Rainer Maria Rilke

* Poetry. * Prose. * Time line. * Links and Books.


Book title Translator(s), Commentator(s), and Editor(s) Parallel text (with original German) Comments
The Best of Rilke Walter Arndt Yes. Tries to reproduce the rhyme and meter of the originals. To achieve the rhyme, Arndt sometimes adds words (such as "wrist" in the sample below) that are not in the original.
Duino Elegies Stephen Mitchell No (in little Shambala edition).
New Poems [1907] 1984: Edward Snow Yes. "What specifically is 'new' about the New Poems? The most striking transformation occurs in Rilke's language, which grows simultaneously more lucid and complex. Compression of statement and elimination of authorial self are taken to their extremes in the pursuit of an objective ideal." [p. x of the Introduction].
The translations tend to conform closely (perhaps too closely) to the German grammar, and as a result are less poetic in English than they might have been.
Rainer Maria Rilke: Translations from the Poetry M.D. Herter Norton Yes.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke Stephen Mitchell (Introduction by Robert Hass) Yes.
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke 1981: Robert Bly translates selections from five of Rilke's six major collections; adds introductory comments. Yes. The translations are ok but a little prose-like. Helpful comments, however, including: "When I first read Rilke, in my twenties, I felt a deep shock upon realizing the amount of introversion he had achieved, and the adult attention he paid to inner states. ... Rilke knows ... that our day-to-day life, with its patterns and familiar objects, can become a husk that blocks anything fresh from coming in. ...In the fall, he found, one can look down long avenues of trees inside, when the vision is not blocked by leaves."
Sonnets to Orpheus M.D. Herter Norton Yes. 32 interesting pages of notes. Translation sometimes stilted; prefer Mitchell's versions.

Comparative translations of Sonnets to Orpheus with original German for the start and end of Sonnet 4 in Book II, about the unicorn and the lady:

   O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht giebt.

   Und die gab solche Stärke an das Tier,

   dass es aus sich ein Stirnhorn trieb. Ein Horn.   
   Zu einer Jungfrau kam es weiss herbei --
   und war im Silber-Spiegel und in ihr.

Translator(s) Translation
Stephen Mitchell

   Oh this is the animal that never was.

   And finally this gave it so much power

   that from its forehead a horn grew. One horn.   
   It drew near to a virgin, white, gleaming --
   and was, inside the mirror and in her.
M.D. Herter Norton

   Oh this is the creature that does not exist.

   And this gave the creature such strength,

   it grew a horn out of its brow. One horn.   
   To a virgin it came hither white --
   and was in the silver-mirror and in her.
Walter Arndt

   Behold, this is the beast that never was.

   And this imparted to it such a spur

   It drove a sprout from out its brow -- a horn   
   And gliding whitely to a virgin's wrist,
   Grew patent in her mirror and in her.


Book title Translator(s) Comments
Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke: 1892-1910 Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton. Interesting comments on Rilke's writing: very neat and calligraphic, with letters copied and recopied.
Letters to a Young Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke Translated by M.D. Herter Norton. Serviceable translation. The particular merits are: (1) The Introduction by Franz Kappus, who received these letters in his youth; (2) The last third of the book ("Chronicle, 1903-1908") in which Norton comments on Rilke's experiences and times and personality.
Letters to a Young Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke Translated and with a Foreword by Stephen Mitchell. Interesting comments on Rilke's writing: very neat and calligraphic, with letters copied and recopied.

Letters to a Young Poet: the ten letters:

Number Written from: Date: Quotation from Stephen Mitchell's translation:
1 Paris February 17, 1903 This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: must I write?
2 Viareggio, near Pisa (Italy) April 5, 1903 Irony: Don't let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of life. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn't be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it ... then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless.

... If I were to say who has given me the greatest experience in the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity, there are just two names I would mention: [Jens Peter] Jacobsen, that great, great poet, and Auguste Rodin, the sculptor, who is without peer among all artists who are alive today.

3 Viareggio, near Pisa (Italy) April 23, 1903 Read as little as possible of literary criticism — such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and emptied of life, or else they are just clever word games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view.

... Allow your own judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.

4 Worpswede, near Bremen July 16, 1903 Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

... Sex is difficult; yes. But those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious.

5 Rome October 29, 1903 Rome ... makes one feel stifled with sadness for the first few days: through the gloomy and lifeless museum atmosphere that it exhales, though the abundance of its pasts ... through the terrible overvaluing, sustained by scholars and philologists and imitated by the ordinary tourist in Italy, of all these disfigured and decaying Things, which, after all, are nothing more than accidental remains from another time and from a life that is not and should not be ours. ... But there is much beauty here, because everywhere there is much beauty.
6 Rome December 23, 1903 I know your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you, and I foresaw your lament and knew that it would come. Now that it has come, there is nothing can say to reassure you, I can only suggest that perhaps all professions are like that, filled with demands, filled with hostility toward the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty.
7 Rome May 14, 1904 It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. ... this more human love ... the love that consists of this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.
8 Borgeby gârd, Flädie, Sweden August 12, 1904 Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don't know what working these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as change. ... you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering, for you are both.

Don't observe yourself too closely. Don't be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame (that is: morally) at your past, which naturally has a share in everything that now meets you. ... One must be so careful with names anyway; it is so often the name of an offense that a life shatters upon, not the nameless and personal action itself, which was perhaps a quite definite necessity of that life and could have been absorbed by it without any trouble.

9 Furuborg, Jonsered, in Sweden November 4, 1904 Your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. ... and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers — perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.
10 Paris the day after Christmas, 1908 Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, on can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art — as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality.

Time Line


Rilke travels to Italy.

Rilke travels to Moscow with Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Rilke's second visit to Russia.
On his return, visits Worpswede, an artists' colony near Bremen, to see Heinrich Vogeler (a painter); there he meets Clara Westhoff.

Rilke marries Clara.
A daughter, Ruth, born to Rilke and Clara.

Rilke moves to Paris, to live separately from Clara and Ruth, though keeping in contact through letters.
Meets Rodin.

Rilke's turning point with his poem "The Tiger".
First letter to Franz Xaver Kappus — letters later collected as Letters to a Young Poet.
Rilke returns to Italy.

Rilke travels to Sweden.

The last of Rilke's letters to Franz Xaver Kappus of the letters later collected as Letters to a Young Poet.


Links and Books

Links and Books:

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