Q: Tell me about Rilke and his poems about Mary.

A: Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875 December 29, 1926) is considered one of the German language's greatest twentieth-century poets. His haunting images tend to focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety--themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.

He wrote in both verse and highly lyrical prose. His two most famous verse sequences are the Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies; among his two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He also wrote poems in French.  Austrian by birth, Rilke spent many years in Sierre (Valais, Switzerland),  his homeland of choice.  He is buried in Raron (Valais).

Unhappy with the way Mary was presented to him as a youth, Rilke wrote a fifteen-poem cycle on the life of the Virgin Mary which is not well known.  Mary comes across as thoroughly pure and holy, with her purity containing within it a great power and reverence.  She isn't merely meek and mild.

For example, Jonathan Harvey provided us with the English translation of Rilke's poem on The Annunciation which follows as well as the accompanying image.


Detail of Unicorn Hunt from Altar Frontal
Geinhausen, Germany
Late fifteenth century

Not that an angel entered (realize this),
scared her. Just as others would not startle
if a ray of sunlight or the moon at night
busied itself in the room, the form in which
an angel walked, did not scare her;
she barely had an idea that this stay was
difficult for angels. (O if we knew just how pure
she was. A doe once beheld her in the forest and
became so fond of her that within her was conceived
the unicorn, the animal from light, the pure animal.)

It did not scare her that he entered,
but that he was so utterly present, the angel,
bearing a young man's face, and turned to her;
that his gaze and hers, looking up to him, collided
as if everything outside had become empty,
and everything that millions saw, did, wore
became condensed in them: only her and him;
Seeing and seen, nowhere else except in this very spot
- see, that scares, and both startled.

Then the angel sang his melody.

Another poem from the aforementioned cycle on The Birth of Mary may be found under September Poetry on our web site.  For English versions of all fifteen Marian poems by Rilke, please consult The Life of the Virgin Mary: a cycle of poems, Christine McNeill's translation, done in 2003 for Dedalus Press in Dublin.


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