Rainer Maria Rilke
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
(translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell)
On the theory that one great poem deserves another, here’s my other favourite end-of-summer poem, this one looking forward to the days to come rather than back to the season past.
We’ve posted a great deal of Rilke on this website in the past, so there’s little new I can say about him here, except that for me this has always been one of his finest poems. I love the abruptness, the certainty of that opening (“Herr: es ist Zeit”) and the terrible, terrible sadness of “Whoever has no house now, will never have one / Whoever is alone will stay alone”. If autumn is the season of resignation, of defeat, then this poem captures that spirit better than anything else.
Stanley Kunitz, in an essay on Rilke (over at the Poetry Foundation), writes: “One of Rilke’s primary ideas, elaborated in The Journal, is that of the proper death: the need of dying one’s own death, of carrying that death within one like the kernel of a fruit, of exhausting all the forces, accidents, and implications of one’s destiny”. ‘Autumn Day’ is a fine elaboration of that principle, of the slow ripening of the inevitable as a source of authentic sorrow.
The original in German:
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Fruchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei sudlichere Tage,
drange sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Susse in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein is, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Breife schreiben
und wird in den Allen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blatter treiben.
Herbsttag is also one of Rilke’s most widely translated poems – Textetc.com has a round-up of the various translations around, with links to them at the bottom (in footnotes! yaay!), along with an attempt at a new translation.