I found it impossible to choose a favorite poem, so asked myself: which poet do you go back to, again and again, to find that sense of discovering poetry, as a young reader, thirty years ago in high school and college? There are several—Keats, Shelley, Yeats, Dickinson, Shakespeare, and many others—but Rilke most of all, and in particular this poem. I include the German original, as well as M.D. Herter Norton’s translation, which is the one I still use (knowing that Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke has supplanted Norton). I imagine that many poetry readers come to poetry via Rilke, whether through Letters to a Young Poet or The Duino Elegies, but I first encountered and was transfixed by the short, early lyrics. Yes, having accumulated thirty years of varnished persepctive, I read some of these early poems with a sidelong wince; still, they are a deep, guilty pleasure, and I can lose myself for hours in them. Herbsttag Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib 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. Autumn Day (translated by M. D. Herter Norton)Lord, it is time. The summer was very big.
Lay thy shadow on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go loose.Command the last fruits that they shall be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
urge them on to fulfillment and drive
the last sweetness into heavy wine.Who has no house now, will build him one no more.
Who is alone now, long will so remain,
will wake, read, write long letters
and will in the avenues to and fro
restlessly wander, when the leaves are blowing.