The English language reader is by and large unaware that Rainer Maria Rilke, the great Bohemian-Austrian poet of the German language, wrote some Russian verse. His eight Russian poems, dated 1900-1, have been translated into English twice before, but for scholarly purposes and in academic publications known only to the specialist. Even in Russia the reading public is barely aware of these early Russian texts by Rilke, though they can be found both in print and online. Literary Russians tend to see them as curious trifles, a great stranger’s attempts, failed though touching, at poetry in our robust and supple language. Their Russian, unmistakably a foreigner’s, exhibits errors of grammar, usage and scansion. Still, in a handful of lines Rilke manages to get the Russian right, and they ring true as lines of Russian verse. Even faulty lines have their charm and strangely convey a Rilkean tone. For a Russian like myself, it takes an extra charitable reading to see past the somewhat comical flaws of expression to the details of the pure and distinctly Rilkean imagery, thoughts and sentiments that inform these outlandish creations. Their linguistic bizarreness notwithstanding, the Russian poems, continuous with Rilke’s German writings at the turn of the 20th century, are inspired works by a great poet and the results of a daring poetic experiment. They offer unique insights into his lyric concerns. One can sense the poet behind them, the vibrancy of his inspirations, and his great love of Russia, which he called his “spiritual motherland.”
Rilke’s keen interest in Russia was first planted in him by his friend, the Russian-born author, Lou Andreas-Salomé (née Louise von Salomé or, in Russian, Luiza Gustavovna Salomé). He first met her in 1896, when he was 21, they were lovers for several years, and she remained his confidante and an influence on him for the rest of his life. She began teaching him Russian in the late 1890s so that he could read Pushkin and Tolstoy in the original. In April-June 1899 Rilke, in the company of Salomé and her husband Friedrich Carl Andreas, made his first visit to Russia. In the six weeks that he spent in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Rilke met several major cultural figures including Leo Tolstoy, the artists Ilya Repin and Leonid Pasternak (the poet Boris Pasternak’s father), and the sculptor Pavel Trubetskoy (Paolo Troubetzkoy). On his second and more extensive trip to the Russian Empire, with Salomé, from May through August 1900, Rilke’s travels followed a far-flung itinerary: Moscow, Tula, Leo Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Kiev, Kremenchug, Poltava, Kharkov, Voronezh, Saratov, Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and Moscow again. Those were days filled with many vivid experiences, cultural interactions and keen observation that had an impact on his poetry and prose. He was fascinated by Russian aristocrats and common folk alike. Russian orthodoxy and the Russian style of spirituality appealed to him; he visited many churches; Easter celebrations at the Kremlin etched themselves into his memory. He met and was impressed by the Russian peasant poet, Spiridon Drozhzhin, whom he soon translated into German. Rilke’s Russian was far from fluent, but he read it passably and worked hard on it especially during this period of intense Russophilia and dissatisfaction with Western civilization.
On returning from his first trip to Russia, full of deep impressions and planning to move there permanently (a dream that never came true), Rilke suddenly found himself writing poems in Russian. As he noted in his diary, the first of them “unexpectedly occurred” to him in the Schmargendorf forest near Berlin in late November 1900. By early December he had written six Russian poems. He dedicated them to Salomé, who found them “grammatically off” yet poetic. He revised those and added another two in April 1901. In the fall of 1900 Rilke met his future wife, Clara Westhoff, and his life changed. He never returned to Russia but retained his love of it and his ties with Russian poetry, namely, with Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak.
My translations of Rilke’s Russian poems are intended as an experiment in bringing to light their substance, form and implied tone as faithfully as I could manage, while stripping away the infelicities of the originals.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and the Russian
peasant poet Spiridon Drozhzhin in Moscow, 1900.
Of an evening on the sand
a girl sat by the sea
like a mother by her baby.
She sat and she sang,
till its breath turned all deep,
filled with sleep. Having seen
the wide world’s hope, she
beams, nay, celebrates
the glad day of her face.
The babe will, like the sea,
touch distance, meet the skies,
either your pride or woe,
a murmur or a silence.
Up to this waterfront is all you know,
whereat you sit, waiting on,
and whence you launch a lovely song
once in a while, but hardly help
anyone’s being, health, or sleep.
November 29, 1900. Schmargendorf.
As I walk and walk, everywhere around
extends this windy clime, your motherland,
where I walk on and on in full oblivion
that I have known more than one other land.
How faraway now, how far away from me
those long afternoons by that southern sea,
bright nightfalls dripping with May’s sweetest sunsets,
where everything is merry and empty; darker
glows God, as the striving populace turns
unto Him, confident in Him, their brother.
December 1, 1900.
White home, rock-a-bye,
a dray-cart rumbled by
into the night, God kens,
the lonesome hut shut,
the orchard shuddered,
sleepless after the rain.
A lad eyed the night field:
between them an unhurried
intense unfinished story
flew on in silent glory,
then ceased. The vale entire
is ash, the firmament’s on fire.
The lad thought: Life’s damnation!
Why isn’t there salvation?
As if expecting a reply,
the earth looked up toward the sky.
December 5, 1900.
The roses, as you recall them still, hang young,
the first to greet you first thing in the morning.
All that is ours lies so nearby, including
the bright blue sky. No one has need for sin.
Come the first day, arise we from
God’s very hand wherein we’ve slept
ask not how long,
I could not tell. The present’s past
is still at zero. Time, begin!
Then what? Be calm, don’t cry,
fearful that you might die,
for death is just a nod.
Await no other reply:
there will be summer nights,
days strewn with dazzling lights,
there will be we, and God.
December 6, 1900.
Had I been born a simpleton to peasants,
I’d live life with the broadest face, its traits
hardly at all expected to convey
what’s tough to think and possibly to say
is harder still.
My hands would fill
with all the love and patience of each day,
at night joined tight in prayer until
such time as they’ve had ample time to pray;
no one will know or wonder who I am,
for I have aged, and now my head, all gray,
is swimming on my chest, tending downsteam,
seeming softer with age. The date of parting nigh,
I parted my palms like a book and I
lay them over half my face, then took them off and
placed them empty where they belonged in the coffin,
and by this likeness shall my descendants know
all that I was—I yet not I—by this look,
larger than life, than me, of joy and woe,
which clearly shines in each organic quirk.
Yes, this is the eternal face of work.
In the wee hours, December 6, 1900.
All folk afield, this hut is used today
to its own solitude and with a sigh,
like a nanny, has gently soothed away
the babe’s silent cry.
On the brick stove awake an old man lies,
all lost in snows yesteryear his head,
as he, were he a poet, might well have said,
yet silent lies, may the Lord grant him peace.
Between the heart and the mouth there falls
a chasm, a sea, darker glows the blood,
and that sweet bonny beauty love
has gone on in his breast ten centuries,
not having lips to speak it forth, again
finding no rescue, no escape in sight—
while an unrequited crowd of words in pain
alien streamed by and by into the light.
Noon, December 7, 1900.
I’m so tired of trials by morbid days.
An empty night, windless across the fields,
lies plain above the silence of my eyes.
My heart began like a nightingale begins,
but could not finish the telling of its words,
and all I hear now is its very silence
swelling up in the dark like a nightmare
and darkening like the last gasp of air
by an unlamented child past all remembrance.
I’m so alone: nobody understands
the silence that is the voice of my long days,
there being out there no such wind as opens
wide the ample heavens of my eyes.
Outside my window an enormous day stands
on the city’s strange edge, a large man lies,
awaiting. Is this I, I ask myself,
awaiting what? And where’s my soul?