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Rilke’s Russian Poems

translated by Philip Nikolayev


The English language reader is by and large unaware that Rainer Maria Rilke, the great Bohemian-Austrian poet of the German language, wrote some Russian verse. His eight Russian poems, dated 1900-1, have been translated into English twice before, but for scholarly purposes and in academic publications known only to the specialist. Even in Russia the reading public is barely aware of these early Russian texts by Rilke, though they can be found both in print and online.  Literary Russians tend to see them as curious trifles, a great stranger’s attempts, failed though touching, at poetry in our robust and supple language. Their Russian, unmistakably a foreigner’s, exhibits errors of grammar, usage and scansion. Still, in a handful of lines Rilke manages to get the Russian right, and they ring true as lines of Russian verse. Even faulty lines have their charm and strangely convey a Rilkean tone. For a Russian like myself, it takes an extra charitable reading to see past the somewhat comical flaws of expression to the details of the pure and distinctly Rilkean imagery, thoughts and sentiments that inform these outlandish creations. Their linguistic bizarreness notwithstanding, the Russian poems, continuous with Rilke’s German writings at the turn of the 20th century, are inspired works by a great poet and the results of a daring poetic experiment. They offer unique insights into his lyric concerns. One can sense the poet behind them, the vibrancy of his inspirations, and his great love of Russia, which he called his “spiritual motherland.”

Rilke’s keen interest in Russia was first planted in him by his friend, the Russian-born author, Lou Andreas-Salomé (née Louise von Salomé or, in Russian, Luiza Gustavovna Salomé). He first met her in 1896, when he was 21, they were lovers for several years, and she remained his confidante and an influence on him for the rest of his life. She began teaching him Russian in the late 1890s so that he could read Pushkin and Tolstoy in the original. In April-June 1899 Rilke, in the company of Salomé and her husband Friedrich Carl Andreas, made his first visit to Russia. In the six weeks that he spent in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Rilke met several major cultural figures including Leo Tolstoy, the artists Ilya Repin and Leonid Pasternak (the poet Boris Pasternak’s father), and the sculptor Pavel Trubetskoy (Paolo Troubetzkoy). On his second and more extensive trip to the Russian Empire, with Salomé, from May through August 1900, Rilke’s travels followed a far-flung itinerary: Moscow, Tula, Leo Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, Kiev, Kremenchug, Poltava, Kharkov, Voronezh, Saratov, Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk), Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and Moscow again. Those were days filled with many vivid experiences, cultural interactions and keen observation that had an impact on his poetry and prose. He was fascinated by Russian aristocrats and common folk alike. Russian orthodoxy and the Russian style of spirituality appealed to him; he visited many churches; Easter celebrations at the Kremlin etched themselves into his memory. He met and was impressed by the Russian peasant poet, Spiridon Drozhzhin, whom he soon translated into German. Rilke’s Russian was far from fluent, but he read it passably and worked hard on it especially during this period of intense Russophilia and dissatisfaction with Western civilization.

On returning from his first trip to Russia, full of deep impressions and planning to move there permanently (a dream that never came true), Rilke suddenly found himself writing poems in Russian. As he noted in his diary, the first of them “unexpectedly occurred” to him in the Schmargendorf forest near Berlin in late November 1900. By early December he had written six Russian poems. He dedicated them to Salomé, who found them “grammatically off” yet poetic. He revised those and added another two in April 1901. In the fall of 1900 Rilke met his future wife, Clara Westhoff, and his life changed. He never returned to Russia but retained his love of it and his ties with Russian poetry, namely, with Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak.

My translations of Rilke’s Russian poems are intended as an experiment in bringing to light their substance, form and implied tone as faithfully as I could manage, while stripping away the infelicities of the originals.

—Philip Nikolayev


Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and the Russian peasant poet Spiridon Drozhzhin in Moscow, 1900.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and the Russian
peasant poet Spiridon Drozhzhin in Moscow, 1900.


