Harold J Wilson



I would like to present fifteen lyrical poems by Rainer Maria Rilke with some comment on the German texts, along with English translations and musical settings of my own composition (via cd.) The first seven poems are lyrics from the period1902 -08) as are the last three. The middle five are from Rilke’s Sonnets To Orpheus (1922). These are late poems and more overtly ‘metaphysical’ but still clearly related to his earlier lyric style. Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 and died in 1926 in Switzerland.

One might compare Rilke to his contemporary Yeats in many ways. Both had an easy immediate voice which came perhaps more readily to Rilke, and both had a certain range of poetic personae. Each used mythology as a vehicle for their own writings – Yeats famously with Leda and the Swan and in his Byzantium poems as well as with his Celtic ‘folk’voice. Rilke spoke early in a sort of prophetic child voice, but he also  used Christian biblical resources as well as creating his own ‘Orphic’ sonnets and  his ten Elegies. I may say, to begin with, that it seems to me that Rilke used his ‘Christian’ images in a way equally  idiosyncratic to Yeats in his handling of biblical or classical themes, and that he also, as much as I love Yeats, is perhaps the more original poet of the two in his final important Sonnets To Orpheus and Duino Elegies. Yeats’ music and cadences seem perhaps more subtle than Rilke’s but one must take into account the fact that Rilke was primarily a ‘visual’ person, and that English translations rarely render his rhythms convincingly. Rilke also no doubt owes something to previous German poets and other influences but I cannot really comment on that subject at any length.

The first Rilke lyric I would like to discuss is Schlaflied or ‘ Slumber Song, ’ which has been a favorite of mine for some forty-five years or so. The poet-speaker contemplates the sleeping beloved and cannot quite credit the thought of her slumbering happily without his being there to reclothe her  in his own imaginative enhancement of her presence. The poem is wistful and yearning and lyrically appealing but there is also this wonderful note of Rilkean irony as he slyly reveals the poet’s self-centered  notion of himself as the beloved’s creator!


Einmal wenn ich dich verlier,
Wirst du schlafen konnen ohne
Dass ich wie ein lindenkrone
Mich verflustre uber dir?

Ohne dass ich hier wache und
Worte beinah wie augenlider
Auf deine bruste, deine glieder,
Niederlege, auf deinem mund?

Ohne dass ich dich verschliess
Und dich allein mit deinem lasse,
Wie ein garten mit einer masse
Von melissen und sternanis ?

One day when you are lost to me
Will you be able to sleep without
My whispering myself away above you
Like the crown of a linden tree?

Without my waking  and bestowing
Words almost like eyelids
Upon your breasts, upon your limbs,
Laying them upon your mouth?

Without my closing you and leaving
You alone with what is yours,
Like a garden overflowing
With Melissas and Star Anise?

This poem is both simple and yet fanciful. The speaker has no literal reason for supposing that the lady will become an insomniac when she no longer shares his bed. But the question is, after all, a rhetorical one which relates more to his wonder at the closeness of their presence together; this wonder admits of the realization however that the moment cannot last and that their closeness is finite. So it is a mixed mood which is invoked through a series of rhetorical questions, a mood of celebration and also of anticipated relinquishment, a letting go. The wonder is double-edged, both tender and also fully aware of the terminus of its present occasion. Rilke’s irony is part of the savour of his poetry. It is never merely sweet. And he was always saying goodbye to his beloveds, in one way or another.

Einschlafen Zu Sagen ( For Singing To Sleep)

This poem has some of the tenderness  of the preceding one and talks in a tone of childlike wonder about how the poet’s eyes hold his beloved and ‘let her loose’ when something stirs in the dark. The poet inhabits the dark like a small god, the only one who wakes and knows what is about in the house and in the woods and in the beloved herself. As in the preceding poem it is difficult not to see the poet portraying himself partly as creator of the beloved. What a sublime mix of both arrogance and humility!

Zum Einschlafen Zu Sagen


Ich mochte jemanden einsingen,
Bei jemanden sitzen und sein.
Ich mochte dich wiegen und kleinsingen
Und begleiten schlafaus und schlafein.

Ich mochte der einzigen sein im haus,
Der wusste: die nacht war kalt.
Und mochte horchen herein und hinaus
In dich, in die welt, in den wald.

Die uhren rufen sich schlagend an,
Und man sieht der zeit auf den grund.
Und unten geht noch ein fremder mann
Und stort einen fremden hund.

