Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rainer Maria Rilke --- "I Live My Life In Widening Circles"

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

--- Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke’s “I Live My Life in Widening Circles”

On an afternoon this past September as I was killing hours before an evening college fair, I stumbled upon a bookstore and found a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book Of Hours: Love Poems To God. I had read Rilke’s iconic Letters To A Young Poet a handful of times, but sadly I had not gone beyond the notable poems that repeatedly represent Rilke in anthologies. I stiffly sat in a hard backed chair flipping open to the book’s table of contents. Normally, I pick out the poems with the most exciting titles to read first. After a few warm-up poems, I came upon an eight-line masterpiece that whipped my mind and soul into a funnel cloud. Immediately, I flipped open my bag and pulled out a pen and paper. I feverishly wrote the poem down so that I could take it with me (I was a little tight on cash at the time, otherwise I would have bought the book right then). That night, as I talked to high school seniors about their college options, I was supremely distracted. Rilke’s poem continued to speed through my mind as if it was on an escalator continuously riding up and down inside of me. When I returned to my office, I tacked the poem up on my corkboard beside my desk. It’s still there; I read it first thing every morning before I turn my computer on.

Why does this poem resonate with me? It’s not very long and the diction seems to be fairly simple and straightforward (although some people might consider “primordial” to be an exotic word). The poet doesn’t do much to physically distinguish the first person speaker in the poem. And it ends with an unanswered question. Yes, these features are the kiss of death for most writers, but not for Rainer Maria Rilke. “I Live My Life in Widening Circles” is an early flash of brilliance in a rich and passionate career. It’s a success that announces future successes. Pushing the platitudes aside for a moment to answer this paragraph’s original question, the poem resonates with me because it’s fearless. From the first lines that declare an admirable, albeit challenging credo, to the final lines that broach a question directed at the roots of the speaker’s own existence, the poem does not flinch. Line-for-line, word-for-word, it’s an overwhelming force. It would behoove us to examine how Rilke establishes this power.

“I live my life in widening circles / that reach out across the world.” This sentence kicks off the poem, evoking the image of expanding spheres similar to the ripples that form in a pond. The speaker is at the center of these circles and his will seems to guide them to stretch and include more of the world. In doing so, he exposes himself to new experiences and people---exhilarating and frightening at the same time. But as we have previously established, there’s not even the faintest trace of fear. Instead, these opening lines link with the following lines to form a valuable life model: “I may not complete this last one / but I give myself to it.” The speaker identifies the gravity of his task. The costs will be monumental, possibly more than he can afford to give, still he knows widening his circles is not about the end result, but about the process: the people he meets along the way, the good he does for his fellow man and woman, the skills he learns, the art he creates, the love he gives and receives, and the unending quest for understanding. There will be days when he accomplishes none of these things; we all have days like these. And there will be days that he wishes will grow longer with extra minutes and hours, days when his thoughts are colorful and unending as a magician’s handkerchief. How great to live our lives in circles that widen to include more people, more ideas, more experiences, rather than to live in contracting spaces that seek to cut us off.

Thus far we’ve focused on exposing ourselves to more experiences, but there’s important value in solitude as well. Strangely, solitude is possible within Rilke’s widening circles. How do I know this? The poem’s second stanza is proof enough. Rilke expresses thoughts of a man who has invested in an intense self-examination. This practice of researching our own souls comes only after we are able to engage in moments of solitude---silent, freeing, centered, and mindful. Within his widening circle, Rilke’s solitude leads him to notice his own trajectory and to ask meaningful questions: “I circle around God, around the primordial tower. / I've been circling for thousands of years / and I still don't know: am I a falcon, / a storm, or a great song?” Just when I thought my interpretation of Rilke’s first person speaker at the center of the circles was safe, it’s thoroughly dismantled.

