I first began reading Rainer Maria Rilke in the autumn of 1973, when I was twenty. His work filled me as few other poets would both then and in the decades to follow. I read widely. My list of favorites grew as I read even more: Jacobsen, Jimenez, Lorca, Milosz, Neruda, Trakl. Yes, they were often poets found in translation. However, I also did have my list of American poets, such as Jack Gilbert, Donald Hall, Robert Francis, Mary Oliver, among a host of others.
Rilke, though, held me, opened up to me in various rereadings. His mysticism was not only attractive but I also saw it as a possible path on which I could learn to guide my own life. I never saw Rilke’s angels but I could feel the presence of my own.
Another attribute in my early reading of Rilke was that I knew Stephen Mitchell, when he was a grad student at Yale. Stephen would often stop me in the street, between classes, to show me his most recent Rilke translations. He would open his briefcase and pull out newly typed translations and read some lines to me, first in German, then in English, to illustrate how musical Rilke sounded in German, and how he was trying to cast a similar lyricism in English.
Decades since, in October 2017, I revisited Rilke, as I often have over the years, in my rereading of The Duino Elegies and The Orpheus Sonnets. The sequences availed themselves to me as they had never done before. I experienced a mystical breakthrough in my reading of the work. This resulted in my writing a couple of tribute poems to Rilke, “Two Echoes for Rilke” and “Rilke, at the Chateau de Muzot.” This was followed by my translating a poem from The Orpheus Sonnets, Part Two, XII.
In the summer of 2018, I had another mystical experience in my reading Rilke. Doors opened where I wasn’t aware any doors were. I came upon C. F. McIntyre’s 1947 translation of Rilke’s Das Marienleben, or The Life of the Virgin Mary, a sequence of thirteen poems of various lengths. The sequence was composed by Rilke in 1900 during his Worpswede art colony years. This was before his years spent under the aesthetic tutelage of Rodin, as his personal secretary. This was on the cusp of the Romanticism of the 19th-century and the modernism of the 20th-century.
What attracted me about Das Marienleben was its tribute to the Virgin Mary. If it is all possible to remove the aspects of religion out of the sequence, we can see that it is one of the many poems Rilke wrote that can be called anima poems. Rilke was reading, or at least aware of, C. G. Jung at this time. Innately discovering his own depths of anima, which he projected into his poetry, as well as into the women who surrounded him, was to become an intrinsic psycho-spiritual practice that he would follow throughout his entire life.
However, if we only look at Das Marienleben as a tribute to Christ’s mother, Mary, it is still a rich lyrical and narrative selection of poetry written by a young Rilke, in his mid-20s, already in touch with his core genius. The sequence would be published as a book some years later, just before WWI, in 1913. Originally, it was to be issued with accompanying artwork by the Worpswede artist, Paul Vogeler, but Rilke vetoed the idea, and it was published without Vogeler’s illustrations. The book would go on to sell some 50,000 copies between 1913 and 1923. Although Rilke was, indeed, a popular German poet, such a number of copies sold, and such a number of successive printings, only buoy the notion that Das Marienleben was worth reading.
I have admired many translators of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Of course, there are Stephen Mitchell’s translations, of which I was graced to see in very early drafts. I also have admired Edward Snow’s work, and more recently, my friend, the erudite poet and translator from San Francisco, Art Beck’s versions, especially, of The Orpheus Sonnets, which are as crisp and vital as they are vehicles for Rilke’s angelic visions and poetic rapture.
However, there were poems such as the ones included here which nearly tacitly spoke to me audibly. The words and the images opened to me as a poem of my own would—but with Rilkean splendor. I had to rush to write down what I was hearing, and it seemed, at least at the time, that I was also listening to my inner angel.
What follows here is my own interpretation of Das Marienleben, or The Life of the Virgin Mary. I had occasion to attend several services led by the non-denominational healing Roman Catholic priest, Father Ralph DiOrio. In listening to him speak once, I heard him relay that he not only loved the Virgin Mary deeply but also intended to write a book about her. It is my own theory that Father Ralph had already written that book in both his heart and mind, since among the many books he did write the book regarding Mary was not to be one of them. In my remembering that upon coming upon Das Marienleben, my immediate thought was my vindicating Father Ralph and providing another poetic interpretation of the poetic sequence that might be a bit more modern and one that opened to the reader in more spiritually appealing ways a with a fresh syntax and vibrant imagery.
What also follows here are my own meager handful of translations of poems of Rilke’s that are either (as with Das Marienleben) not well-known or even somewhat unknown, such as the poem, “The Bride,” written in 1900. Including my own tribute poems to Rilke was a second thought, really. However, with this segue my intent was to further reveal my own impressions of the poet with my own poems—the sum of which became an ongoing conversation with Rilke.
The intent of this book is for it to offer praise to the poet who cited praise as the highest form of poetry. In Rilke’s praises, we find our own praise—of ourselves, of others, of mostly anything, actually. When anyone experiences an epiphany that person wants to share that epiphany. When you have experienced many, it is really nearly an imperative that others know and hear the song, or songs, that have lead to the opening of the light.
May my interpretative adaptations become threads woven into the fabric of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke in English. May it lead to exploring Rilke’s major works as fully as any reader can—which demand, for many reasons, a multitude of rereadings. The work contained here led me to my own experience of what is mystical and to further it. May this same work open for you in a similar way and provide nurture and sustenance, as it has for me.
After Rilke’s Marienleben
Thoughtfully, with a flourishing gesture,
The angel informed Joseph, who set clenched
Fists: Isn’t it plain that in every fold of her robe
She is as refreshing as the dew, the Lord’s
Morning mists? But Joseph, despondently,
Murmured: What has worked such a change in her?
Upon which the angel cried, “Carpenter,
Can you not see an act of God present within her?
Since you make the planks smooth by a plane,
Prideful, would you really declare the Lord God
Responsible, the one who, without pretense,
Endows the leaves opening, the swells of blossom?”
Joseph comprehended that. And now brought his
Face up in a petrified look at the angel he thought
Was still above him, but he was gone . . . whereas he
Slid his cap off, slowly. Then offered praise in song.
Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as co-winner in the 2011 Crab Orchard Series Open Poetry Contest, and A Bird Who Seems to Know Me: Poems Regarding Birds & Nature (Ex Ophidia Press, 2019), the winner of the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize.