Only One Solitude: Rainer Maria Rilke

There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear … People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926)

Rainer Maria Rilke (Dec 4, 1875 – Dec 29, 1926)

Rilke, born on this day in 1875, is considered one of the German’s language greatest 20th century poets, known for haunting images and masterful turn of phrases that give his prose and poetry that rare force that traverses the whole landscape of the human condition with its endless seeking and endless questionings, its anxiety and its solitude. He is the “poet of memory”, of childhood, of leave-taking and looking back, the poet of the night and its vastness, the poet of thresholds and silences.

Rilke wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. His two most famous verse sequences are the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies; his two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. His three complete cycles of poems that constitute the celebrated Book of Hours were published in 1905. These poems explore the Christian search for God and the nature of prayer, using symbolism from Saint Francis and his observation of Orthodox Christianity during his travels in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century.

Here is the voice of this great poet of solitude, in a poem taken from The Book of Hours, written between 1899 and 1903 when Rilke was only in his twenties.

I am praying again, Awesome One

Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
Original Language German

I am praying again, Awesome One.

You hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.

I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.

In alleyway I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
the eyes with which I once beheld you.

I am a house gutted by fire
where only the guilty sometimes sleep
before the punishment that devours them
hounds them out into the open.

I am a city by the sea
sinking into a toxic tide
I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown
had poisoned my mother as she carried me.

It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself gain.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart–
oh let them take me now.

Into them I place these fragments, my life,
and you, God — spend them however you want.

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