Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Autumn Day

I'm a sucker for Autumn, it plays on my Celtic sentimental streak like a harp. I discovered I was susceptible to the lacrimae rerum in the sixth form, when we came under a steady drizzle of autumnal, valedictory poetry, for which I had been primed by an unexpected break-up with my first "steady" girlfriend: hey, Werther, c'est moi. Keats, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, Goethe, Rilke -- sometimes it was all I could do not to sob into my exercise books during double English. In self-defense I took refuge in portentous, inky marginal doodling, a habit I have continued to this day.

A poem I have always loved from this period of my sentimental education (and which, because of its juxtaposition in the Penguin Book of German Verse, I always misremember as by Friedrich Nietzsche) is Herbsttag (Autumn Day), by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl 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.

Ranier Maria Rilke, 1902

As I'm at home this afternoon, with a cup of coffee and a German dictionary to hand, here's my (slightly free) translation:

Lord, it is time. That was one big summer.
Disconnect the shadows from the sundials
and let slip the winds upon the fields.

Require the last fruits to be full;
a couple more southerly days
will turn them out perfectly, and hound
that sweetness into heady wine.

Whoever has no house, won't be building one now.
Whoever is alone, will stay that way now:
wakeful, reading, writing long letters,
and restlessly tramping The Avenue, over and over,
driven by the leaves.

I enjoyed doing that. I almost wish I could submit it for approval as a piece of homework to my old teacher, Dr. Splett. But he is long dead, and our school now mutated out of all recognition and, I hear, soon to be moved to a new site. Sad, when you consider a school has occupied that site since 1558.

I wrote "The Avenue" rather than "the avenues" (Rilke's "Alleen" is plural), because a leafy thoroughfare of that name ran up the side of our school grounds, and was a favourite haunt for introspective walks and midnight fun in those far off days. It has a particular resonance, as "Alleen" is a close rhyme for "Alleyne's", which happened to be the name of our school. Sniff...

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1847

As I say, I'm a sucker for Autumn...


Gavin McL said...

I enjoyed this post, I like the photo of the pigeon, fond of pigeons. I might try some Rilke poems. My German doesn't extend much beyond train times and requests for food and drink so it will have to be in translation - can you recommend any?

Mike C. said...

Hmm. Rilke is a bit of an acquired taste, doesn't translate well, and requires a ton of context to appreciate properly -- but then the same could be said of pretty much any major poet not writing in English.

Most people know Rilke in the old J.B. Leishman translations, though these are in many ways poor, so a good place to start may be the Penguin "Selected Poems". However, if you can find a copy the Picador "Selected Poetry" translated by Stephen Mitchell is highly rated by many.

If you get the taste, the goal is to tackle the "Duino Elegies" and the "Sonnets to Orpheus", ideally in a parallel text, so you can get the flavour of the German.

To make some (dated) musical comparisons, people tend to think of him as a sensitive, quietly doomed Nick Drake figure, but I think of him as the Jimmy Page of German poetry -- a frail-looking little guy with some odd beliefs who, when he plugs his instrument in, becomes a monster virtuoso.

Don't be put off by the angels: if you haven't seen Wim Wenders' film "Wings of Desire" it might be good preparation...

May said...

I posted the same Rilke's poem on my blog.

The original is always better than the translation.