Dahinter wird stille. Ich habe gross
Die augen auf dich gelegt:
And sie halten dich sanft und lassen dich los,
Wenn ein ding sich im dunkel bewegt.

I want to be singing to someone,
By someone to sit and to be.
I’d like to rock you and hum to you
As you pass into sleep, into day.

I want to be the only one in the house
Who knows how the night is cold,
Who knows what happens, within and without,
In you, in the world, in the wood.

The hours are striking and calling now
And one looks through time to its ground,
And outside there passes a stranger now,
And the noise of a stranger’s hound.

Then all grows still; but I have so
Laid my eyes upon you, stark,
That they hold you soft, then let you go
When something stirs in the dark.


Here we find Rilke grappling with the problems of psychic intimacy again. It is almost humorous to hear him wishing that there were some quiet ‘Left Luggage’ office where he could hide his soul so that it would not have to react so sensitively to that of his beloved. But the poem does end affirmatively with a rhapsodic ‘O sweetest song’description of the resonance between them as one note struck from two strings. This ambivalence is essential, not only to Rilke but perhaps to all intense encounters of this nature.

Wie soll ich meine seele halten
Dass sie nicht an deine ruhrt,
Wie soll ich sie hinheben
Uber dich zu andern dingen?
Ach, gerne mocht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorene in dunkel unterbringen
An einer fremden stille stelle die
Nicht weiterschwingt wenn deinen tiefen schwingen.

Doch alles was uns anruhrt, dich und mich,
Nimmt uns suzammen wie ein bogenstricht
Der aus zwei saiten eine stimme zieht.
Auf welches instrument sind wir gespannt,
Und welcher spieler hat uns in der hand ?
O susses, lied.

How shall I then contain my soul
So that it does not touch your own,
How raise it past you to the things that wait ?
Ah, gladly would I rather leave it by
Some dark forgotten quiet place so
Strange and foreign that it may not
Register each movement deep in you.

But everything that stirs us, you and me,
Takes us together like a fiddler’s bow
That from two strings a single voice may draw.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned,
And what the player holds us in his hand?
O sweetest song.

Erinnerung or Remembrance is another important theme which deals with the poet’s yearning for a major inspiration which will magnify his powers and greatly increase his artistic scope. This is something which he is most likely to find waiting for him within his own memory and experience. But ironically, it is also that which he may have to bear up to the weight of – as something suffered – the original Latin meaning of the word ‘passion.’

The epiphany of understanding is drawn in this poem from the poet’s own memory. He begins to understand, once more from the beginning, a vision of what that crucial time was like, what grief it brought upon him; he remembers his prayers to an absent or unknown deity, the whole web of the relationship which controlled his waking and even unconscious life; and perhaps even the terror, the trapped feeling, the anticipation of its eventual failure. But well beyond that failed outcome, the memory not only survives but feeds him and gives him energy. Somehow, suffering again those moments which spring from the image of a particular woman’s dress brings him all that he had prayed for.


Und du wartest, erwartest das eine
Dass dein leben unendlich vermehrt,
Das machtige, ungemeine,
Das erwachen der steine,
Tiefe dir zugekehrt.

Und es dammert in bucherstander
Die bunde von gold und braun;
Und du denkst an durchfahrender lander,
An bilder, an die gewander
Wiederverlorendes fraun.

Und da weisst du auf einmal das war es,
Du erhebst dich und vor dir steht
Eines vergangenes jahres’
Angst und gestalt und gebet.
And you wait, are awaiting the one thing
That your life will vastly enlarge,
The utmost secret power
That will quicken stone strata
And open the depths to you.

And there glimmer inside the bookshelves,
The bindings of gold and brown,
And you think of the lands you have wandered
On paintings, on the apparel
Of women, lost now again.

And you know all at once where it happened,
You rise, and before you there
Stands that bygone year with all of its
Pain, and its promise, and prayer.


I have used ‘promise’ here for ‘gestalt’ which is far too heavy a concept word for one English term. Perhaps it bears more of the meaning of a fated involvement.  Once again, Rilke’s irony allows us to see how the poet’s impatient desire for a major inspiration brings him more than he had bargained for – even as the original relationship no doubt did. One must always exercise caution about what one prays for.


