Thursday, September 1, 2016


During a long walk this morning, I listened to an episode of On Being in which the host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Joanna Macy, who, among other things, is a translator of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  During the course of the interview, Macy recited four Rilke poems that, in her view, provide windows into various stages of Rilke's spiritual journey.  These poems resonated with me, especially when considered in close proximity to one another.  Perhaps they will resonate with others as well. 

                                             God's True Cloak

                           We must not portray you in king's robes,
                           you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

                           Once again from the old paintboxes
                           we take the same gold for scepter and crown
                           that has disguised you through the ages.

                           Piously we produce our images of you
                           till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
                           And when our hearts would simply open,
                           our fervent hands hide you.

                                             Book of Hours, I 4

                                              Widening Circles

                           I live my life in widening circles
                           that reach out across the world.
                           I may not complete this last one
                           but I give myself to it.

                           I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
                           I've been circling for thousands of years
                           and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
                           a storm, or a great song?

                                               Book of Hours, I 2

                                  Go to the Limits of Your Longing

                            God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
                            then walks with us silently out of the night.

                            These are the words we dimly hear:

                            You, sent out beyond your recall,
                            go to the limits of your longing.
                            Embody me.

                            Flare up like a flame
                            and make big shadows I can move in.

                            Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
                            Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
                            Don't let yourself lose me.

                            Nearby is the country they call life.
                            You will know it by its seriousness.

                            Give me your hand.

                                           Book of Hours, I 59

                                  Let This Darkness be a Bell Tower

                            Quiet friend who has come so far,
                            feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
                            Let this darkness be a bell tower
                            and you the bell.  As you ring,

                            what batters you becomes your strength.
                            Move back and forth into the change.
                            What is it like, such intensity of pain?
                            If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

                            In this uncontainable night,
                            be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
                            the meaning discovered there.

                            And if the world has ceased to hear you,
                            say to the silent earth: I flow.
                            To the rushing water, speak: I am.

                                           Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29


  1. I find a moment when I can sit and be still
    to take the time your posts deserve.
    This one was very special.

    1. Thanks so much, Laura. Glad you like these poems. I find that Rilke's poems, like the works of so many other great poets, grow deeper and more profound with each subsequent reading.

  2. These are very beautiful George. You often give me ideas for our Poetry afternoons and this is certainly one for the next time.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Pat. I love these poems because they give us such insight into both Rilke's spiritual journey and our own. It helps that Rilke is never stuck on one metaphor, but is always showing us another dimension of the dimensionless.

  3. Thank you.

    I was thinking today of what God was in the church I was raised in: Other. I spoke aloud to myself about the divine within, and how I might describe that divinity to someone of my upbringing.

    The first two poems here speak to that same feeling I have. That we create our image of God. I've often thought that maybe as much as we are made in the image of God, we make him/her in our own image. I also have thought that the more I feel of God (Light, Life ... ) the wider the circles go. So each of these poems .. about creating our image of God, widening circles, going to the limits of our longing, and the darkness as bell tower ... resonates stunningly for me tonight.

    I linked this at Facebook, and I will do so again here in case other readers should want to read an excerpt of Rachel Corbett's new book about Rilke and Rodin:

  4. Thanks for your lovely comment, Ruth. I chose to put these four poems together because, as indicated by Joanna Macy's interview by Krista Tippett, they seemed to be linked — different metaphorical signposts along the same spiritual path.

    I love the nature mysticism in the first poem, where Rilke sees the fallacy of thinking of God in "king's robes" with "scepter and crown," and then finds God in the "drifting mist that brought forth the morning." I also like his recognition that the "divine" images we were given in our childhoods ended up being "a thousand walls" that prevented our hearts from truly experiencing the true God, that which Tillich called "God beyond God."

    Celtic Christianity had a much better fix on the divine than the churches of our childhoods. The Celts spoke of humans as being created "of God," not "by God," and this is a very important distinction, in my view. Along the same lines, The Celts rejected the notion of "original sin," and spoke of being born with "original blessing." Isn't that so much more beautiful, and so much more in keeping with the notion of a loving God, than what we learned in our youth?

    I'm still wrestling with whether I'm a falcon, a storm, or a great song. On the verge of my 74th birthday, however, I'm inclined to think that I've been all of those things, a falcon searching in widening circles, certainly a storm from time to time, and, increasingly, a song of harmonious notes — maybe not a "great song," but one for which I am grateful.

  5. Thanks George. 'Resonates' is a good word for your last poem.

    Quiet friend who has come so far,
    feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
    Let this darkness be a bell tower
    and you the bell. As you ring,

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, John. Yes, as I approach my seventy-fourth birthday next month, these lines have a special resonance for me as well.