Rainer Maria Rilke
Will-o’-the-Wisps

We have an old conversance
with the lights on the moor.
They seem to me like great-aunts…
I discover more and more

between them and me the family trait
which no force suppresses:
this swing, this jump, this push, this bend,
that others can’t do.

I too am where the paths do not go,
in the fire-damp many a one avoided,
and I have often seen myself extinguish
Under my eyelid.

Blue Hydrangea

Like the last green in trays of paint
are these leaves, dry, matte, and raw,
behind the flower umbels, that do not
bear in themselves a blue, but mirror it from afar.

They mirror it weepily and imprecisely,
as if they wanted to lose it again,
and as in old letter paper
yellow is in them, violet, and gray;

washed out as on a child’s apron
no longer worn, to which nothing more happens:
how one feels the briefness of a small life.

But suddenly the blue seems to renew itself
in one of the umbels, and one sees
a touching blue rejoicing before green.

from  Sonnets to Orpheus, 1.2

And almost a girl it was and came forth
out of this united joy of song and lyre
and shone forth clear through her spring veil
and made itself a bed within my ear.

And slept in me. And everything was her sleep.
The trees that I had ever admired, these
feelable distances, the felt meadow
and that surprise that concerned myself.

She slept the world. Singing god, how have
you perfected her, so that she did not first desire
to be awake? Look, she came into being and slept.

Where is her death? O, will you yet find
this motif, before your song consumes itself? –
Where is she sinking out of me? … A girl almost …

from  Sonnets to Orpheus, 2.29

Silent friend of the many distances, feel
how your breath still yet increases space.
In the dark belfries' timbers
let yourself ring out. That which feeds on you

turns thus nourished into strength.
In transformation pass in and out.
What is your saddest experience?
If you find drinking bitter, become wine.

Be in this night of excess
magic power at the crossroads of your senses
the sense of their strange confluence.

And if what is earthly has forgotten you,
say to the quiet earth: I flow.
to the rushing water speak: I am.

Translated from the German by Burton Pike

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) is one of the twentieth century's foremost poets. He wrote mainly in German, but also wrote some four hundred poems in French. His works include The Book of Hours, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to OrpheusThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Letters to a Young Poet.

Burton Pike has translated Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and edited and co-translated Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, among other works from German and French. He is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and German at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.