Rilke addresses the Lord here, but it is more of a rhetorical device than anything else. There are nice emphatic rhythms in this poem
And good lyrical imagery, recalling a little Keats’ Ode to Autumn. Note the use of verbs like Drangen and Jagen describe the ripening of the harvest fruits, but they are almost more like verbs of herding, like to ‘press’ and to ‘drive’. Rilke then changes the focus from the external land to the inner feelings of the lone human (like himself) who retreats to books and letters and nocturnal wakefulness, and who in the Autumn streets is condemned to wander restlessly like the leaves driven by the wind.



Herr, es ist zeit,
der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen schatten auf die sonnenuhren,
Und auf die fluren lass dein winde los.

Befiel den letzten fruchten voll zu sein:
Gib ihnen noch zwei sundlichere tage,
Drange sie zur vollendung hin und jage
Die letzte susse 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 blatter treiben.

 Lord, it is time. the summer was immense,

Now lay your shadow down across the sundials

And on the meadows let your winds run loose

Bespeak the final fruits now to fulfill

And give them two more days that, southern, shine

To press them to completion and instill
The final sweetness in the heavy wine.

Who is without a house will build him none,
And who is now alone, will long remain so,
Will wake and read and write long letters then,
On the broad avenues walk to and fro,
And wander restless as the leaves are driven.



In this poem, Rilke is again the nocturnal observer, this time of the heavens, and his voice though very simple reflects a kind of wonder at the existence and indeed non-existence of the stars, at the passing of time, and he muses in a sort of rapt irony over the possibility of there possibly being something there at the end of it all. This seems to me a very ‘Heideggerian’ poem in its question of ultimate meaning.
It maintains its Rilkean tone of wonder at the temporal arrangements of the heavens above us as it concludes with the hope that perhaps, in the vision of the poet, there is a sense that One amongst all these stars is still out there, has endured, and that the poet may yet yearn for its final ‘White City.’


O wie is alles fern
Und lange vergangen.
Ich glaube, der stern,
Von welchem ich glanz empfange,
Ist seit Jahrtausend tot.

Ich glaube, im boot,
Das voruberfuhr,
Horte ich etwas banges sagen.
Im hause hat ein uhr
Im welches haus ?

Ich mochte aus meinem herzem hinaus
Unter den grossem himmel treten.
Ich mochte beten
Und einer von allen sternen
Musste wirklich noch sein.

Ich glaube, ich wusste,
Welcher allein
Gedauert hat, -
Welcher wie eine weisse stadt
Am ende des strahls in den himmel steht.

Oh how is all gone far
And long past knowing.
I believe that the star
Whose light I find here glowing
Is dead for a thousand years.

I believe, in the boat
Which just went by
I heard something fearful said.
In the house has an hour
Struck now….
But in which house ?

I would like outside my heart
To walk under the great heavens.
I would like to pray
And one among all the stars
Must really still be there.

I believe I would know
Which one of them all
Has endured, -
Which like a white city
At the end of its beams still
Stands in the sky.


Abend or Evening is a fairly well-known lyrical poem. Here again, Rilke uses simple language to describe the human predicament of being caught between our transcendent potential and our ‘everydayness,’ the two polar  complementarities being imaged as ‘stone’ and ‘star.’  In this poem the rhythms carry some of the vitality of the question which confronts all of us and there is a playfulness about the difference between the simple images and verbs and the big metaphysical conundrum which they allude to.


Der abend wechselt langsam die gewande
Die ihm ein rand von alten baumen halt.
Du schaust und  von dir scheiden sich die lande,
Ein himmelfahrenden and ein das fallt.

Und lassen dich  zu keinem ganz gehorend,
Nicht ganz so dunkel wie das haus das schweigt,
Nicht ganz so sicher ewiges beschworend
Wie das was stern wird jede nacht und steigt.

Und lassen dich unsaglich zu entwirrend,
Dein leben bald und riesenhaft und reifend,
So dass sie bald begrenzt und bald begreifend
Abwechselt stein in dir wird und gestirn.

The evening slowly changes its apparel,
Which by a rim of ancient trees is held.
You gaze and there the land divides before you,
Half falling, half that rises heavenward.

And it leaves you there to neither quite belonging,
Not quite so silent as the darkened house,
Nor yet so surely tied to the eternal
As that which to a star each night will rise;

And leaves you there, unspeakably confounded,
Your life so narrow, yet still ripening far,
So that it, both bemused and comprehended,
Must turn to stone within you, and to star.

