Poetry Friday: Spending the first day of autumn with Rainer Maria Rilke

Photo of Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet writing at the fin de siècle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weather of fall has come at last to Chicago, one of many cities where, this summer, heat records fell and the grass scorched in the sun and people cowered indoors behind the whirr of window air-conditioning units.  Now, at last, there are clouds and rain—the air is cool enough to walk in, and the green is back in quick little glimpses on lawns and in hedges.  So it seems as fair a time as any to turn, at least for one week, to the contemplation of my favorite season, and to the poets who praise it.  I pondered plenty of good choices for today to usher in the fall, but finally I settled on a lovely little piece by Rainer Maria Rilke entitled “Herbsttag”, or “Autumn Day”.  There are many translations of the poem, but the one I prefer comes from William Gass‘s book, Reading Rilke, and so it is the one I share with you below.  This is a poem Rilke composed in Paris exactly 110 years ago—that is, on September 21, 1902—after traveling to that city alone that summer:

“Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadow let the winds throng.

Ask the last fruits to ripen on the vine;
give them further two more summer days
to bring about perfection and to raise
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will establish none,
whoever lives alone now will live on long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters,
wander up and down the barren paths
the parks expose when the leaves are blown.”

Rilke writes an elegy to a season of changes and closing doors, and there is a deep presence of relief in the poem’s opening lines.  It is initially addressed to God, but more as a man might speak to an authority figure he knows personally—the German there is “Herr”, which can mean “Lord” as Gass translates it, but the connotation is usually less divine.  It’s more like saying “Sir,” as though you were addressing your supervisor or your landlord.  Rilke is being formal, but he is also trying to advance the plot, so to speak.  He needs to nudge God—to remind Him of a task that should be attended to.

Sir, he says, it is time.  There’s a loveliness to that phrase—in a sense, all of the poem is an expression, an unfolding, of that one idea.  It is Time.  That is the subject of the poem.  Time as duration, as the summer that lingered too long.  Time as the shadow thrown by the gnomon that counts the hours, time as the ripening and reckoning of the harvest.  Time as the coda that brings an end—what has not yet been done by now, will not be done—and time as the ellipsis, the unfenced expanse of lonely days and roads that stretch on forever.

There is also a sense in the poem, for me, of how natural all these events will be—the winds will be freed now, and the last fruits will finally reach the end of their long journey. Even though there’s a melancholy to the last stanza, there’s also a peace about it—the unsheltered will roam the earth, and the lonely will immerse themselves in their loneliness and find something there.  Whatever conditions we have now (with maybe the minor adjustment of a last sunny day or two), they will persist and this is no bad thing.  It is, to the contrary, what we ask for—to end the summer of striving and take some refuge in rest.  To an extent, I’m being led by Gass here, who doesn’t translate “unruhig” (restless, anxious, literally “unpeaceful”), a word Rilke uses to describe the wanderings of the lonely.  But I wonder if he’s not right to pass it by…there is something so gentle and unanxious about the preceding lines, reading and writing long letters and so forth, that maybe softening the blow of “unruhig” is faithful to Rilke’s meaning on a deeper level.

Ultimately, this quiet, understated poem captures many of the things I love best about autumn—the desire to see a hot summer fade, the sweetness and richness of the foods associated with the fall, the way that the outside world inspires me to more reflective and introspective moods.  It isn’t particularly soaring in this translation (nor is it in the original German, to the extent that I can read it with any feeling) but autumn isn’t that kind of cymbal-crashing trumpet-blowing season, at first.  The real winds and storms will come, and are their own kind of joy.  For now I’m relishing the beginnings of the peaceful autumn I love—the weeks stretching from my birthday to my wife’s, generally speaking—and Rilke helps me sink into them with comfort.  If you have a favorite autumn poem or poet, I hope you’ll mention them in the comments section: I’d like to return to the season at least one more time on an upcoming Friday, and would gladly share a poem suggested by one of you, if it catches me right.