Lament/Klage

Lament
By Rainer Maria Rilke

(English Translation by Horst A. Scholz)*

O how far away everything is
And long since gone.
I think that the star
From which I receive radiance
Has been dead for thousands of years.
I think, from the boat
Drifting past,
I heard some frightening words.
Inside the house a clock
Has struck …
In which house? …
I would like to step out of my heart
To walk under the immense sky.
I would like to pray.
And one of all these stars
Must surely still exist.
I think I might know
Which alone of them,
Endures –
Like a white city,
Standing in the heavens at the end of the ray …

Klage
By Rainer Maria Rilke

(In original German)

O wie ist alles fern
und lange vergangen.
Ich glaube, der Stern,
von welchem ich Glanz empfange,
ist seit Jahrtausenden tot.
Ich glaube, im Boot,
das vorüberfuhr,
hörte ich etwas Banges sagen.
Im Hause hat eine Uhr
geschlagen …
In welchem Haus? …
Ich möchte aus meinem Herzen hinaus
unter den großen Himmel treten.
Ich möchte beten.
Und einer von allen Sternen
müßte wirklich noch sein.
Ich glaube, ich wüßte,
welcher allein
gedauert hat, –
welcher wie eine weiße Stadt
am Ende des Strahls in den Himmeln steht …

*Text and translation provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk)

About the Poet:

René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke (4 December 1875 – 29 December 1926), better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist. He is “widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets.” He wrote both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the indefinable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.

The earliest poems by Rilke mainly featured two topics: religion and nationalism. While the very first poems show strong adherence to the canon of Christian stories, later poems take Christianity on a whole different journey. Later in his career, Rilke moved ever further away from his Christian roots, starting to bring Greek mythological characters into his stories. Transformed into Christian symbology, these Greek characters offered a whole new world for Rilke, in which he dove willingly. However, true to the romantic spirit of his time, religion and mythology did not stay the only topics on which he focused. From the middle of his career until his death, his poetry was mainly focused on the emotional description of true events. Two main areas of interest are evident during this period. The first is nature and the will of nature to survive. The second is the human struggle. Rilke put his focus mainly on individuals, expressing his points of view through the eyes of fictitious individuals. In general, most of Rilke’s poetry should be understood through the lens of his time and physical location. The struggles of the multicultural state of Austria-Hungary, which would be dissolved in his lifetime, play a pivotal role within his poetry and often individual poems make more sense seen this way. 

About the Poem:

Berlin in the early 1900s was a hotbed for ‘art for art’s sake.’ Put simply, this expresses the belief that writers and artists needed no justification for their art. Their work did not need to serve political, moral, or any other end. Artists, especially those of Aestheticist and Romanticist conviction, had begun to discover progressive modernism, with its penchant for avant-garde art, fueled by inner creativity alone. Rilke found himself caught in this rise of modernism, with its conflict between the burden of tradition and a desire to break free of it. Rilke’s poetic development is a key example of this tension at work. For example, his poem ‘Klage’ likens the failure of creative power to the destruction of a tree by a storm. 

The poem opens by expressing a longing for something passed. It captures the sense of distance and time which separates each of us from those we have lost. The line “under the immense sky” depicts the poet’s wishes to be outside himself, a part of the greater cosmos where perhaps he may be able to lose himself. As with the notion of loss, one must contemplate the loss of self as well, thinking of stepping out from our own hearts into a time and place in which the physical appearance is not an adequate definition of things. The last section of the poem conjures something which is “like a white city” only found at the end of the radiant universe. It is a call to a longing from the heart. Life beyond mere life, an experience that cannot be held as an ordinary experience. Rilke wishes and believes “something” still exists, after all is said and done. 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

2 responses to “Lament/Klage

  • bryandspellman

    Thank you for this. The first term paper I wrote at UC Berkeley was on impure rhymes in the work of Goethe, Heine and Rilke. Got an A- on the paper, despite the fact that I was a senior in high school at the time, which really pissed off the professor when he learned how young I was. The class was designed for grad students.. Two years later I did earn an A in a class on German Romantic Poetry. Different professor.

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