Thursday 10 August 2023

Rilke's Life of the Virgin Mary - Rainer Maria Rilke - translated by C.F. MacIntyre

Rilke's Life of the Virgin Mary
Rainer Maria Rilke
C.F. MacIntyre (Translator)

Rilke's Life of the Virgin Mary - Rainer Maria Rilke - translated by C.F. MacIntyre

I picked this up because I had been searching for a different edition of this work for a few years. The one I had been looking for was a different translation and though a few decades newer has never shown up used. I read some Rilke back in university. And had a small volume of selected poems that I have read before. But I was fascinated to find he had a cycle of pomes on The Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The description of this volume is:

“"In this cycle of poems, Rilke resembles the painter's of the Middle Ages in the human treatment with which he presents his characters." Original German and English translations are facing pages.”

I highlighted a two passages from the preface. They are:

“The Life of the Virgin Mary was begun in 1900, under the inspiration of some sketches by Heinrich Vogler. It was rewritten and published in 1913, with a dedication to the artist, but the drawings were not included in the book.”


“Whether or not Rilke was an orthodox Catholic has no bearing on the effect of the series as poetry—the immediate communication and the sincerity of the impression. And it is because the other great poets of the last hundred years, including Baudelaire, Maliarme, Stefan George, and Paul Valery—but leaving aside Claudel and Peguy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins,—have ignored the Bible as a source of subject matter, Rilke’s delicate contribution to the tradition may seem especially significant and unusual.”

The poems in the collection are:

Birth of Mary
The Presentation of Mary in the Temple
Annunciation to Mary
Visitation of the Virgin
Joseph’s Suspicion
Annunciation above the Shepherds
Birth of Christ 
Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Of the Wedding at Cana
Before the Passion
Consolation of Mary with the Resurrected Christ
Of the Death of Mary

At the end of the volume is an extensive collection of notes. On each of the poems. A few of the poems really stuck me, some I went back and reread a few times before moving on. Some of them are:

Oh, what must it have cost the angels not 
to sing out suddenly, as one bursts in tears, 
since they well knew: the mother is born tonight 
who bears the boy, the One who will soon appear.

Hovering, they kept silence and showed the way 
down which Joachim’s lonely homestead lay; 
ah, they felt pure tension in themselves, in the air, 
but no one might go down to him. The pair

were already out of their wits with what was doing.
A neighbor came and played wise but didn’t know how. 
The old man went and stopped the dark cow’s mooing, 
thoughtfully. Such a night never was till now."

Not that an angel came in, understand, 
was she alarmed. As little as others start 
when a sunray or beam of moonlight darts 
into a room and busies itself here and there, 
would she have been made angry by the guise 
in which an angel came. Could she surmise 
how tedious angels find such tarrying here ? 
(Oh, if we knew how pure she was! A hind, 
once when resting, saw her in the wood, 
and gazing lost itself until it could — 
all without any coupling with its kind — 
conceive the unicorn, pure animal, 
the beast of light.) Not that he entered, but 
that he bowed down so close to her the face 
of a young man, this angel, that her gaze 
as she glanced up joined with his, as if all 
outside there suddenly seemed void and what 
the millions saw, were doing, suffering, 
seemed forced into them: only she and he— 
the seeing and seen, the eye and eye’s delight 
nowhere else but in this one place. See! 
this is frightening. And they were both afraid.

Then the angel sang his melody.

And the angel, taking due pains, told 
the man who clenched his fists:
But can’t you see in her robe’s every fold 
that she is cool as the Lord’s morning mists?

But the other, gazing gloomily, just murmured: 
What is it has wrought this change in her?
Then cried the angel to him: Carpenter, 
can’t you see yet that God is acting here?

Because you plane the planks, in your pride would 
you really make the Lord God answerable 
who unpretentiously from the same wood 
makes the leaves burst forth, the young buds swell?

He understood that. And now as he raised 
his frightened glance toward the angel who 
was gone already... slowly the man drew 
his heavy cap off. Then in song he praised.

I also loved Of The Death Of Mary but it is a multipage poem. This is a volume I could easily return to again and again. I loved the side by side German and English even though I cannot read the German. I will keep my eye out for the original translation I was looking for, because it was a part of a series. But I am very grateful to have given this volume a read. I can easily recommend it. It was deeply moving. And it stirred me to prayer. A great collection of poems.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2023 Catholic Reading Plan

Reviews of other books by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Rilke's Life of the Virgin Mary - Rainer Maria Rilke - translated by C.F. MacIntyre

Rilke's Life of the Virgin Mary - Rainer Maria Rilke - translated by C.F. MacIntyre

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