You who never arrived

April 4, 2006 at 7:25 am 5 comments

Rainer Maria Rilke


You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me – the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and unsuspected
turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods –
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house – , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon, –
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled,
gave back my too-sudden image. Who knows?
perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, seperate, in the evening…

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

And the German Original:

Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.

Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?

The hallmark of a great poem is its ability to make you feel nostalgic for things you’ve never had, the things you have forgotten to be. Rilke’s verses ache with that sense of loss – they are poems that time and translation have worn to a slow beauty – like ancient sculpture they have the ability to make us recognise ourselves in the images of a lost age. Rilke is the poet of terrifying angels, at once Orpheus and Apollo, at once lyrical and profound.

This poem, an unpublished fragment, exemplifies this quality of Rilke’s work. It is an exquisitely beautiful poem (and Mitchell’s translation is, as always, superb), one that captures perfectly that sense of absence, of something just missed. “And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors / were still dizzy with your presence” Rilke writes. It’s precisely that dizziness of presence that makes Rilke’s poems so special.

Entry filed under: English, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell.

Raat aadhi kheench kar meri hatheli Israfel

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. J. Alfred Prufrock  |  April 5, 2006 at 5:18 am

    Wonderful. Thank you. I really must start on Rilke now.


  • 2. sa re ga ma  |  April 5, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    Awesome poem! thanks!!

  • 3. ivanavojvodic  |  February 27, 2007 at 12:23 am

    “I have given up trying
    to recognize you in the surging wave of the next

    Thank you!

  • 4. archaerie  |  July 9, 2010 at 11:19 am

    The reading is delicious. Is the reader the owner of this site or some other? A very conversational approach to speaking poetry out loud. Splendid. One of my very favorite Rilke poems.

  • 5. Ese poema de Goethe | afinidades electivas  |  April 18, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    […] de impresionar a Julie Delphi o, mejor aun, Robert Downey Jr. fingiendo el esfuerzo por recordar “ese poema de Goethe” en Only […]


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