Rilke’s ‘The Book of Hours’

Rainer Maria Rilke

The Book of Hours

Some have described these poems as ‘love poems to God’. I think that’s only partly correct. Rilke to me was the first modern poet to write about God and spirituality in a modern way.

Instead of relying on Catholic themes and images of God, he reached for classical symbols. And at the same time was strikingly modern.

Remember that these poems were first published in German in 1905—over a century ago! Instead of sending us to church, in Rilke’s poems the voice of the ancient sends us into the skies—Circling around God, around the ancient tower. That is the most powerful spirituality I can imagine.

Reading the rest of The Book of Hours one is struck also by the joy in his native spirituality—for one who suffered such depression. In this book at least he is the European Rumi, dancing up light on hard shadows.

But most of all, this particular poem to me encapsulates the most fundamental urge in my life. Or any artist’s life—to engage in the search or die trying.  Quite simply, this poem describes what poetry—and the poet—does.

Rainer Maria Rilke

From The Book of Hours

I live my life in growing orbits

which move out over the things of the world.

Perhaps I can never achieve the last,

but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower

and have been circling for a thousand years

and I still do not know if I am a falcon, a storm

or a great song.

Translation: Robert Bly, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,

A Translation from the German and Commentary by Robert Bly

1981 Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York

A Note on Translation

As has been pointed out by other commentators before, translation is an art—possibly one of the most challenging of all arts. Even in related languages like English, German and Spanish, it’s impossible to fully convey the sense, sound, rhyme schemes and layers of meaning intended by the poet. It has also been said that the best translators of poetry, naturally, are poets.

That being said, even the most capable poet-translators must choose from the wide array of menu options available, realizing that they will never be able to incorporate all of them. Some poets will want to err on the side of restoring the poem’s musicality—its rhyme scheme, for example. Others will favour a translation that renders the poem’s meaning or content as closely as possible. This is what I suspect Robert Bly has chosen in his excellent collection of Rilke’s work. Either way, it seems, something will be lost.

At a recent For Love of Poetry event held at Nakusp Library in Nakusp, BC one of the performers noted that it may be more apt to call translations of poems ‘recreations.’ Whatever you choose to call it, at least we get a glimpse into the great poems of other cultures. In my view, poetry is the most spiritual of the arts. Even with the attrition of language represented by translation, the resulting poem remains a fascinating gateway into the labyrinthine realm of the human spirit.

Here are some other translations of the same poem (note the differing emphases and rhyme schemes):

My life in increasing circles is spun,

encompassing newer things still.

I may not reach the last possible one

but try it I will.

Round God, ancient tower, I orbit and stalk

and circle a thousand years long;

and I know not if I be tempest or hawk

or a wonderful song.

—translation by Alan Marshfield

I live my life in widening rings

that work their way through this world of things.

The final one I may not complete

but not because I accept defeat.

I encircle god and the ancient tower

a thousand years in outspreading gyre;

am I falcon or am I storm

or some unending song?

—translation by Tessa Ransford

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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3 Responses to Rilke’s ‘The Book of Hours’

  1. tina gucci says:

    Excellent interpretations. It helped me explain the poem to my Gr. 8 students who are confused about what path to t6ake in life.

  2. spike mason says:

    Just thought I’d comment on your post – as I thought you might be interested that I’ve released an album called “Widening Circles”. I have become totally smitten by Rilke and so the album features an english translation of a handful of the poems from the Book of Hours set to my compositions.
    You can watch a short film of the recording process
    here ==>
    You can have a listen to the album to see if you like it
    here ==>

  3. Greg Reyna says:

    “God, ancient tower…”

    is very different from the other translations. I
    I prefer that way of saying it.

    I don’t speak German, but I have carried the MD Herter Norton translation of ‘Sonnets To Orpheus with me since 1968. Rilke’s poetry is part of me.

    I was in Nakusp a couple of times in the early eighties. Friends still live in New Denver.

    Thanks. Nice to have multiple translations.


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