Unauthorized art: Rilke’s ambiguous dare

My whole life the only thing I’ve always wanted to do is write; and more particularly, to write poetry. It is what makes me feel alive. I am much less patient and earnest with the poems of other writers, even (or perhaps especially) those that are considered “Great.” As a corrective, in 2012 my blog posts will be an attempt to engage with the Greats, those “others” who I have sadly neglected – or simply peripherally enjoyed. This will not be an academic response, but just what I feel and think immediately after reading one of their works of poetry. What follows is my first such attempt, a response to one gem from my favorite Great and constant poetic companion of the past two decades, Rainer Maria Rilke.

#3 from A Book for the Hours of Prayer (Das Studenbuch)

By Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

We don’t dare to do paintings of you as we want to:
you are the early dawn, from whom the whole morning rose.
We haul out the ancient color boxes
the same strokes and the same brilliant light
with which the Great Saint kept you secret.
We construct paintings all around you like walls,
so that thousands of walls are standing around you now.
Our pious hands lay a cover over you
whenever we feel that you are open toward us.


A New Years Day walk up to the neighborhood above us, a few loops around the cul de sac, then my boys and I are back home.  After the “great race” (my five-year-old makes even an ordinary walk into an adventure), we happy three are like reverse polarized magnets, rebounding to our separate corners of the house.  My husband back into his office, working on the next book project; my son playing with Legos; me, lying on the bed, listening to the ringing in my ears while writing on the inside of my eyelids.

I am not much for napping in the middle of the day anymore, but just to lie there and feel the blood moving through my skin reacting to the temperature shift from outside cool-sunshine to inside warm-shade; it makes me feel strangely alive.  I notice things that move me: the cold numbness of my right pointer finger and my big toes, the tingling of my cheek apples, the smells of sunblock and furniture polish

I cannot be still another moment.  My fingers must pick up a pen or pick away at the keyboard.  I choose the keyboard this time

I wonder if Rilke felt this way when his first group of poems in Das Studenbuch came pouring out of him like a flood.  The third in this “Book of Monkish Life” feels that way, like he had something secret he wanted to blurt out quickly before he lost his nerve.  I read this poem as a prayer, as though Rilke was speaking to God, the “you” being the One we try to cover with color and light, paint and hands – whatever will keep him safely distant and Other.

I love this English translation – thank you, Robert Bly – but (and? because?) it makes me long for the ability to read the German.  I see those crisp interesting words on the left page, just across from the more accessible English on the right, and the German blood in me wants to say them and hear them.

Wir dürfen dirch nicht eigenmächtig malen | We don’t dare to do paintings of you as we want to

I plug “eigenmächtig malen” into an online translation tool and come up with “arbitrarily paint.” How very interesting, and different from the Bly translation.  We don’t dare arbitrarily paint you, God.

Wir holen aus den alten Farbenschalen | We haul out of the ancient color boxes

No, we need to use the authorized Farbenschalen (“color bowls” says one robo-translator, “color shells” another).  Bowls, shells, or boxes, I picture a worn and formidable thing, sturdy, powerful in its plain way of carrying the light of tradition.

Denn dich verhüllen unsre frommen Hande | Our pious hands lay a cover over you

How ludicrous, this idea that our own tiny dirty hands could cover over (or veil, “verhüllen”) untamable Holiness with our own safe sense of piety.  I believe Rilke was toying with us, daring us to make unauthorized art.  But carefully.

The New Year opens up such dares in the quiet of our minds and the movement of the blood beneath our skin.  We think it is up to us how to respond.  But maybe it is not.   Maybe we need to stick to the ancient Farbenschalen.  Rilke leaves the question unasked and unanswered.

For my part, I am satisfied with this tension and ringing in my ears that proves me living


Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly (Harper & Row, New York, 1981)

7 Replies to “Unauthorized art: Rilke’s ambiguous dare”

  1. Oh, good, you're using the same translation I am.And I can't help murmuring the words on the left-hand pages, under my breath, hoping that my latent German heritage is coming up with something approximating correct pronunciation and understanding.You know how in some parts of "Fantasia" the colors and images swirl and fade and blend into new colors and images? That's what happens in my mind reading this poem. "The ancient color boxes" sends my thoughts skimming back over the religious art of different eras – how varied it is, yet connected by the threads, the colors, of common, constant belief; then farther back to the Ancient of Days; on to echoes of "the same yesterday, today, and forever;" and (how interesting that you substituted "authorized" for "ancient") the Author and Finisher of our faith…

  2. Thanks so much, Becka. I too feel my German heritage in reading these poems… or in wanting to read/hear/understand the original. I lived in Austria for one summer many years ago, and found the language came quickly to me (they speak a dialect of German). It's gone now, but I do believe if I was immersed in it, I could be fluent. I found it an easier language in some ways than English.Funny you should comment on "authorized"… that word came to me as I was playing with the online translation tools. One translation of eigenmächtig was unauthorized. While I didn't spell that out in the essay, I was thinking about it in relation to the reverse… what is authorized vs unauthorized "painting." Glad that connected with you.

  3. Oh, what rabbit trails we could go down, tracing "authorize" and "authority" and "author"! I'm mulling over an (archaic) definition of "authorize" listed in my dictionary: to furnish a ground for: justify.

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