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Poetry Month, Reader’s Den

April in the Reader's Den: Rainer Maria Rilke

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Once upon a time, when I was a backpacking young Bohemian visiting Prague, I had a roomate who introduced me to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Having toted the books with him across continents for quiet contemplation, I wondered, what was it about Rilke's words that inspired such steadfast devotion?

Born in Prague in 1875 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, Rilke evolved as a writer to become one of the most important lyric poets published in the 20th century. Rilke's poetry was originally composed in German, and translated into English beginning in the 1930s, granting him a wider audience. A brief romance followed by a life-long friendship between Rilke and the psychoanalyst  Lou Andreas-Salome (fifteen years his senior) was the inspiration for some of his most famous works. After he ended his marriage to Clara Westhoff, Rilke moved, penniless, to Paris and became the secretary of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, eventually publishing a monograph of his work. Rodin also profoundly influenced Rilke's style, bringing about more of a stony, concrete, factual tone to his poems. Among Rilke's most famous poetry colllections are "Requiem for A Friend," written after the death of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker in 1907, the "Duino Elegies," inspired by the sheer cliffs he saw while a guest at the Castle Duino, and "Sonnets to Orpheus," devoted to a playmate of his daughter Ruth who died very young.

Here is a selection from The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by A. Poulin, Jr.

The Roses

If we're sometimes so amazed
I see you, rose, half-open book
Rose, O you completely perfect thing
Suely it was us who encouraged
Abandon surrounds abandon
Single rose is every rose. A
Bright cool rose leaning
Overflowing with your dream
Rose, so clear and yet so fiery
Friend of hours when no one remains
I'm conscious of your being
Rose, against whom
Rose, do you prefer to be the ardent friend
Summer, for a few days being
All alone/ O abundant flower
Let's not speak of you. Ineffable
It's you who in you is preparing
You're touched by all that touches us
Do you set yourself up as example?
Except from your inner
All that spinning on your stem
You again, you rising
Late-blooming rose that the bitter
Rose, certainly earthly and our equal
Rose, so cherished by our customs
infinitely at ease
Rose, did you have to be left? 

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you see any similarities between this poem and the work of Bashō, whom we read last week? Why or why not?
  2. Regarding the rose, in what ways do you think Rilke meant "You're touched by all that touches us."?
  3. Why do you think flowers are so often a subject of poetry?

Please share your thoughts with us on this poem.

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