I came across Rainer Maria Rilke in the year 2014. I would read anecdotes and quotes of his, and then I stumbled upon, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”, a piece of poetry extracted from The Book of Hours: Prayers to a Lowly God. Everyone who seems enamored with this poem tends to interpret it differently. When I first read the poem, it stayed with me immediately after reading it, the lines floating across my mind, my own voice echoing in my ears. The sheer beauty of what Rilke was trying to capture, in the midst of unraveling it through the voice of a monk, captivated me. It’s my north star, whenever I don’t know what to do when it comes to poetry I turn to Rilke’s The Book of Hours, and it allows me to re-calibrate my spirit.
There’s the circulated translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Borrows, but my favorite translation is from the original German by Annemarie S. Kidder. Translating poetry is an art-form in and of itself. To capture what a poet does in their native language is trying to route the rhythm of their being. Poetry is the rhythm of our spirit plucked through the waves of emotions we feel. Seeing the original German side by side with the translation, I feel more at ease as I pronounce the words in it’s original capture. You cannot read this poem on its own, Rilke demands you to read The Book of Hours in its entirety in order for you to understand the beauty you see in, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”. As Kidder says in the introduction, “For Rilke, the duty of the artist is to travel the austere journey of self-discovery. He compares this journey to life in a religious order, whereby the artist practices releasing all trifling and temporary things as by placing them outside the door, purging his or herself of them…” Because for Rilke this allows us to come to terms with solitude and solitude allows us to find the space we need to expand and create honestly.
Whatever your impressions of God are, as someone who creates, this need to figure out the self in order to express what needs to be extracted from the soul and heart, you have to understand the surrender to something greater than the self. You can argue of the ability of the human to accomplish so much, but at the end of our life we have to bow at and come to terms with our mortality and the edge of our journey. But while we are alive, the borders of our lives extend to the greatness of the divine. Trying to reconcile the both enriches our understanding of ourselves. We try to explain everything, gathering facts and figures but still we fall short to explain those things that can’t be held within numbers. I love The Book of Hours because it is a journey of questioning, of trying to understand this god, and ultimately trying to understand ourselves in front of such a phenomena.
God talks quite audibly before one is created,
Then walks in silence beside you into the night.
But the words, before one is given one’s start,
These cloudy words are:
Guided by your senses you are sent;
Walk to the rim of your desire;
Be my attire.
Grow like fire behind the scenes
So your shadows stretch and hover,
Becoming my cover.
Allow it to happen: beauty and terror.
Just press on! No feeling is an error.
But don’t get severed from me.
Close is this land
Which one calls life.
You will recognize it
By its strife.
Take my hand.From “The Book of Monkish Life” in The Book of Hours: Prayers to a Lowly God.
The Original German: