Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours – A Version by Robert Saxton
The latest publication from Robert Saxton
Published by The High Window Press, April 2023
Now available Paperback 128 pages £11.99 ISBN 978-1-913201-22-7
I viii Fin de siècle
I’m living at the far edge of the century.
A tremendous leaf is about to turn,
which God, you and I have scribbled on.
I feel the wind that stirs it, teasingly.
I love the inviting blank of the empty page –
unspoiled, a place to record marvellous things.
Silently the Fates, after taking soundings,
look at each other; then dip their pens in rage.
Here for the first time Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours is rendered into satisfying poetry in English in a version that follows the rhyme patterns of the original German. An introduction covers the sources of Rilke’s inspiration, as well as the principles Robert Saxton has followed in his approach to the work.
Rilke’s earliest masterpiece is compelling, outspoken, impassioned, strange and wholly alive. It catches the reader off-guard with surprises and frissons of all kinds. Varied and restless, it presents a kaleidoscopic picture of the poet’s complex and shifting relationship with God, which at times feels like a love affair. Key themes include doubt, desire, art, nature, time, nothingness, pilgrimage, the city, poverty and death. All this is set within a vibrant world, peopled by memorable characters, including a young monk resisting the temptations of the flesh, Michelangelo, Botticelli, the Virgin Mary, St Francis, farmers, monks and a sinister nightwatchman.
Saxton’s version of Rilke’s The Book of Hours offers a well-judged balance of imaginative interpretation and conscientious fidelity.
Further sample poems:
I xv The Cathedral
Sometimes we imagine ourselves building
you with prayerful hands, atom upon atom.
But our blindness turns faith into fumbling.
Never will we even start your spire or dome.
What is Rome? Fallen masonry, crumbling.
What is Earth? We’re on a course to destroy
our world, smash it into fragments like Troy
before we see even a single tower
topped with its shining cupola, and before
acres of mosaic display your face’s
radiance assembled from a million pieces.
But in dreams profound and passionate
sometimes I glimpse your edifice complete,
from its unshakeable, deep-rooted base
to its curling tendrils of traceries –
an astounding, cloud-piercing cathedral!
Then I know your truth, feeling my heart race
as all my fully awakened senses
steady themselves to add the final finial.
I xxxi The Madonna
Often we’re reminded of that shy young woman
visited in her bedroom and woken,
terrified, loved into a strange becoming:
living in full sail and giving birth, chosen
from many for this dutiful blossoming.
We think of her voyage on uncharted seas,
adrift on the currents of the ages, serene
in servicing the cosmic mysteries.
Her labour crowned her as our marvellous queen.
Like festive bells her story rang out loud
in every town and village, every home,
and she who was once so childlike and so cowed
was lifted to greatness by the awesome
thought of the son she’d lost to give us hope,
for ourselves and those unborn, in palace or slum,
by letting us know the taste of the trodden grape
and healing wine whose vineyard she’d become.
I xl Tending the Flock
There are some hymns I know but never sing.
I believe you’ll pick me up if I should fall.
You judge me by my soul’s endeavouring,
not just as one of the crowd, quick to kneel,
but as a sentinel who’s trained to guard
the slope they graze – a shepherd, after all –
for when from their rock-strewn, heathery hill
the flock turns home my task is to be their guide.
I follow them to the river and in thick mist
can just make out the crossing place they choose.
I know how easy it is for them to lose
their way, and how I also might be lost.
II vii Put Out My Eyes
Put out my eyes, I’d be able to see you still.
Plug up my ears, I’d hear you at your play.
Even without feet I’d manage to limp, or crawl,
right up to you. Even without a mouth I’d call
you. Break off my arms, and I’d find a way
to hold you with my heart, as if it were
a hand. Stop my heart, and my brain would beat.
And if you filled my beating brain with fire,
I’d carry you in my blood, like my body’s heat.
II xix Going East
Sometimes during a family meal someone
stands up, goes outside and keeps on walking –
because there’s a church far away, beckoning
from the east. His children grieve: he’s gone
Another dies at home in bed,
who touched the table every time he prayed.
His children soon accept their father’s dead
and hasten to make the trip he never made.
III iii A Simple Prayer
Make me a steward of your wilderness,
a listener to the whisperings of stone.
Grant me a vision of your gentleness
in the lonely sea lanes and the sinking sun.
Let me blend with your rivers as they run
seawards, in flight from the commotion
of shouts on both banks to the silent ocean.
Send me to your vast empty plains where wide
winds blow and enormous monasteries stand
like vestments around lives unlived, fortified
houses of truth in a beleaguered land.
This is where pilgrims rest, and there I’ll go.
I want to be among them, bathe in the flow
of their voices, read their faces, assay
their virtues. I know my calling: to follow
some blind old man discovering the way.
III xxviii Forest Fruits
They’ll live and multiply. Time won’t defeat
them. They’ll grow like wild berries in the shade,
carpeting the forest floor with their sweet
surprises. They’ll wait for picking, unafraid.
The ones who never went away but stood
quietly without any shelter in the rain
will be blessed with unseasonal plentitude:
abundant fruits, ripening inside their pain.
There’ll be rubies dotting the darkness with their gleam,
beyond all endings, every buried kingdom,
the cycle of ages just a forgotten dream.
And tender hands will lift them from the loam,
as theirs lift love, and bring their harvest home.
III xxxii Street Life
Your people, the poor, suffer most in these
hellholes. Everything that happens weighs heavily
upon them. Feverish, they burn and freeze,
and walk the streets at night like refugees
from a ruthless landlord. They’re worn away
by poverty. They’re filthy and spat upon,
like uncollected rubbish rotting in shame.
They’re screamed at by every chance sight: a silken
courtesan, a lamp post, a children’s game.
And if somewhere there’s someone who can
speak for them, let them; and let them call each
person by their name.