This poem is from a book with the subtitle “Love Poems to God,” so it should come as no surprise that God is at the center and our speaker is the circle widening around God. This circling has our speaker perplexed and he wants to better understand who he is and what he should be doing. He narrows it down to three metaphorical interpretations. First, he could be a falcon returning to the falconer (does anyone else hear the strains of Yeats “Second Coming”). Second, he could be a storm clouding around the “primordial tower” of God. This pessimistic view darkens his judgements and abilities, acknowledging the stain of sin that humans bear. The final interpretation is my favorite: he is “a great song.” It’s beautifully poetic to imagine that we are songs swirling beneath and around God, that our lyrics and melodies bring him some joy. On the flip side, when we’re out of key we’re tough to listen to and sometimes our songs are repetitive, uninspired, and vulgar. Ultimately, Rilke ends the poem without deciding upon one of the three interpretations. We, as readers, are tasked with that decision, just as we are tasked with living our lives in widening circles and embracing the beauty that comes with circling this earth, circling each other, and circling a higher power.


Brooke said...

thank you

Matthew A Kaberline said...

You're welcome, Brooke. Although, I think I'm the one who should be saying thank you for reading my blog.

All the best,

Unknown said...

You cannot imagine what a shock stumbling on your blog was. I was trying to explain to a dear friend and professor just why I loved this poem so much. He had just shared "Second Coming" with me and I was sick for a moment thinking Rilke had stolen lines from it; but, oh the relief! when I discovered he'd written his first!
I memorized it in a German class long, long ago, and the German words make it even more mesmerizing, but I was looking for a good translation for him when I landed here. Thank you so much for sharing all the beauty. You've been bookmarked. : ) J

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks J for bookmarking my blog and for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoyed my thoughts on this Rilke classic. I'm putting the final touches on the essays for this April and Rilke will again make an appearance! I never thought about the Rilke/Yeats parallels before; thanks for mentioning that.

All the best,

Gabster said...

One of my favorite poems. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it.

Gayathry said...

Hi Matthew,
I came across your blog as I was looking for an authority translation to Rilke's poem. Our friend had dedicated it to my husband who passed away this February. It has been on my mind for so long and today I sat to compile all the words and dedications to Soeren (my husband) and I. (didn't know that April was poetry month!) Soeren loved poetry and always had the right ones to recite. I enjoyed reading your interpretation of Rilke's poem.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hello Gayarthry,

Thank you for your kind comments and for checking out my blog. I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. This was a tremendous poem to dedicate to him. I love the idea that the connections we make are the widening circles in our lives encompassing all those we love and befriend. It sounds like Soeren had many of these circles in his life.

All the best,

Gayathry said...

Thanks Matthew, you're absolutely right:)

And I too have bookmarked your blog. Althought I must say I'm not familiar with many of the poets, but I am a great fan of Walt Whitman and hope to do my research more about his works.

If for some odd reason, you want some poems from Malaysia or Denmark, I'm happy to share them:)

Tina Richardson said...

I was looking around for Rilke's "I Live My Life..." and you were the first to show. Since then I've been perusing your blog and I've enjoyed it very much. I have a question: Has there ever been a translation of this poem that begins, "I live my life in ever widening circles"?

Thank you in advance,
Tina Richardson

Matthew A Kaberline said...


I have not seen a translation with "ever widening circles." Although I don't know German I believe that depending on the translators interpretation that addition of "ever" could very well be included. I would guess that it has not been included in most translations because widening circles already implies further outward movement and growth. Adding ever would not change this or add to the clarity of the description, although it could amplify it somewhat.

All the best,

Tina Richardson said...

Wow, this is terribly late coming -- I've since heard several translations that refer to "ever widening circles" and that may be because I want it to be "ever widening circles" because this poem means so much to me, but I'm not ready for it to just be "widening" but "ever widening" because the "widening" to me is a limitation and I need it to be "ever widening." But as a poet, myself, I'm afraid that I'm skewing the words. I'm really having a hard time with this one...sorry for the controversy.

Diana said...

lovely...I enjoyed reading your interpretation

Babz said...

This poem was read this a.m. on NPR. It stuck with me as well. I hope you're planning on celebraing Poetry Month for 2011 ! I have bookmarked your blog

spike mason said...

Just thought I'd comment on your post - as I thought you might be interested that I've released an album called "Widening Circles". I have become totally smitten by Rilke and so the album features an english translation of a handful of the poems from the Book of Hours set to my compositions.
You can watch a short film of the recording process
here ==>
You can have a listen to the album to see if you like it
here ==>

Jim said...

Has anyone ever interpreted "widening circles" to mean a tree (trunk) as it ages?

Grace Radford said...

Thank you. Beautifully describes my sense of "Apostalic".