Spring has come back again



Spring has come back again. The Earth is
like a child that’s got poems by heart;
so many poems, so many verses,
patient toil winning her prizes at last.

Strict, the old teacher. We loved the whiteness
in the old gentleman’s beard, its bright snow.
Now when we ask what the green, what the blue is,
Earth knows the answer, has learned it. She knows.

Earth, you’re on holiday, lucky one: play now!
Play with us children! We’ll try to catch you.
Glad, joyous Earth! The gladdest must win.

Every lesson the old teacher taught her,
all that is printed in roots and laborious
stems: now she sings it! Listen, Earth sings!

Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Stephen Cohn

"The Earth is like a child who knows poems by heart" is one of the Rilke lines you'll see most often quoted on the web, but there's seldom any attribution, and I wonder how many English speakers have seen the whole poem. The line comes from Sonnets to Orpheus (Part One, XXI), which Rilke wrote in February 1922, completing all 55 poems of the cycle in about three weeks.

The inspiration for this sonnet came from a visit to Ronda, in southern Spain, in the winter of 1912-13. Rilke had overheard a group of schoolchildren singing in the Convent of Santo Domingo, accompanied only by a triangle and tambourine. He didn't know what their song meant, but the light-hearted animation of their singing is reflected in the cadences of the second and third stanzas.

There are many translations of the cycle, but the one I like best--and which seems closest to the German--is Stephen Cohn's. Readers who know some German can see how faithfully he has caught the spirit of Rilke's celebration of springtime and childhood:

Frühling ist wiedergekommen. Die Erde 
ist wie ein Kind, das Gedichte weiß; 
viele, o viele . . . Für die Beschwerde 
langen Lernens bekommt sie den Preis. 

Streng war ihr Lehrer. Wir mochten das Weiße 
an dem Barte des alten Manns. 
Nun, wie das Grüne, das Blaue heiße, 
dürfen wir fragen: sie kanns, sie kanns! 

Erde, die frei hat, du glückliche, spiele 
nun mit den Kindern. Wir wollen dich fangen, 
fröhliche Erde. Dem Frohsten gelingts. 

O, was der Lehrer sie lehrte, das Viele, 
und was gedruckt steht in Wurzeln und langen
schwierigen Stammen: sie singts, sie singts!

Photo above courtesy of www.4kphoto.net.

El Convento de Santo Domingo, where Rilke heard the children sing
Julius Feldmeier plays Rilke in a new film

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