Rainer Maria Rilke – Loneliness

Rainer Maria Rilke – “Loneliness”

Loneliness is like a rain.
It raises from the sea towards the evenings;
from plains that are far and remote,
it goes to heaven, that always has it.
And only from the skies does it fall on the city.

Pours down in the twilight hours,
when all streets turn towards morning
and all bodies, which have found nothing,
leave each other, sad and let down;
and when people who hate each other,
have to sleep together in one bed:

then loneliness goes with the rivers…

Commentary
Ah, Rilke….

OK, so this is perhaps not his best or most moving poem. But it’s simple, and I like it. I’m sure we’re all aware of the connections people have made before between sadness (crying) and rain. But here, Rilke says loneliness is like rain, and not necessary because it’s like the tears of the sky. It seems to be searching for comfort, by evaporating into the air, then falling to earth again, as if it could not find a place to stay.

But it’s not until the second stanza that the real emotion hits – “streets turn toward morning” as if they’re trying to escape something, and indeed we find that people who hate each other sleep together, probably rushing out of bed as soon as they can.

Finally, “loneliness goes with the rivers,” which I take to reflect separation, distance, going away…but perhaps to something better, since I can’t make a river be absolutely imbued with a negative feeling. There’s too much strength and progression associated with the flow of rivers.

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3 Responses to Rainer Maria Rilke – Loneliness

  1. Angele says:

    Andrew,

    I don’t see the final line of this poem as a flight to something better, but rather as an extension of the poem’s controlling simile–loneliness is like rainwater, an endless and inexorable natural cycle.

    But this characterization leads me to another interpretation: that loneliness is as necessary to the earth as water, and as necessary to the human soul: “…It goes to heaven, that always has it.” (Loneliness in heaven! Is the irony tragic or comic?)

    Is it possible that Auden had Rilke somewhere in the back of his mind when he wrote, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water”?

  2. staringatangels says:

    I think you’re right that he’s showing loneliness as a cyclic part of nature. But what’s the point of it being depicted as a cycle if it’s static? Why not describe it in other natural images that suggest permanence (even though nothing is absolutely permanent, of course). At the very least, couldn’t one argue that the poem posits different shades of loneliness, times when it is harder to deal with, other times when it feels more right?

    As for the necessity of it, that’s an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. I can see that. Loneliness in Heaven is even more interesting, but I don’t know how much we should think of it as a metaphysical place, since the rest of the poem is so invested in the physical world. Also, in the original poem, the same word (Himmel) is translated as “Heaven” as is translated as “skies” in the next line:
    geht sie zum Himmel, der sie immer hat.
    Und erst vom Himmel fällt sie auf die Stadt.

    Himmel, just as in English, can either mean the physical “heavens” of the sky or space, or it can mean the place where people like me won’t go.

  3. Angele Ellis says:

    I don’t view a cycle as necessarily static, but I agree with you that describing loneliness climatically, in terms of a cycle of precipitation/ runoff/ evaporation/precipitation, “posits different shades of loneliness.” (As the loneliness of being in bed with someone hated–or unloved–is different from the loneliness of being in bed alone.)

    Thanks for clarifying that in German, “Himmel” can be translated either as the skies or as a metaphysical heaven. Did you know that in French, the verb “pleurer” means “to cry” while “il pleut” means “it rains”? So when Paul Valery wrote:

    Je pleure dans mon coeur
    Comme il pleut sur la ville;

    he was writing:

    I cry in my heart
    As it rains on the town;

    and conflating an emotional state with a natural phenomenon, as Rilke does in “Loneliness.”

    Now I’m thinking of how in many films, the unshed tears of a character are represented by a shot of his or her face through a rainy window–cliched, but effective.

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