Three Christmas poems by Rilke

Heinrich Vogeler's sketch for this 1902 painting inspired Rilke to write
the first of the poems that would appear in Das Marienleben

In September 1900, the 27-year-old painter Heinrich Vogeler showed his friend Rainer Maria Rilke a sketch depicting an angel's announcement of the birth of Jesus. Rilke, just 24 but already the author of several collections of verse, was struck by the image and made notes for some poems about the Nativity.

Eventually those poems took their place in Rilke's Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), published in 1913. These three poems from the book celebrate the human side of the Christmas story; they describe Mary and Joseph's struggle to understand what was happening. In translating them, I have tried to reproduce Rilke's plain-spoken but wonderstruck language.

MARY'S VISIT TO ELIZABETH

At first she could still walk easily,
but sometimes while climbing she became
aware that her body was wondrously changed--
and stood there, just breathing,

on the heights of Judea. It was not the land
that stretched before her but her own fullness;
it seemed to her that one could never
feel greater than she was feeling now.

And she longed to place her hand
on her cousin's belly, which was further along.
The two women leaned on one another
and touched each other's hair and gown.

Each, with a holy mission to fulfill,
reached to her family for protection.
Oh, the Savior was still in flower,
but the Baptist in her cousin's womb
already stirred and leaped with delight.

JOSEPH'S SUSPICION

The angel spoke again, trying hard
with the man, who listened with clenched fists:
Don't you see that in every fold
she is cool and fresh as God's new day?

Still the other stared at him darkly
and muttered, But why is she so changed?
At that the angel cried: Carpenter,
don't you know that the Lord God is at work?

As you make your boards with such great pride,
would you actually take Him to task--
who silently from the same wood makes
leaves that sprout and swelling buds that grow?

The man understood and lifted his eyes
in fear to the angel beside him.
But he was gone. Slowly Joseph pushed
the cap from his head. Then he sang praise.

THE BIRTH OF CHRIST

Without your simplicity, how could this
have happened--what now shines in the dark of night?
The God who thundered over the nations
makes himself mild and through you enters the world.

Were you expecting something greater?

What is greatness? He moves straight through
all measurements we know, dissolving them away.
Even the path of a star is not like that.

Behold: these kings standing here are great
and drag into your lap rare treasures
that each believes to be the greatest.

Perhaps you are astonished at their gifts.
But look into the blanket in your arms,
how He already surpasses all of them.

Amber that is traded near and far,
rings of gold and costly spices
that drift for a moment on the air:
these are quickly fading pleasures
and leave behind a vague regret.

The gift He brings--as you will see--is joy.

In a 1913 letter to the Czech writer Hugo Salus, Rilke said of Das Marienleben, 'It is a little book that was presented to me, quite above and beyond myself, by a peaceful generous spirit, and I shall always get on well with it, just as I did when I was writing it.' (Translation by H.D. Herter Norton.)

Vogeler's painting, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, is now part of the large collection of his work at Worpswede, near Bremen.

Copyright Frank Beck 2020. All rights reserved.


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