Rainer Maria Rilke’s
“Requiem for a Friend”
as translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote “Requiem For a Friend” as a tribute to his good friend, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), who suddenly died eighteen days after giving birth to her first child. Rilke wrote it over two haunted nights (October 31 and November 1st, 1908) at the Hotel Biron, Paris, almost a full year after hearing the news of Paula’s parting. “Requiem For a Friend” was first published in 1909.
I’ve shared some passages, below, but linked to the entire letter at the end of this post.
I have my dead and I have let them go and was amazed to see them so contented, so at home in being dead, so cheerful, so unlike their reputation. Only you return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock against something, so that the sound reveals your presence. Oh don’t take from me what I am slowly learning. I’m sure you have gone astray if you are moved to homesickness for anything in this dimension. We transform these Things; they aren’t real, they are only the reflections upon the polished surface of our being.
I thought you were much further on. It troubles me that you should stray back, you, who have achieved more transformation than any other woman.That we were frightened when you died…no; rather: that your stern death broke in upon us, darkly, wrenching the till-then from the ever-since — this concerns us: setting it all in order is the task we have continually before us. But that you, too, were frightened, and even now pulse with your fear, where fear can have no meaning; that you have lost even the smallest fragment of your eternity, Paula, and have entered here, where nothing yet exists; that out there, bewildered for the first time, inattentive, you didn’t grasp the splendor of the infinite forces, as on earth you grasped each Thing; that, from the realm which had already received you, the gravity of some old discontent had dragged you back to measurable time. This often startles me out of dreamless sleep at night, like a thief climbing in my window.
If I could say it is only out of kindness, out of your great abundance, that you have come, because you are so secure, so self-contained, that you can wander anywhere, like a child, not frightened of any harm that might await you… But no: you’re pleading. This penetrates me, to my very bones, and cuts at me like a saw. The bitterest rebuke your ghost could bring me, could scream to me, at night, when I withdraw into my lungs, into my intestines, into the last barechamber of my heart, — such bitterness would not chill me half so much as this mute pleading. What is it that you want ?
Tell me, must I travel ? Did you leave some Thing behind, some place, that cannot bear your absence ? Must I set out for a country you never saw, although it was as vividly near to you as your own senses were ? I will sail its rivers, search its valleys, inquire about its oldest customs; I will stand for hours, talking with with women in their doorways and watching, while they call their children home. will see the way they wrap the land around them in their ancient work in field and meadow; will ask to be led before their king; will bribe the priests to take me to their temple, before the most powerful of the statues in their keeping, and to leave me there, shutting the gates behind them. And only then, when I have learned enough, I will go to watch the animals, and let something of their composure slowly glide into my limbs; will see my own existence deep in their eyes, which hold me for awhile and let me go, serenely, without judgment.
Are you still here ? Are you standing in some corner ? You knew so much of all this, you were able to do so much; you passed through life so open to all things, like an early morning. I know: women suffer; for love means being alone; and artists in their work sometimes intuit that they must keep transforming, where they love. You began both; both exist in that which any fame takes from you and disfigures.
Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly, as one would lower a brightly colored flag on the gray morning after a holiday. You had just one desire: a year’s long work — which was never finished; was somehow never finished. If you are still here with me, if in this darkness there is still some place where your spirit resonates on the shallow sound waves stirred up by my voice: hear me: help me. We can so easily slip back from what we have struggled to attain, abruptly, into a life we never wanted; can find that we are trapped, as in a dream, and die there, without ever waking up. This can occur. Anyone who has lifted his blood into a years-long work may find that he can’t sustain it, the force of gravity is irresistible, and it falls back, worthless. For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work. Help me, in saying it, to understand it.
Do not return. If you can bear to, stay dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks. But help me, if you can without distraction, as what is farthest sometimes helps: in me.