Rilke here uses the twilight as a setting for underlining the human confusion between our status as dust of the earth (Adam) and as sentient beings full of higher yearnings. But he rests with the paradox of our dual nature rather than giving way to any pretended resolution. The poem, although its theme plays out as a rather gentle thematic tour de force, works and comes alive because of its images, its rhythmic swing and its flat ironic tone.                              

Five Sonnets To Orpheus

There are fifty-nine of these sonnets altogether. They came as a kind of extra gift at the time Rilke was writing the final lot of his Duino Elegies in 1922, four years before his death. In the sonnets, Orpheus is seen as a mysterious godlike figure who is somehow ‘offered up’ as a sacrifice so that his transcendent singing may be shared by the common experience of  humanity. This is a kind of ‘metaphysical’ development of the original myth where Orpheus is torn apart by an ecstatic group of Dionysian maenads who encounter him while they are in their annual trance state, tear him apart in their madness and scatter his body parts upon the mountains.

Orpheus’ ‘singing’ is something quite different from our all too human and popular celebrations of romantic love and individual experience; it is a level of ‘song’ which bears a more primal sense of melody and meaning somewhat like Goethe’s sense of how the ‘eternal feminine’  ‘zieht uns hinan’ or draws us on to a higher mystery of human significance. Not all of these fifty-nine sonnets deal with the myth and mystery of Orpheus and for those that do, such as the group I have chosen, I think it would be a serious mistake to interpret them in any sort of Christian way. If anything, they have more to do with the long tradition of German Romanticism. I suppose the notion of ‘song’ which is employed by Rilke could be seen as underlying the way in which great art provides a ‘window on the transcendent’. Or perhaps for each of us, the song is our musical line in the mysterious Commedia Divina of human destiny. If anything, Orpheus is a slightly more aesthetic concept of ‘Zarathustra’ for Rilke. The five sonnets which I have arranged here are out of their chronological order in the first half of the numbered sequence. In fact, their numbers are 9 and 19, 5 and 3, and finally 26. The first two use four-beat lines and are somewhat elegiac in tone; the second two are written with five-beat lines and are more discursive in exploring our relationship with Orpheus; the last one is more of an acclamation and summing up.


Sonnet  9

Nur wer die leier schon hob,
Auch unter schatten,
Darf das unendliche lob
Ahnend erstatten.

Nur wer mit toten von mohn
Ass, von dem ihren,
Wird nicht der leisesten ton
Wieder verlieren

Mag auch die spieglung im teich
Oft uns verschwimmen:
Wisse das bild.

Erst in dem doppelbereich
Werden die stimmen
Ewig und mild.

Only he who has raised
His lyre among the shades
Dare the unending praise
Intend and offer.

Only one who has tasted
Among the dead their dream
Will not ever forget
The lightest  tone.

Though the pool’s reflection
Swim often before us,
Know the real image.

Only in the Double Realm
Will the voices turn
Eternal and mild.

Only the artist who understands the transitory nature of human experience can render the really transcendent song which Orpheus represents. Because he has shared with the dead their forgetfulness of everything ‘new’, and is able now to look backward, he can realize the tonal nuances of living in the ‘double realm’ of both everyday existence and the eternal.


Sonnet 19

Wandelt sich rasch aus die welt
Wie wolkengestalten,
Alles vollendete fallt
Heim zum uralten.

Uber dem wandel und gang,
Weiter und freier,
Wahrt noch dein vorgesang,
Gott mit der leier.

Nicht sind die leiden erkannt,
Nicht ist die liebe gelernt,
Und was im tod uns entfernt

Ist nicht entschleiert.
Einzig das lied uberm land
Heiligt und feiert.

Though the world change itself
Quickly as cloud forms,
All that’s completed falls
Back to old origins.

Over the faring and passing,
Further and freer,
Still sounds your primal-song,
God with the lyre.

Neither has grief been known,
Nor love itself been learned,
                                                   And how death distances us                                                  

Is not unveiled. No,
Only song over the land
Hallows our offering.

Like the previous sonnet, this one emphasizes our transitory nature and how little we have learned from our experience in the world, from our suffering, from love, or even from death.  But the primal music of Orpheus persists and is sensed as what is capable of making our lives into a sacrifice, somehow an offering, even to an unknown god..



Sonnet 5 

Errichtet keine denkstein. Lasst die rose
Nur jedes jahr zu seinem gunsten bluhn.
Denn Orpheus ists. Seine metamorphose
In dem und dem. Wir sollen uns nicht muhn

Um andre namen. Einst fur alle male
Ists Orpheus wenn es singt. Er kommt und geht.
Ists nicht schon viel wenn er die Rosenschale
Um ein paar tage manchmal ubersteht.

O wie er schwinden muss dass ihrs begrifft.
Und wenn ihm selbst auch bangte dass er schwande,
Indem  sein wort das hiersein ubertrifft.

Ist er schon dort wohin ihrs nicht begleitet.
Der leier gitter schwangt ihm nicht die hande.
Und er gehorcht indem er uberschreitet.

Erect no monument but let the rose
Still bloom each year to mark his memory.
For Orpheus is, his metamorphosis
Into this and this. We should not care

To name him more. Once and forever,
It’s Orpheus when it sings. He comes and goes.
Is it not much already to outweather
For a day or two the petals of the rose.

But he must vanish for you to embrace him,
Though he himself may fear his undergoing.

His word has now outstripped his presence here

And he’s already where you cannot trace him.
His hands are not bound, even by the lyre ,
And he bows down before his own surpassing.

This sonnet seems to speak of Orpheus as a godlike level of humanity which must be offered up and sacrificed in its various manifestations. So even though we lose something of our worldly identity, yet we must find our higher selves beyond it. And this is a demand which Orphic awareness must obey. Even the lyre strings, the discipline of our art, cannot be allowed to define and hold us back.

Sonnet 3

Ein Gott vermags. Wie aber, sag mir, soll
Ein mann ihm folgen durch die schmale leier ?
Sein sinn ist zwiespalt. An der kreuzung zweier
Herzwege steht kein temple fur Apoll.

Gesang, wie du ihn lehrst, ist nicht begehr,
Nicht werbung um ein endlich noch erreichtes;
Gesang ist dasein. Fur den Gott ein leichtes.
Wann aber sind wir ? Und wann wendet er

An unser sein die erde und die sterne ?
Dies ists nicht, jungling, dass du liebst, wenn auch
Die stimme dann den mund dir aufstosst, - lerne

Vergessen das du aufsangst. Das verinnt.
In wahrheit singen, ist ein andrer hauch.
Ein hauch um nichts. Ein wehn im Gott. Ein wind.

A God could do it, but then tell me, how
A man might follow through the narrow lyre,
His senses doubled ? At the crossroads’ two
Heartways stands no temple to Apollo.

Song as you have known it is not real,
No goal whose rich reward somehow awaits you.
Song is existence, for the God so easy,
But when then are we, and when will he reveal
How both the earth and stars turn on our being?
What you love must vanish, young one, though
The singing still fills up your mouth, but learn
To forget what you have sung – it vanishes.
Sing in the truth which takes a different breathing,
A breath of naught, a wave in God, a wind.

This sonnet focuses on how we have to go on despite our narrowly considered dedication to ‘our’ art. Again we are given the image of the ‘double realm’, something which goes beyond supplications to Apollo, the god of artistic completion. Rilke is using almost the language of Heidegger now: ‘Hiersein’ for presence in the previous sonnet and now ‘Gesang ist Dasein,’in other words a highly energized force of being. At some supreme level, this sense of ‘tonality’, of patterned energy which might be called ‘song’ is a primal dimension of what is most real about our lives. Rilke addresses the young here who may have the most difficulty believing in this further dimension since their own experience of life is so acute and immediate to them.

In this last of the five sonnets, Rilke’s voice rises to a more ecstatic level, describing Orpheus’ sacrifice at both its mythic and quasi-personal levels. It is, in some manner, a self-sacrifice, like the ‘offering up’ of the songs themselves; and by returning from the personal to this higher level, the song achieves some conversion of its hearers’ ability to respond. Even though they/we may be both the bearers and destroyers of his strange music.


Sonnet 26

Du aber, gottlicher, du, bis zuletzt noch ertoner,
Da ihn der schwarm der verschmahten manaden befiel,
Hast ihr geschrei ubertont mid ordnung, du schoner,
Aus den zerstorenden stieg dein erbauendes spiel.

eine war da, dass sie haupt dir und leier zerstor,
Wie sie auch rangen und rasten; und all die scharfen
Steine die sie nach deine herzen warfen
Wurden zu sanftem an dir und begabt mit gehor.

Schliesslich zerschlugen sie dich, von der rache gehetzt,
Wahrend dein klang noch in lowen und felsen verweilte,
Und in den baumen und vogeln. Dort singst du noch jetzt.
O du verlorener Gott! Du unendliche spur!
Nur weil dich reissend zuletzt die feindschaft verteilte,
Sind wir die horender jetzt und ein mund der nature.
But you, O divine one, you till the end still resounding,
You whom the swarm of angry maenads compel,
How their cries are all overruled with order, your beauty,
As out of destruction you build the web of your spell.

No one there was who your head and lyre could destroy,
No matter their raving and ravaging, the sharp
Stones aimed and thrown at your heart grew
Soft at your touch as you gifted them with hearing.

Finally you were struck down, besieged by their raging.
Still while the sound of you echoed in rocks and lions
And in the trees and birds where you sing still.

O you lost Godhead, you inexhaustible trace,
Only because of the hatred that rent and parted
Are we the listening ones who give nature a voice.

This last of the first section of the Sonnets seems a kind of acclamation of Orpheus, how he manages to continue to exist in spite of the madness which afflicts us and which must finally destroy him.
But the final three Rilke lyrics: Adam/Eva, and Die Engeln (The Angels) are a wonderful retelling of the story of our exile from the Garden as seen through the eyes of our two primal ancestors. Adam and Eve are both  visualized as statuary figures high up at the west end of some European cathedral ‘near to the Rose Window.’

Adam assures God that even though he may have to face death ‘out there’ in the unregulated new territories where he wants to posess his own farm, yet  “She will bring forth,” Eve will create life to replace them and to renew humanity, now freed from the stifling ‘order’ of an Eden which is entirely “completed.” In Eve’s companion sonnet, she is seen as a little more dreamy and trusts that she should go on with Adam, since, after all, she only knows God through him and has not met him herself. And so, both “guiltless, guilty” she enters time as “the youngest year,”
And, like Adam, begins our history without quite meaning to.

The sonnet about the angels is a bit like a footnote to the previous two. These early angels, so unlike the powerful messengers of the later elegies, are somewhat ‘over-complete’ like the Garden of Eden and have no potential for individual lives so that something in them, perhaps reminiscent of Satan’s fault, almost yearns for a moment’s freedom of ‘transgression.’ But in the end, unlike Adam and Eva, they are only “intervals” in God’s direction of his ultimate orchestral score “ in the dark book where all begins.”


Staunend steht er an die cathedrale
Steilem aufstieg, nah der fensterrose,
Wie erschreckt von der apotheose
Welchem wuchs in ihm und einem male

Niederstellt ihm uber die und die,
Und er ragt und freut sich seiner dauer
Slicht entschlossen als der ackerbauer
Der begann und der nicht wusste wie

Aus den fertigvollen garten Eden
Einem ausweg in die neue erde
Finden. Gott war schwer zu uberreden
Und er droht ihn statt zu gewahren,
Immer wieder dass er sterben werde.
Doch der mensch bestand, sie wird gebaren.

Astonished, he stands there, at the cathedral’s
Soaring ascent, near to the rose window,
As if numbed by his apotheosis
Which grew in him until it finally

Placed him there above everyone,
And he laughed and joyed in this his hour,
Chosen and set forth as the pioneer
Who was the beginner and had no notion why

He had found a path out of the garden.
Even though God would not agree
And warned him over and over, threatening

That he would have to die in the end,
Still he stood up to him and insisted
She will bring forth life again.






Einfach steht sie an der cathedrale
Grossem aufstieg nah der fensterrose,
Mit dem apfel in den apfelpose,
Schuldlos-schuldig einst fur alle male

Von den wachsenden das sie gebar
Seit sie aus den kreis der ewigkeiten
Liebend fortging aufsich durchzustreiten
Durch die erde wie ein junges jahr.

Ach sie hatte gern in jenem lande
Nur ein wenig weilem mogend, achtend
Von die tiere eintracht und verstand.
Doch da sie den mann entschlossen fand,
Ging sie mit ihm nach den tote trachtend,
Und sie hatte Gott noch kaum gekannt.


Simply, she stands there, at the cathedral’s
Climbing height, next to the rose window,
With the apple in the apple-pose,
Guiltless-guilty now and for all time

Of the growing beings whom she bore
Since she out of the circle of eternity
Loving came forth upon her journey
Throughout the earth like the youngest year.

