“The Watcher” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Poems read aloud, beautifully

Detail from <em>Regentag</em> (1914) by Koloman Moser
Detail from Regentag (1914) by Koloman Moser

Amanda Holmes reads Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Watcher,” translated from the German by Stephanie Bastek. Have a suggestion for a poem by a (dead) writer? Email us: podcast@theamericanscholar.org. If we select your entry, you’ll win a copy of a poetry collection edited by David Lehman.

This episode was produced by Stephanie Bastek and features the song “Canvasback” by Chad Crouch.

The Watcher
by Rainer Maria Rilke

I see the storms coming in the trees
that on swollen, balmy days
beat at my anxious window,
and hear the Distance saying things
that I can’t bear without a friend,
can’t love without a sister.

There goes the storm, a rearranger,
goes through forest and through time,
and everything is as though ageless:
the landscape, like a verse in a psalm book,
is truth and might and eternity.

How small it is, what we wrestle with,
what wrestles with us, how great;
if we could let ourselves be more like things,
be subdued by great storms—
we would become vast and nameless.

What we defeat is the Small,
and the victory itself makes us small.
The Eternal and Enormous
will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel that appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when its adversary’s sinews
strained like metal in the struggle,
it felt them under its fingers
like the strings of deep melodies.

Whoever was bested by this Angel—
who so often renounced struggle—
he goes righteous and upright
and great from that harsh hand,
which embraced him like a sculptor.
Victories do not entice him.
This is how he grows: deep defeat
by ever greater forces.

Translated by Stephanie Bastek

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Amanda Holmes, the author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a columnist and poetry editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.


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