Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-10-31 12:12

To mark the last days of autumn a poem from the Austro-Hungarian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).


Rainer Maria Rilke, Paris, 1902.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.


Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,


und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.


Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. The summer was very great. Lay your shadow over the sundials and let loose the winds across the fields.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;


gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,


dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage


die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.


Command the last fruits to be full; give them another two, more southerly days, urge them to fulfilment and drive the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.


Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,


wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben


und wird in den Alleen hin und her


unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.


Who has now no house, will build no house more. Who now is alone will remain so for a long time, will keep vigil, read, write long letters and will wander restlessly up and down the avenues like the driven leaves.

Surface and symbol

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of the most beautiful and carefully composed poetry there is in the German language. Much of it – how can we put it? – is beyond comprehension. This may worry quite a few people, but there it is.

Of course, we 'understand' it on some level – it is not nonsense – but the words we read or hear seem to defy normal semantic analysis. Rilke's poetry works through mood and symbol, not rhetoric.

The present poem is a good example of this protean nature, changing its shape as you interrogate it. Protean? – that sounds rather slippery; perhaps the better metaphor for Rilke's poetry is opalescent, flashing new shards of colour as you view it from different angles.

Stanza 1

Rilke wrote the poem, but who is speaking? Rilke was a steadfast atheist: why is he appealing to the almighty, even in the form of what appears to be a slightly degraded pantheistic weather god? We find no trace of role-playing or personae.

At first glance the language may appear to be in the imperative mood, the poet commanding his god, but it is in the traditional form of religious supplication – 'hear my prayer', 'give us this day our daily bread'. Here the poet is asking for something from his Herr, 'Lord'. All a bit of a puzzle.

The first stanza gives us three lines of impeccable verse: 'it is time', a phrase we might expect as a summons to execution; we might translate this as 'the time has come' – and evaporate the whole mood of the phrase, because the talk here is not of a time that has come but of a time that is ending. Only the phrase 'it is time' does that.

Our rational minds are confused by a summer that is sehr groß, 'very great': what on earth does that mean? What kind of a summer is that? But our hearts – our emotional brains if you prefer – know exactly what Rilke means.

For those still straining after conventional sense and meaning, the image of the Lord's shadow on the sundials is a logical nightmare: clouds?; laying a sheet or tarpaulin over the sundials for the winter, like we do with garden chairs?; a suspension of time ('suspended in time between pole and tropic' ©Eliot)?; all of the above?

Whatever it is, however our brains struggle with it, it is a beautiful piece of writing, followed immediately by its equal: auf den Fluren laß die Winde los, 'let loose the winds across the fields' – 'let loose': perfect.

German speakers reading this stanza and taking their time about doing so will recognise it as a metrical and phonetic wonder, packed with internal rhymes and beautiful alliterations; doubly miraculous in that, despite all the opalescent ambiguities that flash fire at us, the surface is created of simple words and syntax: there is not a ten-dollar word in sight.

Stanza 2

In the second stanza, the imperatives hammer down on the Lord, impelling him to butch action: befiehl, 'command', gieb, 'give', dränge, 'force', 'urge', jage, 'drive', 'chase'.

Perfect phrases flash from the opal: den letzten Früchten, 'the last fruits', those still to be gathered, with 'last' reflecting the finality of the moment; zwei südlichere Tage, 'two more southerly days', the quantity at first surprisingly specific, but we must remember es ist Zeit, there is no more time left; hence the task is to come zur Vollendung, to 'completion' or 'perfection'; die letzte Süße, 'the last [drop of] sweetness'; den schweren Wein, 'the heavy wine', heavy with the yield that started with the 'full' fruits and their perfection, the wine, now heavy with the 'great' summer.

Stanza 3

With the third stanza, the imperative tone changes, we arrive at the end time, the moment when further ripening has become impossible. In the first line the opal flashes and reminds us of the finality of Revelations 22:10-11:

10 And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.

11 He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.

10 Und er spricht zu mir: Versiegle nicht die Worte der Weissagung in diesem Buch; denn die Zeit ist nahe!
11 Wer böse ist, der sei fernerhin böse, und wer unrein ist, der sei fernerhin unrein; aber wer fromm ist, der sei fernerhin fromm, und wer heilig ist, der sei fernerhin heilig.
Luther Bibel 1545, Offenbarung 22:10-11 [Fans of the late Johnny Cash know this already].

The second line of the stanza starts by echoing the end time mood of Revelations, Wer jetzt allein ist, 'Who now is alone', but then sets out on a long explicative journey that takes four lines in all. The explication reveals the state of things after the moment when es ist Zeit.

We are adrift in a paradoxical timelessness: no more time to ripen and develop, to build a house or find a partner; but time for pointless things – writing long letters or wandering around restlessly and aimlessly.

Rilke's slightly surprising use of the word Alleen, 'avenues' seems to come from the fact that he had arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1902, shortly before this poem was written; 'boulevards' would have been a possible, though heavy-handed translation. This word alone tells us that this is a city, not a country poem. That autumn Rilke had left his wife, the sculptress Clara Westhoff, in Berlin, which fact may also be behind 'who has now no house' and 'who now is alone', with time for writing 'long letters' and wandering 'restlessly up and down the avenues'.


We now become aware of the overall structure of the poem. Each stanza opens with a declamatory line which is strongly end-stopped. Starting in the second line the content expands to take in all the subsequent lines until the end of the stanza, forming what we might call, rather pretentiously, a 'predicate block'.

All the line endings in this block are enjambed or only very lightly stopped, so that the the reader flows easily across them. The comma fanatics who currently infest tabloid English grammar might do well to consider the utter precision of Rilke's stopping: [Sonnenuhren, und]; [Tage, dränge]; [bleiben, wird]; [schreiben und].

Rilke has also discarded the longstanding poetic convention of starting each line with a capital letter; his lines in these blocks flow on as syntax and grammar intends – starting these lines with capitals would have looked extremely odd.

And finally, in such a metrically poised poem, we are struck by the way the number of lines in the block grows – two, three, four – completing, as it were the ripening fruit, the rhyme scheme: a-b-a | a-b-b-a | a-b-b-a-b.

Reading the poem

The reader should take all these artefacts and indications at their face value and read the poem as Rilke clearly intended it to be read. Let's have some typography in the service of poetry:

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 Früchten voll zu sein;

gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage, dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.

Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben und wird in den Alleen hin und her unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Time for winter.

FoS image, size 708x870

A 1901 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by the German painter Helmuth Westhoff (1891-1977). Westhoff was a younger brother of the sculptress Clara Westhoff (1878-1954), who married Rilke in the spring of 1901. They had a daughter, Ruth (1901-1972), but went their own ways after 1904. They remained in an amicable relationship until Rilke's death. Image: unknown source.

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