Ah but she would gladly in that land
Still have lingered, for a moment’s further heeding
How the beasts there all agree and understand;

But she found the man set on proceeding
And then she could not let him go alone,
Though she had only God yet scarcely known.


Die Engeln

Sie haben alle mude munde
Und helle seelen ohne saum,
Und eine sehnsucht wie nach sunde
Geht ihnen manchmal durch den traum.

Fast gleichen sie einander alle,
In Gottes garten schweigen sie
Wie viele viele intervalle
In seiner macht und melodie.

Nur wenn sie ihre flugel breiten
Sind sie die wacher eines winds,
Als gehen Gott mit seiner weiten
Bildhauerhanden durch die saiten
Des dunkles buch des Anbeginns.

They all of them have weary mouths
And bright souls without a seam
And a sort of longing for transgression
Runs oftentimes throughout their dream.

They all look much like one another;
Within God’s garden quiet they,
Like the many many intervals
Within his might and melody.

It’s only when they raise their wings
Are they the wakers of the winds
As if God with his great sculptor’s
Hands went through the pages
Of the dark book where all begins.


Pairs  of poems sometimes set each other off. This is true of a number of the Rilke poems like Schlaflied and the other one about singing one’s beloved to sleep; it is true of Adam and Eva which share some of the same language. So to begin the CD’s offerings, I set next to each other Sir Thomas Wyatt’s two poems about Ann Boleyn, both lover’s complaints about an inconstant mistress. But the first one, the sonnet, is far more ‘conventional’ than the second is. For They Flee From Me is a more emotionally convincing, complex, and even, if you will, ‘confessional’ poem. Because this ballad is so lyrical, one is apt to overlook the fact that the speaker is claiming to be an ‘honorable man’ and ‘gentle’ even though he is now entertaining you with a highly suggestive description of the lady’s dress, actions and motives. The poet wants it both ways, of course, to be the innocent victim of the lady’s wiles and still to be able to tell you all about it like a man of the world! One might hazard a guess that Ann Boleyn read Wyatt’s character and courtliness quite accurately and preferred not to let him roam that last long inch above her knee. And of course for marriage she needed the money which he didn’t have. But it is still a beautiful poem.

Go and Catch a Falling Star is a poem from Donne’s days as a courtier
and in it he demonstrates the conventional courtly attitude that the ladies are not to be trusted, not the ones at court anyway. The poem is set off from standard convention however by its rhetorical use of odd and striking imagery. In fact there is such an invocation of unlikely outcomes to illustrate the original point (the ladies can’t be trusted) that the poem turns out to be mainly an exercise in whimsy and a playful tour de force.

I included my own ballad The Aulde Daunce here just for the fun of it, and as an exercise in imitation Seventeenth Century gothicry. Though the title is taken more from Chaucer’s Wyf of Bath, certainly poems about death and aging preoccupied the Renaissance writers. I’m not sure where the notion of ‘paying the piper’ comes from originally but one uses what one finds to hand.

Dante Alighieri’s important sonnet from his early work La Vita Nuova began with ‘Love and the gentle heart are one same thing,’ and went on to canvass some standard Neoplatonic conventions about the melioristic effects of love upon the male heart. Supposedly this sonnet may have been intended, in a book dedicated to Beatrice Portinari, as an answer as well to Dante’s more sceptical mentor, the well-known poet Guido Cavalcanti, a man some six or so years older and from a richer and more noble family than Dante could ever claim.

Guido’s family were Epicurean and/or even Averroistic rather than Christian and apparently disbelieved in any afterlife. This is probably the reason why Dante places Guido’s father in Hell. Guido’s interest in the psychology of love also led him to take a far less idealistic view of it.
The final offering of Francesca’s Song contains only Dante’s own words but I culled the ‘Amor’ lines and put them together in sequence as verse endings out of the story which Francesca da Rimini tells to Dante in the Fifth Canto of the Inferno. Even so, they begin with what is nearly a quotation from his own previous sonnet, “Love that the gentle heart so swiftly seizes.” But in this case it is almost as if he is agreeing with Guido Cavalcanti. Love is not so peaceful after all, it seizes you like a raptor! In any event, this beautiful story deserves to be a song and it was no doubt intended to be an offering to the man who was often his host and who paid, eventually, for his funeral and burial, another Guido, Guido da Polenta, the very nephew, as it happens, of that Francesca da Rimini whom her dreadful hunchback husband had had so brutally strangled along with her lover, his own half-brother, Paolo. Since there were three lines which began with Amor, I left them in sequence in the first verse and then used them to complete the succeeding three verses. 