First Song

Of an evening on the sand
a girl sat by the sea
like a mother by her baby.
She sat and she sang,
till its breath turned all deep,
filled with sleep. Having seen
the wide world’s hope, she
beams, nay, celebrates
the glad day of her face.
The babe will, like the sea,
touch distance, meet the skies,
either your pride or woe,
a murmur or a silence.
Up to this waterfront is all you know,
whereat you sit, waiting on,
and whence you launch a lovely song
once in a while, but hardly help
anyone’s being, health, or sleep.

November 29, 1900. Schmargendorf.


Second Song

As I walk and walk, everywhere around
extends this windy clime, your motherland,
where I walk on and on in full oblivion
that I have known more than one other land.
How faraway now, how far away from me
those long afternoons by that southern sea,
bright nightfalls dripping with May’s sweetest sunsets,
where everything is merry and empty; darker
glows God, as the striving populace turns
unto Him, confident in Him, their brother.

December 1, 1900.


The Fire

White home, rock-a-bye,
a dray-cart rumbled by
into the night, God kens,
the lonesome hut shut,
the orchard shuddered,
sleepless after the rain.

A lad eyed the night field:
between them an unhurried
intense unfinished story
flew on in silent glory,

then ceased. The vale entire
is ash, the firmament’s on fire.
The lad thought: Life’s damnation!
Why isn’t there salvation?
As if expecting a reply,
the earth looked up toward the sky.

December 5, 1900.



The roses, as you recall them still, hang young,
the first to greet you first thing in the morning.
All that is ours lies so nearby, including
the bright blue sky. No one has need for sin.

Come the first day, arise we from
God’s very hand wherein we’ve slept
ask not how long,
I could not tell. The present’s past
is still at zero. Time, begin!

Then what? Be calm, don’t cry,
fearful that you might die,
for death is just a nod.
Await no other reply:
there will be summer nights,
days strewn with dazzling lights,
there will be we, and God.

December 6, 1900.


Das Antlitz (“The Visage”)

Had I been born a simpleton to peasants,
I’d live life with the broadest face, its traits
hardly at all expected to convey
what’s tough to think and possibly to say
is harder still.
My hands would fill
with all the love and patience of each day,
at night joined tight in prayer until
such time as they’ve had ample time to pray;
no one will know or wonder who I am,
for I have aged, and now my head, all gray,
is swimming on my chest, tending downsteam,
seeming softer with age. The date of parting nigh,
I parted my palms like a book and I
lay them over half my face, then took them off and
placed them empty where they belonged in the coffin,
and by this likeness shall my descendants know
all that I was—I yet not I—by this look,
larger than life, than me, of joy and woe,
which clearly shines in each organic quirk.
Yes, this is the eternal face of work.

In the wee hours, December 6, 1900.


Old Man

All folk afield, this hut is used today
to its own solitude and with a sigh,
like a nanny, has gently soothed away
the babe’s silent cry.

On the brick stove awake an old man lies,
all lost in snows yesteryear his head,
as he, were he a poet, might well have said,
yet silent lies, may the Lord grant him peace.

Between the heart and the mouth there falls
a chasm, a sea, darker glows the blood,
and that sweet bonny beauty love
has gone on in his breast ten centuries,

not having lips to speak it forth, again
finding no rescue, no escape in sight—
while an unrequited crowd of words in pain
alien streamed by and by into the light.

Noon, December 7, 1900.



I’m so tired of trials by morbid days.
An empty night, windless across the fields,
lies plain above the silence of my eyes.
My heart began like a nightingale begins,
but could not finish the telling of its words,
and all I hear now is its very silence
swelling up in the dark like a nightmare
and darkening like the last gasp of air
by an unlamented child past all remembrance.


I’m so alone: nobody understands
the silence that is the voice of my long days,
there being out there no such wind as opens
wide the ample heavens of my eyes.
Outside my window an enormous day stands
on the city’s strange edge, a large man lies,
awaiting. Is this I, I ask myself,
awaiting what? And where’s my soul?

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV is a poet and literary scholar. He is co-editor-in-chief of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. His latest poetry collection is Letters from Aldenderry (Salt).

Published Sep 09, 2017 09:15am

Afghanistan’s 7,000 lost films, hidden from the Taliban, go digital

“We will take the risk to go to every corner of the country. We want our children to learn how Afghans used to live.”

