Rilke chose as his own epitaph this poem:
Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel
Rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids.
“The following selections from David Need’s Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provide an illuminating glimpse into the ways Rilke uses the rose as motif. The poems seek to elucidate how time’s ceaseless transformations do not rectify or allay the contradictions they invoke. The living rose is “fully awake” but discreet, possessing “many pages / of detailed happiness / we will never read.” Rilke is fascinated by these irreducible relationships: the flower’s vitality belies its eventual death; its blooming won’t diminish the impenetrable density of its petals.” —Dan Holmes
Rilke’s posthumously published Roses calls us into a more intimate relationship with things, asking us to consider the material world as sister of our imagination, rather than nameless patient of our ideas.
If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
it’s that, petal against petal, you rest
within yourself, inside.
Fully awake, your petals, whose surroundings
sleep, though numberless, meet
this silent heart’s tendernesses
which end in these urgent lips.
I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,
which is opened by the wind and can be read,
from which butterflies scatter, confused
to have had the same ideas.
Oh Rose, you perfect thing beyond compare,
and infinitely lavished, oh, head
of a body with far too much wandering sweetness,
nothing is equal to you, oh you supreme essence
of this inconstant hour,
your perfume wanders all about
this space of love we have scarcely entered.
A single rose, it’s every rose
and this one—the irreplaceable one,
the perfect one—a supple spoken word
framed by the text of things.
How could we ever speak without her
of what our hopes were,
and of the tender moments
in the continual departure.
All that we feel, you share,
yet we ignore what happens to you.
There would have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all your pages.
There are ones among you like dictionaries;
those who gather these
are tempted to bind all the pages.
Me? I like the roses which are letters.
Rose, come so late, when the bitter nights stop
in their too sidereal brilliance,
Rose, do you divine the facile, perfect pleasures
of your summer sisters?
Day after day, I watch you who hesitate
in your sheath, clasped too tight.
Rose who, when born, imitates in reverse
the slow ways of the dead.
Does your indescribable state make you understand
in a mingling in which all is silenced
that ineffable harmony of nothingness and being
that we ignore?
despite so many dangers
with no change ever
in her habits
is the Rose which opens, prelude
to her immeasurable duration.
Do we know how she lives?
One of her days, without doubt,
is all the earth, all
the infinity of this moment.
Rose, was it necessary to leave you outdoors,
What is a rose doing there, where fate
exhausts itself on us?
Point of turning back. It’s you
with us, desperately, this life, this life
which is not your time.
(Translated from the French by David Need. To read the original, click HERE.)
Roses. Rainer Maria Rilke.Translation by David Need. Illustrations by Clare Johnson.Horse & Buggy Press, 2014.