Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is best known today for a rather slim volume entitled Letters to a Young Poet. The letters were published only after his death, by the man who had received them, a young military officer-in-training in Austria named Franz Kappus who had discovered his heart was in poetry rather than the military. Rilke was moved enough, perhaps by the similarities in his own life, that he exchanged a series of letters over a period of time.
Published in 1929 in German, and in 1934 (and again in 1945) in English, Rilke’s letters gained serious popularity beginning in the 1980s. Today, they remain almost required reading for anyone considering poetry as a vocation (or avocation). But more people have probably read his letters than his own poetry. A number of good translations and collections are available, and his poetry is well worth reading.
And now Mark Burrows has translated a group of poems entitled Prayers of a Young Poet, an obvious play on the title of the collected letters. It’s a wonderfully engaging collection, published by Paraclete Press, and Burrows—a scholar of medieval Christianity and poetry editor for the journal Spiritus—adds new insight and understanding to both Rilke the man and his poetry.
In 1897, the young Rilke went on an extended visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg. He spent most of his time in the then-capital of Russia, but his short week in Moscow included the celebration of the Orthodox Easter. He and a friend, writes Burrows, went to the worship services of several churches, including the Kremlin’s Church of the Dormition, “considered the ‘mother church’ of Muscovite Russia.” And what impressed him in these churches and their liturgical celebrations, Burrows says, was an “extravagant ‘sense’ of this worship and the dimly lit interior grandeur of these churches, their darkness penetrated by the icon’s glowing radiance.”
The key words here are worship, darkness, and glowing radiance. The introduction by Burrows and his afterword on reading and translating Rilke together provide excellent background on the history and context of the poems.
Two years later, in a fairly short period of time, Rilke composed 67 poems inspired by the experience, poems so connected to each other that they are really one extended poem. The interior dating included in the poems roughly coincides with the time Rilke wrote them in 1899—from September 20 to October 14. The dating also serves as a connecting thread across the poems.
The poems themselves are written from the perspective of a young Orthodox monk in a monastery, and he is searching for God, and ultimately finding Him. The themes of darkness and radiance are recurring ones throughout the poems, echoing the interiors of those Moscow churches. Yet while the poems have an “other-worldly” focus, they are anchored in the monk’s day-to-day reality. From poem number 8 in the series:
I’m living just as the century departs.
One feels the wind from a large leaf
that God and you and I had written on,
which turns above by hands no one knows.
One feels the radiance of a new page
on which everything could still come to be.
Tranquil powers measure its breadth,
Regarding each other with dark intent.
As the monk returned home, a bright and flaming blush rose into the heavy grey of the western sky, convincing the clouds to take on a new and unusual violet hue. An evening unlike any that had ever been waited behind the trembling trees, and he discerned this at the century’s turning as a sign and bowed before it. 22nd of September, 1899.
The poems, or prayers, are profound in their simplicity. They tell a story of faith, doubt, questioning, acceptance, and reaching out to others, but most of all a story of searching for God.
This is such a fine collection that we’re giving away a copy. Simply leave a comment here (it need be nothing more than your name) and we’ll draw a winner at random. The winner’s name will be published here next Tuesday.
Buy a year of happy mornings today, just $2.99. Read a poem a day, become a better writer. In November we’re exploring the theme Surrealism.
- Poets and Poems: Paul Willis and “Somewhere to Follow” - July 13, 2021
- Poets and Poems: Claude McKay and “Harlem Shadows” - July 6, 2021
- Poets and Poems: Dan Rattelle and “The Commonwealth” - June 29, 2021