One of my favorite stretches through the woods

I have been out in the country, reveling in the glory of autumn. The fall foliage spectacle is on full display on our property in northwest Indiana. I just love, love, love walking through the woods, or simply driving along the country roads at this time of year.

As most of today was taken up by work duties, and I didn’t have time to prepare a longer blog post,

this is a good time to showcase my favorite poem, Herbsttag (Autumn Day) by Rainer Maria Rilke.

I like to celebrate this poem every fall. Or rather, it celebrates fall for me.

You might know Rilke as the author of Letters to a Young Poet, a classic in the literature about writing and finding a vocation. However, Rilke is one of the great poets of German literature, and I find something I respond to in most of his many, many poems.

I fell in love with Autumn Day as an adolescent, leafing through one of my grandparents’ anthologies of German poetry. After my grandmother died, I made sure that particular book made it to my bookshelf. It is now a beloved yellowed friend.

Unfortunately it is a challenge to find a translation that comes close to the original German, particularly the last stanza, which is the part I really cherish.

I fell in love with the phrase “lange Briefe schreiben” (write long letters) as that is exactly what I did as a teenager. As an adult, the last phrase, “wenn die Blätter treiben” (when the leaves drift), has stuck with me all these years and floats up pretty much every time I’m walking along those paths littered with leaves.

I was reminded again that translation is always, at best, an approximation. For example, the word “Alleen” means roads lined with trees on both sides. In German “Alleen” immediately conjures up that image – in English, no such word exists.

Anyway, enough waxing, here it is, first in the original, then the translation.


by Rainer Maria Rilke

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

This translation is by J. Mullen:

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The summer was great.
Lay your shadows onto the sundials
and let loose the winds upon the fields.

Command the last fruits to be full,
give them yet two more southern days,
urge them to perfection, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Who now has no house, builds no more.
Who is now alone, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly here and there
in the avenues, when the leaves drift.