The Taliban, who banned popular entertainment including cinema and music during their brutal 1996-2001, raided Afghanistan’s state-run film company and burned several movie reels — but thousands more were hidden and are now being digitised.

When the Taliban charged in to Afghanistan’s state-run film company in the mid-1990s intent on destroying all the movies, Habibullah Ali risked everything to save them.

He hid thousands of reels of footage showcasing Afghanistan’s rich cultural history, knowing that if the Taliban found out he faced certain death.

“We did not expect to leave for our homes that day alive,” Ali tells AFP, clutching a saved reel. “If they had found out we had hidden movies they would have killed us.”

The ultra-conservative Taliban — who banned popular entertainment, including cinema and music, during their brutal 1996-2001 rule — burned several movie reels before leaving.

But they failed to discover some 7,000 precious films that Ali and his colleagues hid in various places across the Kabul premises of Afghan Film.

Two decades later those reels, which include long-lost movies and documentary images of Afghanistan before it was ravaged by violence, are being made available to watch again through digitisation.

The years-long project will bring back to life hugely popular Afghan feature films, centred on love rather than war, and introduce young Afghans to a side of their country they’ve never known — peace.

“We were very scared but by God’s grace we were able to save the movies and now we have this culture alive,” says the 60-year-old Ali, who has worked at Afghan Film for 36 years.

‘All sorts of tricks’

The digitisation of the footage — of which there are tens of thousands of hours — is being overseen by Afghan Film general director Mohammad Ibrahim Arify.

“The reels were hidden in cans marked Indian or Western movies and in barrels buried in the ground,” Arify tells AFP.

“”Many were stored in rooms blocked by a brick wall and in fake ceilings. They used all sorts of tricks,” he adds, smiling.

Arify says they have 32,000 hours of 16-millimetre film and 8,000 hours of 35-mm film, but cataloguing is still ongoing, as members of the public continue to hand in movies that they themselves hid from the Taliban.

“I can’t say whether we will finish with 50,000 or 100,000 hours,” he says, surrounded by shelves stacked with round silver tins containing the reels.

The digitisation process is a time-consuming one.

First the reels are cleaned to remove dust and any scratches.

Then the film is watched using a projector. Its name, date and reel number are catalogued, and it is classified as a movie or documentary.

Finally the reel is run through a machine which transfers it into digital form, frame by frame.

“If it’s a feature length movie the whole process can take up to four days. If it’s news images then just one day,” says employee M. Fayaz Lutfi.

The project began this year and Arify hopes the entire library can be completed within two years.

“We are very proud of what we are doing because we are bringing the dead culture of Afghanistan to life by transferring the visual history of this country to digital,” Lutfi, 27, tells AFP.

Moving backwards

Afghanistan’s state-produced movies of the 1970s were hugely popular among Afghans. The Farsi and Pashto-language films focused on themes of romance, culture and friendship.

The documentary footage dates from the 1920s to the late ’70s — before the Soviet invasion, the brutal civil war, the Taliban rule, the 16-year US-led fight against insurgents and the recent Islamic State group attacks on Shiites.

At a recent screening at the US embassy in Kabul’s heavily-fortified green zone, a selection of images showed a thriving Afghanistan starkly different to the war-weary nation of today.

Laughing families were seen having picnics in parks, women wearing short skirts were seen joking while there was no sign of the blast-proof concrete walls that now blot Kabul’s landscape.

“I was emotional watching those images because I only have bad memories of my country. I was not lucky (enough) to live during those times,” 34-year-old Arif Ahmadi told AFP afterwards.

“In other countries people are moving forward but if you look at our past we are moving backwards,” he added.

Afghan Film hopes broadcasters will air the old movies and footage, while a private media group has plans to make a web channel.

Despite insurgents, including a resurgent Taliban, running or contesting around 40 percent of Afghanistan’s territory the department plans to organise screenings in remote villages without TV or internet.

For older Afghans the films would be a reminder of happier times and for the young generation, a glimpse of Afghanistan’s peaceful past that may help raise hope for its future.

Arify says: “We will take the risk to go to every corner of the country. We want our children to learn how Afghans used to live.”


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