Category Archives: essays

Rilke’s “Herbsttag”: “Autumn Day”

Rainer Maria Rilke’s

“Autumn Day”

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander along the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

-translated by Stephen Mitchell

This poem, from Rilke’s The Book of Pictures, is indeed the namesake Overlapping Sundials. That potent second line strikes such a loud hour as you read it, in either it’s original German or any English translation. In Stephen Mitchell’s English translation, we read, “Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by. / Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,” and the original German reads: “Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer was sehr groß. / Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,” (1-2). Line two of the English translation begins with “Now,” a time reference that doesn’t come from the speaker in the original German poem. Where did the now come from? From the front end, so to say, it provides one additional syllable to the line (originally 11,) and provides a curiously soft tone for the command to “overlap the the sundials with your shadows,” that grounds the speaker to his mortal and human place. This “now” would not work the same way in German. To use “jetzt,” the German word for “now,” would sound like a curse, like a challenge to God, a way of speaking that would condescend to the speaker’s “Herr” or “Lord.” It goes without saying that the original language of the poem reads so beautifully in comparison to to the English attempt. That three-letter word, “Leg,” from the original second line carries a more versatile meaning than our English equivalents, lay or place, which would feel terribly misplaced in this poem. Mitchell has made then, a commendable adaptation of this line from something that would read, if basely translated, “Lay your shadows upon the sundials” to a line that compares in strength and conviction to the German. I am continuously thankful for Mitchell’s brilliant translations, but this particular poem strikes me again and again with the strength between the translation and the original. It calls forth a stronger comprehension of the metaphor to read and understand the German and compare the English. In German, the reader sees a God-figure in his might, with his will, and his command of fate, taking auspice over humankind and our world. The English line, with the verb “overlap” invokes a dark understanding of the passage of time and God’s intent. It makes a sober witness of the reader and develops a finer distinction of man and earth vs time and fate. It’s that “overlap” that registers, in the English reader’s understanding, an acknowledgement of our concrete, experienced, controlled world and a seasonal transparency. Overlap means to us that something is covering something else, whether it be completely, partially, or progressively more over time, that word carries those multiple possibilities. In this poem, it only reinforces the sense of insecurity and lack of influence that truly strikes the reader like a sudden sundial. But also, it illuminates our wonder and basic understanding of multiple levels of experience.