struck by the image and made notes for some poems about the Nativity.

Eventually they took their place as three poems in Rilke's Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), a sequence published in 1913. They celebrate the human side of the Christmas story, describing Mary and Joseph's struggle to understand what was happening to them. In translating "The Birth of Christ," I have tried to reproduce Rilke's plain-spoken but wonderstruck language.


Without your simplicity, how could this
have happened--what now shines in the dark of night?
The God who thundered over the nations
makes himself mild and through you enters the world.

Were you expecting something greater?

What is greatness? He moves straight through
all measurements we know, dissolving them away.
Even the path of a star is not like that.

Behold: these kings standing here are great
and drag into your lap rare treasures
that each believes to be the greatest.

Perhaps you are astonished at their gifts.
But look into the blanket in your arms,
how He already surpasses all of them.

Amber that is traded near and far,
rings of gold and costly spices
that drift for a moment on the air:
these are quickly fading pleasures
and leave behind a vague regret.

The gift He brings--as you will see--is joy.

In a 1913 letter to the Czech writer Hugo Salus, Rilke said of Das Marienleben, "It is a little book that was presented to me, quite above and beyond myself, by a peaceful generous spirit, and I shall always get on well with it, just as I did when I was writing it." (Translation by H.D. Herter Norton.)

"The Life Path" by Friedrich Hölderlin

You too sought greater things, but the weight of love pulls
All of us down, and grief drives us even lower.
Yet the arc of our lives back
Where they came from is not in vain.

High or low! Does a hand not rule silent Nature
In holy night where all the days to come are planned,
And even Hell’s fractured maze--
Ruled by degree, and judged by law?

This much I have learned: unlike mortal masters, you
Heavenly, all-sustaining powers have never
Led me, as far as I know,
Along any level pathway.

A person tries all that life brings, say the heavens,
So that, well nourished, we may give thanks for it all
And understand the freedom
To set forth wherever we wish.

“Lebenslauf,” Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843)
Summer 1800
Translated by Frank Beck 2018

Many poets revise their poems after their initial publication. Usually the purpose is to bring the poem closer to the writer's original intent. With "Lebenslauf," Friedrich Hölderlin did something unusual: he took a poem about sorrow written two years earlier and rewrote it as a longer poem that expresses a nearly opposite point-of-view. 

The original four-line poem was one of 17 short poems Hölderlin sent to his friend, Christian Ludwig Neuffer, in the summer of 1798 for use in an anthology called A Pocket Book for Educated Ladies. At the time, Hölderlin was a 28-year-old former seminary student working as a private tutor for the Gontard family in Frankfurt. He had fallen in love with his student's mother, Susette Gontard, and the relationship had grown tense. The poem, however, expresses not anguish but resignation:

            High was my spirit's aim, but love has already
            Drawn it lower, and grief weighs it down even more.
            So I am making my way
            Through life's arc, back to where I began.

The two years between that poem and the longer one were pivotal ones in Hölderlin's life. He left the Gontard household and moved to nearby Homburg, remaining in touch with Susette. In 1799 he published the second volume of his epistolary novel, Hyperion, set against the backdrop of Greece's fight for independence.

Paradoxically, the suffering caused by parting with Susette made Hölderlin less self-centered. His previous poetry had emphasized life's tragedies; now he wrote with greater freedom, often in a prophetic vein. Rather than lamenting the problems of his existence, he celebrated what he thought life could be, in its highest and most satisfying form. 

During those two years, as Michael Hamburger has shown, Hölderlin learned from the Greeks how to make his poetry more sensuous and concrete. In the case of  "Lebenslauf", the quiet resignation of the earlier poem gave way to an heroic self-assertion that seeks to speak for his readers, as well as for himself.

During the following seven years, Hölderlin wrote "Bread and Wine" and the other extended poems for which he is best known. In 1807, however, he suffered a severe mental collapse. He spent the remaining 36 years living in seclusion, cared for by the family of Ernst Zimmer, a poetry-loving carpenter in Tübingen, a town near Stuttgart. The photo above shows the view of the River Neckar from an upper floor of the Zimmer's home.

For nearly a century, Hölderlin's work was not widely known, but in 1913 a young German scholar named Norbert von Hellingrath began publishing an edition of his poems that eventually filled six volumes. Rainer Maria Rilke saw some of the manuscripts while the edition was being prepared, and they became an important influence on the Duino Elegies, which Rilke published in 1923.

The first two stanzas of the 1800 poem in Hölderlin's hand
(Württembergische Landesbibliothek)

             Top photograph by Bettina Johl; all rights reserved.

"Winter Night" by Boris Pasternak

Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak in 1958

It snowed and snowed throughout the land,
A ceaseless snowing.
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Like a swarm of gnats in summer

That flock to a light,
Snowflakes flew to the windowpane,
Afloat in the night.

The storm drew arrows on the glass
And circles, growing.
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Up on the ceiling, shadows stirred,

Vivid and fleeting,
But where hands met and then legs met
Two fates were meeting.

And, knocked to the floor with a thud,

Two shoes came to rest;
And wax fell as lightly as tears
On folds of a dress.

All disappeared in snowy haze,

Blinding and blowing;
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

The candle shook in a draft, caught

In the chill one brings;
Temptation's heat, like an angel,
Raised its cross-shaped wings.

All February long it snowed,

And time and again
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Змияя ночь by Boris Pasternak

Translated by Frank Beck

When a poet writes about a snowstorm, we seldom know which storm he or she had in mind. In this case, we do. 
On the evening of February 6, 1947, Moscow pianist Maria Yudina invited a group of friends to hear her play and Boris Pasternak read. Rumor had it that the 56-year-old poet was working on a book of fiction, and there was great curiosity about it.

It snowed so heavily that day that Pasternak worried people wouldn't come; in fact, the car carrying him and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, got lost repeatedly on the way to Yudina's apartment. Finally, as the car stood idling in the street, Pasternak looked up and saw a lamp flickering in a window. That must be the house, he said, and, strangely enough, he was right. 

The symbolism of a single candle guiding the way, through spiritual darkness as well as through a night in winter, resonated with Pasternak. The following morning, he wrote 'Winter Night', which weaves the imagery of that February evening into the love story that was at the core of his new work. For a time he considered calling it, 'A Candle Burned.' By the time the book was published, a decade later, he had named it Doctor Zhivago.

'Winter Night' eventually took its place as one of the 25 poems that form the final section of the novel, and it is now among the most frequently translated of all 20th-century poems. Anna Pasternak, the writer's grand-niece, describes its genesis in detail in her 2017 book, Lara: The Untold Love Story and The Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago; see the fifth link below.