You Who Never Arrived

female-downy-woodpecker

Every now and then you come across a poem that simply takes your breath away. One such poem that moved me immensely is Rilke’s “You who never arrived”.

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of
the next moment. All the immense
images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods–
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house– , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced
upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here is the original poem in German:

Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.
Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?
Rainer Maria Rilke

Have you ever wondered if there is a person in the world just right for you whom you haven’t met yet? Your paths haven’t crossed though you have come close to encountering each other. You may be on the verge of meeting each other, moving in close proximity, but never quite set eyes on each other. The speaker is addressing an elusive beloved, a soul mate who would be perfect, who seems to be hovering around him but yet remains distant, elusive, unreachable and out of his grasp. The sense of almost meeting but missing each other creates an air of suspense and mystery and gives an otherworldly and haunting quality to the poem.

The poem is written in free verse with no rhyme scheme matching the speaker’s disparate thoughts. The informal “du” is used as opposed to the formal “Sie” in German conveying a tone of familiarity and intimacy whereas “Sie” would convey distance. This subtlety is lost in translation as in English we employ a generic “you” no matter what our relationship is to the person addressed. From the first stanza itself, a sense of melancholy pervades the poem. The beloved is “lost from the start” implying that there is no promise of union. He is emphasizing the profound loneliness of human beings in search of their ideal yet unattainable soul mate. The words “never”, “lost from the start”, “I don’t even know”, “given up trying” and “forever elude me” reinforce his sense of despair and hopelessness. The speaker resorts to hyperbole to convey the importance of the beloved in his life. The epithets “immense”, “deeply-felt and “powerful” indicate her looming presence or rather absence in his life. She who represents lands and landscape “pulsing with the life of gods” is alive within him and has a strong presence but yet she is an inconceivable being, intangible, an abstract idea that forever eludes him. Is he speaking of an unrequited love? Or could it be that he has an idea of who the perfect person is for him but no one in reality measures up to his image of the person. Has he made up the person?

The second stanza is more interesting as there are traces of hope compared to the pessimism of the first stanza with the image of the open window and the question “Who knows?” The open window and the streets and shops frequented by both of them give us the feeling that the beloved is tantalizingly close. She is lurking around the corner and may step out any moment to surprise him. The personification of the mirrors makes us wonder if the beloved is looking back at him too. “ The mirrors were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back my too-sudden image.” It is possible that what he is seeking is reflected back to him and exists within him be it his Muse, a creative source or something larger than life, his God or the Divine within. Many of the motifs and metaphors used by Rilke bring to mind the symbolism found in mystic poetry especially in Sufi literary traditions. The garden is a place of contemplation and meditation. It is also a primal place, an earthly paradise. I am reminded of Rumi’s lines:

I am a bird of the heavenly garden,
I belong not to the earthly sphere.
They have made for two or three days,
A cage of my body.

The bird stands for the human soul longing for eternal union. This image of the yearning bird singing about its unfulfilled union also brings to mind a text called “The Conference of Birds” which is a long Persian parable in which birds cross seven valleys to find the legendary Simorgh, a mystical Persian bird. Many drop out during the arduous journey. The thirty birds that remain see only their reflection in a lake. The trapped human soul like the bird has to return to its primordial source from which it is separated. The mystic’s yearning for oneness with the Divine is beautifully captured in the lines: “Perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us yesterday, separate, in the evening.”

The spiritual marriage is a leitmotiv in many religious texts the most famous example being the “Song of Songs’ or “The Song of Solomon” of the Old Testament which is interpreted by many scholars to be an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Christian Church, or more broadly speaking of God’s love for humankind. The symbolism of the spiritual marriage is also found in the poetry of the mystics of Hinduism and Sufism where God is the bridegroom and is called ‘mehboob’ or “beloved” and the soul is the mystical bride yearning for the union. In this poem too he addresses the unknown entity as ‘Beloved”. We could say the poem is more like an apostrophe than a monologue as the speaker is addressing an imaginary character, someone who is absent and intangible.

The speaker is still searching and seeking for someone to complete him and make him whole at the end of the poem. The poem describes our universal human condition of loneliness and the quest for the Absolute in such a beautiful and striking way that it leaves us too, startled and dizzy like the mirrors reflecting back our “too-sudden image.”

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