Rilke’s ‘The Grownup’

As W.H. Auden wrote in a 1939 piece in the New Republic on the work of Rainer Maria Rilke: 

One of the constant problems of the poet is how to express abstract ideas in concrete terms…Rilke is almost the first poet since the seventeenth century to find a fresh solution…he thinks in physical rather than intellectual symbols.

Rilke’s masterful use of imagery is evidenced in this poem, which addresses the mystery of coming of age. As he wrote at the age of 22, in an essay published posthumously in the Paris Review:

The boys grow up into their manhood so sturdily and steadily; all of a sudden it fits them, you don’t know how. The girls let go of their children’s dresses suddenly and stand there, timid and freezing, at the start of a wholly different life, where the words and the coins they are used to are no longer valid currency.


The Grownup

translation: Stephen Mitchell

All this stood upon her and was the world
and stood upon her with all its fear and grace
as trees stand, growing straight up, imageless
yet wholly image, like the Ark of God,
and solemn, as if imposed upon a race.

As she endured it all: bore up under
the swift-as-flight, the fleeting, the far-gone,
the inconceivably vast, the still-to-learn,
serenely as a woman carrying water
moves with a full jug. Till in the midst of play,
transfiguring and preparing for the future,
the first white veil descended, gliding softly

over her opened face, almost opaque there,
never to be lifted off again, and somehow
giving to all her questions just one answer:
In you, who were a child once-in you.

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