Amor e il cor gentil son una cosa,
Si come il saggio in suo dittare pone,
E cosi esser’ l’un sanza l’altra osa
Com’ alma razional sanza ragione
Falli natura quand e amorosa,
Amor per sire e il cor per sua magione,
Dentro le qual dormendo si riposa
Tal poca o il tal lunga stagione.
Beltate appare in saggia donna qui
Si piace l’oggi e si che dentro al core,
Nasio disiun de la cosa piacente
Tanto dure talora in
Che fa svegliar lo spirito d’amore
E il simil fac’ in donna uomo valente.
Love and the gentle heart are one same thing,
So as the poet puts it in his verses;
And you can’t have the one without the other
Just like a sentient soul without its reason.

And when our nature is minded to be loving,
Sired by Amor, our heart within his power,
He takes his place within us and lies sleeping
For either a shorter or a longer hour.

Beauty then appears in a wise woman
Who pleases the eyes and then within the heart
Is born again from that most pleasant vision

Which takes its place within and plays its part
To wake love’s sleeping spirit up again
The same in woman as it is in man.
Francesca’s Song

Amor ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende
Prese costui de la bella persona
Che mi fu tolta al mode ancor m’offende,
Amor che null amato amar perdona,
Mi prese de costui piacer si forte,
Come si vede ancor non m’abbandona;
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.

Nessun maggior dolore
Che recordarsi de la tempo felice
Nella miseria, al cio sa il tuo dottore,
Ma sa conocerla prima radice
Di nostr’amo che hai suo tanto afetto,
Dico come colui che piang’ e dice,
Di Amor che null amato amar perdona.

Leggiavamo un’giorno per diletto
Di Lancelotto, come Amor lo strinse.
Soli erravamo e sanz alcun sospetto;
Per piu ciate li occhi chi sospinse.
Quella lettura scoloroch il viso,
Ma sol un punto fu quell cor ci vinse,
Amor ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende.

Quando legemmo, il disiato riso
Esser basiato da cotante amante,
Questi che mai da me non fia diviso
La boca mi basio, tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu il livro e chi lo scrisse,
Quel giorno piu non vi legemmo avante.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.

Amor that the gentle heart so swiftly seizes
So pleased him with the beauty of my person
Which was taken in a way that still offends me;
Amor that forgives no loved one from responding,
Pressed me so strong to love him back again
That as you see he still has never left me.
Love has conveyed us to the one same death.

There is no greater sadness left than this,
The recollection of a happy time
In misery, as well your teacher knows;
But to tell you how it all began,
Our history which has so affected you,
I speak the tale as one who tells it weeping,
Of Amor that forgives no loved one from responding.

One day we read together for our pleasure,
Of Lancelot and how Love conquered him;
We were alone and had no thought of error,
But that perhaps our eyes met now and then.
The text perhaps took from each face some colour,
But it was at one point our souls were won
By love that the gentle heart so swiftly seizes.

When we read of how her longed-for smile
Finally was kissed by such a lover,
He who from me now may never wander
Kissed me, all trembling, full upon the mouth.
That book, it was a pander, like its author.
That day, in truth, we wished to read no more.
Love has conveyed us to the one same death.

The melodic line and rhythms as I have conceived them are designed to help and undergird the meaning of the texts. They may do this well or badly, I cannot be the ultimate judge of that. A far better and much more skilful composer was Nicholas Bretan, the Rumanian, who understood what Richard Strauss and Mahler were up to in their tone poems and orchestral settings but decided that, for many texts of poetry, in Rumanian and Hungarian, ‘the song/poem itself’ was the thing he wanted to enable and convey. He therefore wrote music which helped to support the meaning of the poetic texts, rather than – as with so many English poem settings –being designed to create little melodramatic moments in place of the plain understated drama of the poetic texts themselves.

Bretan succeeds brilliantly in his own Eastern European musical idiom.
My own settings may not be musically worthy – I cannot say – but at least they respect the poets and the poems, rather than trying to replace them with inappropriate music. You be the judges !