Herbsttag (Autumn Day)
Rainer Maria Rilke

I first heard this poem at school. I must have been eleven at the time but it still managed to make an impression on me. This is often the sort of thing you learn to hate for having it drilled into you at school. Not so this time. In fact, I think this was the start of my long love affair with German literature.

Picture late September in central or northern Europe. This is what I remember and what I associate with this poem. The days were getting shorter and the streets, at least those which had trees, were strewn with golden leaves. One more sunny, balmy day was considered a precious gift, a maybe final glimpse of summer. Everyone prepared for the harsh winter and the cold, windy days.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Lord, it is time. Summer was very long.
Cast your shadow over the sundials
And let loose the winds upon the open fields.

In the vineyards on the valley slopes overlooking the Mosel and Neckar rivers where I was born, the warm breath of summer would persist a few days, maybe weeks, more and then it would become just as bitterly cold as it did in the north. The last pears, final fruit of the season, were ripening on the trees before those too shod their leaves and went into their winter sleep.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Command the last fruit to be fully ripe;
Grant them just two more southerly days.
Urge them towards fulfilment and force
The final sweetness into the heavy wine.

School would be out at 13:30 and we kids, after checking in at home and eating lunch, would then dash off to the nearest cemetery, not for some morbid prank or anything but to collect acorns and chestnuts that we'd use, along with burnt-out matchsticks, to create little men and animals with that would decorate the classroom until the christmas stuff took over.

Carefree though as we were, the days were nonetheless grey. The skies were overcast and threatening rain, sometimes sleet. The first snow had not yet fallen. By October your preparation would be over; all the thick clothes would be in the wardrobe and the t-shirts banished and mothballed, to be forgotten for the next six months. The chimney sweep would be making his rounds, leaving little chalk ladder and star drawings with dates next to them on the windows of the apartment building entrances which we brats would then forge, expecting to achieve who knows what goal.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Who has no house now shall build no more.
He who is now alone will long remain so.
Will stay awake, read, write long letters
And in the tree-lines streets to and fro
shall restlessly wander with the drifting leaves.

Before the telephone was everywhere. Before the internet. When it was simply too miserable outside for you to venture out more than you had to, even for a social call. Your lifeline to the outside world was the postman. Dim electric light, if you were so lucky, and candles would keep you company in the long, dark evenings. This is when the long letters we admire today were still being written; when a letter was a work of art and toil and not a hastily dashed-off email full of cheap and easy smilies.

You'd defy the elements to go out for a walk, your heavy overcoat not quite managing to keep out all the cold and wind. Eventually you'd capitulate and visit the bookshop or the library to supply yourself with reading or writing material for the coming cold, dark evening. On your way home, through the greyness of the streets, the last fallen leaves, now brown and shrivelled, would swirl around your legs as you dug your hands deeper into your pockets and the gas lamps in the street waged a losing battle against dusk.

Each year when the days get shorter and the wind gets colder I find myself reciting this poem under my breath as I wait for the bus to arrive or make my way back inside from taking out the rubbish. It's my sign that autumn has arrived and it's time to bring out the heavy blankets and contemplate the summer past.

It's the end of September now, practically October, and that time has once again arrived, bringing with it the anticipation of the cold, clear days of winter and then the lengthening of the days as a harbinger of the soft greening of the spring to follow. If autumn is approaching for you like it is for me while I'm reading this poem and writing along to it, for those, as the poet says, it is time. May you find warm homes and hearts to surround you in the coming months. May you find them here, if nowhere else, in this age of electronic wonders.

Herbsttag; presumed written in Paris 1902-09-21; published in the second version of Das Buch der Bilder, 1906.
The German text is in the public domain under German and US law.
Translation by writeup author.

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