Rilke’s Island


Hallig Habel, smallest island in Germany’s Schleswig Holstein Wadden Sea National Park. Only about 655 meters long, the island is a bird sanctuary. A single building atop a low earthen mound hosts an ornithological observatory during the summer months. A similar mound at the other end of the island was destroyed by a storm in the 19th century. Hallig Habel is nearly completely at the mercy of the sea.

The North German novelist and short story writer Theodor Storm (1817-1888) made the north Frisian coast famous in literature with such stories as ‘White Horse Rider’, sometimes translated as ‘The Dykemaster’ (1888), about the tyranny of the sea over the inhabitants of Storm’s native region. But others have written about it, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘The Island’, which he constructed in three parts, is one of the better known works of German literature set in the area. Ten islands exist in the German ‘Waddensee’, as this section of the North Sea is called, and there are another two just to the north which belong to Denmark. Indeed the whole area was part of the Danish duchy of Slesvik in Theodor Storm’s youth, before the region was annexed to Prussia under Bismarck. I have been unable to determine which island Rilke wrote his poem about. Some have dykes and some do not. What follows here is the first of Rilke’s three sections. I give first my new English translation, then Rilke’s original.

The Island

North Sea


The next high tide wipes out the mud flat’s path,
and all becomes the same on every side;
the tiny island beyond however has
its eyes held shut; confusingly the dyke

surrounds its dwellers, who in a sleep
are born in which they many worlds
confound in silence; for they seldom speak,
and every phrase is like an epitaph

for something washed ashore, unknown,
which comes to them in mystery and remains.
And thus is everything their gaze describes

from childhood on: without relation to them,
too large, unfeeling, sent from somewhere else;
it exaggerates their solitude all the more.

Die Insel



Die nächste Flut verwischt den Weg im Watt,
und alles wird auf allen Seiten gleich;
die kleine Insel draussen aber hat
die Augen zu; verwirrend kreist der Deich

um ihre Wohner, die in einen Schlaf
geboren werden, drin sie viele Welten
verwechseln, schweigend; denn sie reden selten,
und jeder Satz ist wie ein Epitaph

für etwas Angeschwemmtes, Unbekanntes,
das unerklärt zu ihnen kommt und bleibt.
Und so ist alles was ihr Blick beschreibt

von Kindheit an: night auf sie Angewandtes,
zu Grosses, Rücksichtsloses, Hergesandtes,
das ihre Einsamkeit noch übertreibt. 


2 comments on “Rilke’s Island

  1. dappled says:

    Thank you for showing me places I never would have seen, thoughts to think that never would have blossomed, without your sensitive perceptive guidance. The translation is graceful and true.

    • leifhendrik says:

      Thanks for the wonderful words, which really made my afternoon. This particular poem really does constitute a kind of journey, it’s true. The destination is real. I’m glad we can travel the route together.

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