By John Felstiner

from Issue 16: Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed


Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Stretch out your shadow on the sundial’s face,
and on the meadows let the winds go loose.

Command the last fruits to be full in time,
grant them even two more southerly days,
press them toward fulfillment soon, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will build none.
Who is alone now, will stay long alone,
will lie awake, read, get long letters written,
and through the streets that follow up and down
will wander restless, when the leaves are driven.


Archaic Torso of Apollo

We never witnessed his unheard-of head
in which the eyeballs apple-ripened. Yet
his torso still glows like a streetlamp’s globe,
and inside, turned down low a while, his gaze

holds fast and shines. Otherwise the bend
of the breast could not blind you or a smile
wind through the gentle twisting of the loins
into that core that kept the seed alive.

Otherwise this stone would stand distorted
and cut short under the shoulder’s sheer fall,
and would not glimmer so, like wild beast fell

and not be breaking out from all its edges
just like a star: for there’s no place on it
that does not see you. You must change your life.


Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), like Kafka a German-speaking writer from Czechoslovak Prague, stands within the triumvirate of German poetry—Hölderlin, Rilke, Celan (and sui generis Goethe).

Rilke composed Autumn Day in September 1902, just at the autumn equinox, merging and verging on winter. It stirs the spirit to think of him along with Coleridge, who one century before, the same week in September 1802, wrote "Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath," with its cool spring "pure from falling leaves!" And Keats that week in September 1819, suffering from tuberculosis, chose energy over despair by greeting the end of high summer with an ode "To Autumn," to "fill all fruits with sweetness to the core" and

set budding more, And still more, later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease.

The rhythmic stretch of that richness reaches, for me, into Rilke’s lines, into those six charged stresses, gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage, as in "grant them even two more southerly days." Maybe that yearning also shows up in the way he moves, augments, a stanza of three into four and then five lines?

Recently I discovered a website devoted to manifold versions of this poem, so now I’m not sure whether my quest through days if not years toward a rhythmic echo for Der Sommer war sehr groß, "The summer was immense," was truly my discovery or not. No matter! What does matter, at least to my mind and ear, is remaining faithful to Rilke’s sinewy, sinuous meter and rhyme, which—often ignored in translation—tallies with his utmost efforts to get something crucial said, and faithful also to his immersion in Rodin’s force-bent sculpture during those years.

That closeness to Rodin has everything to do with Archaic Torso of Apollo, as is evident and audible in every bodily line of this astonishing sonnet. Here even more, a baker’s dozen or two of English versions spot the translational terrain. I’ve written on an exchange I had back in 1974 with Robert Duncan, over translating this poem, in Jacket magazine. Also in the Spring 2004 "Power" issue of Two Lines. About Rilke’s "Archaic Torso," a little-known image of which you’ll see in Jacket, I’d mainly want to say how "there’s no place on it" that does not smack of Rodin’s hand-molded surface. Translating sculpture!—as if word to word weren’t challenging enough. That body language is what I would strive for.

Here, for the rare chance fun of it, if I may, I’d point up Rilke’s bubbling stew of sound and rhythm. The sun and poetry god Apollo’s gaze still glows and holds fast and shines for us, otherwise—

Otherwise this stone would stand distorted and cut short under the shoulder’s sheer fall

The German behind "sheer," durchsichtigem, simply means "transparent." But here, as seldom, the luck of English yields a bonus on "sheer" for the shoulders’ precipitous downward fall. Maybe there’s some good to be had, after all, from a lifetime’s helpless servitude to puns.

Comments are closed.