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Featured Poem: You Who Never Arrived by Rainer Maria Rilke

Written by jen, 14th December 2009

I suspect that the majority of people who read The Reader Online have a personal reading ‘to-do’ list. My own stretches a long way and gets longer by the day, due to the additions of newly released titles by favoured authors, recommendations by friends and anything that catches my eye on various trips to Waterstones. It is particularly lengthy given the fact that I am a – how can I say it - thorough reader; given the thickness of the book, it can take me from anywhere to a month to near-on a whole season to complete it (War and Peace would take a good couple of years, I’m sure). Some poor novels have been languishing on my list for an eternity, some half-read while the distractions of life have preoccupied me, but none forgotten.

My latest read is a fairly new addition to the list, Audrey Niffenegger’s new novel Her Fearful Symmetry, which I snapped up after my dad devoured it in the space of two weeks (a record-breaking time I could only dream of making). So far it’s shaping up to be quite interesting indeed. I recently revisited Niffenegger’s debut, The Time Traveler’s Wife, having first read it two and a half years ago and completely falling in love. It’s one of, if not my favourite modern novel, and contains one of my favourite quotations. When I read the words as an introduction to the third part of the book, they resonated on a personal level quite intensely, seeming to sum up the problems I faced at that time and offering in some way a certain light at the end of the tunnel. Simply put, I found them beautiful. They were as follows: “She followed slowly, taking a long time, as though there were some obstacle in the way; and yet: as though, once it was overcome, she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.” They were not the words of the author; they were taken from a poem entitled Going Blind by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Being as moved as I was by this extract, I sought out the poem and more of Rilke’s work – I find it nice that reading any one book can often lead you on a literary treasure trail of discovery. And what a discovery Rilke was to me. For me, his poetry says so much about various very recognisable things and aspects of the human condition and simultaneously possesses some kind of unexplained, possibly otherworldly quality. Perhaps it’s his lyricism, his belief in the idea that people were merely spectators in life who could only see and feel beauty for the briefest of moments before letting it slip away. I have chosen what I think is a particularly beautiful poem by Rilke to feature this week, one which I believe is suitable for describing any number of scenarios and personal wonderings.

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

unsuspected 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...

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

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