“Death” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke’s beautiful funeral poem perfectly captures how precious and valuable life is -- in both the good times and the bad -- with its personification of death
Red Wine of Life, A Potion against Death

Credit: Wikipedia

For many of us, the busyness of our daily lives often leads to us taking our lives for granted. When someone we loved dearly dies, our grief and sorrow for his or her absence tends to trigger an urge deep within us to hit the brakes on life and reevaluate the precious value of life itself. Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Death” beautifully captures the importance of life with its clever personification of death and life as human foes.

The brevity of “Death” — six lines with less than 10 words each — makes its meaning so much more powerful with its vivid imagery. When I read Rilke’s opening two lines, “Before us great Death stands/Our fate held close within his quiet hands,” I pictured a man lurking in the shadows or behind curtains while observing each and every one of his expected victims — some sooner, others later — and planning when to strike and cut their lives short.

With the placement of the dash, it is almost as though Rilke wants his readers to be on the edges of their seats to learn of Death’s reaction to Life’s trickery.

Rainer Maria Rilke, "Death" poet

Rainer Maria Rilke
(Credit: Wikipedia)

Just when the reader expects the usual outcome of death and the standard memorialization of the dearly departed, Rilke throws a curveball with the personification of life as a trickster out to fool Death with its special “red wine” that Death’s potential victims drink. As Rilke describes it, “When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine/To drink deep of the mystic shining cup/And ecstasy through all our being leaps—,” it’s our way to rejoice in the lives we are lucky to have.

The dash after “leaps” clashes with Rilke’s final line where “Death bows his head and weeps.” With the placement of the dash, it is almost as though Rilke wants his readers to be on the edges of their seats to learn of Death’s reaction to Life’s trickery.

We cannot expect life to always play magic tricks with prolonging its duration with the special “red wine.”

Death’s weeping vigorously contradicts the earlier image of someone with “quiet hands” as well as calm and ready to end whoever’s life whenever the time is right. Life’s “ecstasy” and Death’s “weeping” serve as reminders for us that while joy and sadness exist simultaneously during times of loss and grief, we must continue to keep in mind that life is a precious gift that can be taken away in an instant and should be valued on a regular basis rather than only when someone we love dies. We cannot expect life to always play magic tricks with prolonging its duration with the special “red wine.” Death will eventually triumph. So why not cherish and enjoy life while we still can, rather than risk having any kinds of regrets when it might be too late?

FacebookTwitterPinterestStumbleUponShare
This entry was posted in The Next Chapter and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “Death” by Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. avatar Charlotte Collins says:

    Nice post about a lovely poem.
    I’d just like to suggest something you might like to consider from a literary point of view. This poem is in fact a translation, and it’s very much the work of its translator, Jessie Lamont.
    Translating poetry is a fine art, and Rilke presents particular challenges. His original poem is actually rather different. It’s much simpler, and that simplicity is part of its beauty. There are in fact no quiet hands, no red wine, no shining cup, no ecstasy, and no leaping!
    What Lamont has done is try to convey (in the English style of 100 years ago) a sense of the poem, how it felt to her, and of its rhyming structure. Translating it baldly, word for word, couldn’t work; the poetry would be lost. However, as a translator myself I am intrigued to see you – naturally enough – impute certain intentions to Rilke that he cannot be said to have had. It’s also a lovely poem in English, but like any work in translation, it’s actually the work of two people – something that’s always worth mentioning!

    Report this comment

  2. avatar Kathleen Clohessy (Blog Writer, SevenPonds) says:

    Hi Charlotte,

    Zoe is no longer with SevenPonds, but I want to thank you for your comment. Fascinating information! Interesting how a translator can change the meaning of a poem–whether intentionally or unintentionally. It’s not something most of us think about when reading something that’s been translated from another language.

    Report this comment

  3. avatar Mary Jo Fink says:

    I am so intrigued to read this poem in the original German text, but cannot find in on-line. Soon I will be in Germany and look there. This translation seems playful. Would love to see the “simpler text” to which Charlotte refers. If you have it, please send my way! Thanks.

    Report this comment

  4. avatar Kathleen Clohessy (Blog Writer, SevenPonds) says:

    Thanks, Mary Jo, for providing the original! I wish I could read German!

    Report this comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*