Poetry for travellers: ‘Der Fremde’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

I’ve recently taken up the habit of reading one poem before I go to sleep. I started this after I bought a volume of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke – a selection of his so-called ‘New Poems’. Last night, I accidentally read three (to calm my raging mind). Der Fremde, ‘The Stranger’, was the last one. I found it so comforting, and so relevant to my roaming adventure, that I thought I should post it on here. It also made me wonder why I hadn’t shared any poetry before. I write poetry myself (when I am under its spell – it comes and it goes) so it makes sense to share some poetry on here, too. One possible problem: it’s in German and I haven’t found an adequate English translation. I tried my hands on it but soon realized I couldn’t do it justice. So I will just post the original and then highlight what struck me about it.

Der Fremde

Ohne Sorgfalt, was die Nächsten dächten,
die er müde nichtmehr fragen hieß,
ging er wieder fort; verlor, verließ -.
Denn er hing an solchen Reisenächten

anders als an jeder Liebesnacht.
Wunderbare hatte er durchwacht,
die mit starken Sternen überzogen
enge Fernen auseinanderbogen
und sich wandelten wie eine Schlacht;

andre, die mit in den Mond gestreuten
Dörfern, wie mit hingehaltnen Beuten,
sich ergaben, oder durch geschonte
Parke graue Edelsitze zeigten,
die er gerne in dem hingeneigten
Haupte einen Augenblick bewohnte,
tiefer wissend, dass man nirgends bleibt;
und schon sah er bei dem nächsten Biegen
wieder Wege, Brücken, Länder liegen
bis an Städte, die man übertreibt.

Und dies alles immer unbegehrend
hinzulassen, schien ihm mehr als seines
Lebens Lust, Besitz und Ruhm.
Doch auf fremden Plätzen war ihm eines
täglich ausgetretnen Brunnensteines
Mulde manchmal wie ein Eigentum.

It was this line that I found so true, so comforting that I read it over and over again:

tiefer wissend, daß man nirgends bleibt;

‘Knowing deep inside, that one stays nowhere;’

This is a lesson that you learn if you travel for the sake of it, not as a means but as an end; as a way of life: you pass through all these places that you love, but you cannot stay. You cannot keep them. Hold on to them. This line follows one about the scenery that he passes through – villages strewn under the moon, a grey castle – places that he lets his mind live in for a while as he passes them and then continues, with this realization – that one cannot stay.

And then I thought the poem had ended after the third stanza, so I turned the page to leave the bookmark there, and to my surprise, there was another stanza. Which contained these equally resonating and enlightening lines:

Und dies alles immer unbegehrend
hinzulassen, schien ihm mehr als seines
Lebens Lust, Besitz und Ruhm.

‘And all the time, letting go of all this,
without desire – that seemed more to him than
the lust of life, possession and fame.’

Yes, that is what you learn when you travel. You witness, you cherish, you bathe in what you see, feel, experience. The sights, the people, the air, the mountains, the roads, the noise, the beauty. But you let go – you can let go, and you willingly (although perhaps also reluctantly) let go, because you are satisfied. Now I know there are several ways to travel – there is the way where you do the sponge thing and soak everything up and have to see all the sights and do all the things – and in the end you are not satisfied. Clearly, that is not what Rilke is talking about. If you truly travel, you also soak up your surroundings – but there is reverence. You know you do not own what you see and experience. You are only passing through. These lines remind me of a text on a plaque outside St Peter’s Church in Leiden, my hometown, where the Pilgrim Fathers fled to in 1609 before they crossed the Atlantic:

But now we are all, in all places,
strangers and pilgrims, travelers
and sojourners…

I often envy people who seem to be living ‘normal lives’ – people who live lives that I think are more boring than mine but at least have paid jobs, can more or less rely on contracts, own houses, have some sort of reassuring routine. But more and more, I am beginning to be convinced that in many ways, this way of life is less real than mine; that life supported by social security is, in a way, a distraction from what life is really like; a construct that lulls us into thinking that life is safe, solid, stable. But it isn’t. Everything passes and changes, and so do we. Life is transient and treacherous. We are all strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners, whether we stay in one place or not. So I think I’ll hang on to my traveller’s life and mindset for a while longer.

And yet, I need stability. I guess many travellers do. At least Rilke did. Because he ends his poem with this admission:

Doch auf fremden Plätzen war ihm eines
täglich ausgetretnen Brunnensteines
Mulde manchmal wie ein Eigentum.

‘But in strange squares there sometimes was
a worn out stone in a  well
that had felt like a possession.’

I suppose everyone needs some sort of anchor. For Rilke (or his protagonist, but they are probably one and the same), it was this stone. For me, it is my husband and my home. Knowing he is here, my home is here, allows me to roam. I would find it much more difficult to travel like I do if I had no place to return to. Perhaps I will one day. Because ‘home’ isn’t so much about a place – it is about your identity. If you have a solid core you can return to over and over again, then you can roam as much as you want – without losing the way. And that solid core – that is exactly what I think I’m working on while I travel.

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