They Have to Sing


The Song the Orphan Sings

I am nobody, and I will be nobody too.
Now I’m too small to live, of course:
later it’ll be the same.

Mothers and fathers,
think of me.

Of course it isn’t worth the trouble of raising me:
I will be mowed down anyway.
Nobody can make use of me: it’s too early now;
tomorrow, too late!

I have only this one dress,
and it’s getting thin and bleached;
however, it will last an eternity
in the eyes of God.

I just have these few locks of hair
(they never change) that once
somebody loved.

Now he is through with love.

– Rainer Maria Rilke translated from German by Robert Bly, from the series The Voices, Nine Poems With a Title Poem in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke

That pulls my heart apart.  The line “that once somebody loved,” is the worst part. After all, to be orphaned is not the same as never knowing. It’s because once somebody loved that makes for the wretchedness. The series of poems to which The Song the Orphan Sings belongs  begins with the Title Poem,

They have to sing; if they didn’t sing, everyone
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees.

on the whole they are extraordinary in the expression of the ordinary feelings of freakishness that inhabit ones soul. Rilke writes a poem for all of us: the beggars, orphans, lepers, and blind. The drunkard, the suicide, widow, dwarf, and idiot. What some would walk by if not for the singing- yes:  but these poems are more about what sings within us all. What separates you from me, and me from me. It is the separation above all that hurts. That, and this:


Being apart and lonely is like rain.
It climbs toward evening from the ocean plains;
from flat places, rolling and remote, it climbs
to heaven, which is its old abode.
And only when leaving heaven drops upon the city.

It rains down on us in those twittering
hours when the streets turn their faces to the dawn,
and when two bodies who have found nothing,
disappointed and depressed, roll over;
and when two people who despise each other
have to sleep together in one bed-

that is when loneliness receives the rivers…

-Rainer Maria Rilke

All the songs in us. If only I could sight read the notes, they would tell me how to harmonize. I let music take me where my heart wants to go: that seemed to be what was wanted, what was wanting. But now, how to get through to the next movement and how to be heard- I don’t yet know. But at least I can sing.

And the song goes on, beautiful.

10, from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke


4 responses to “They Have to Sing

  1. I enjoyed your reflections a lot! I’ve been reading Rilke obsessively for some time now. He has a way that whispers secrets we thought we were alone in knowing.

  2. Oh good, you are looking at the Bly translations. There is a whole ‘nother direction that I did not pursue (because of ignorance) about how Rilke, through Bly and others, became an American poet.

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