Emil Nolde (1867-1956). ‘Storm at Sea’.
I first became interested in the North Frisian islands of Germany and Denmark after learning that the Frisian dialects spoken there, along with the Frisian dialects found farther south along the German coast and in the Netherlands, are the living languages most closely related to English. This, of course, is because the various Anglo-Saxon groups which migrated west to what is now England and conquered the Celts came from the Frisian coast, which stretches from the Netherlands into present day Denmark, bringing their various but mutually intelligible dialects with them. All of which eventually evolved into what we call English, but that is another story. I tend to think of the North Frisian islands which are still inhabited, and where various versions of North Frisian is spoken, as being tiny isolated worlds all to themselves which nonetheless are intimately linked to the beginnings of the English linguistic consciousness. And in that sense they are tiny worlds which exist deeply embedded within us as well, if we look to English as our first, or most natural idiom, or at least our language of choice.
I don’t think Rilke was getting at any of this when he wrote his three-part poem ‘The Island’, however. But he does seem to have seen the island in question as a metaphor for his own interior life, as well as for the interior lives of its actual inhabitants. That life is to a great extent governed by the forces which surround it, yet it is also independent and follows its own course. This is especially true in the third section, where the island is compared to a tiny star unnoticed in an unthinking and terrifying universe, a star which calmly plots its own route into space in a way unrelated to anything else. ‘The Island’ is a fine example of the type of ‘object poem’ which Rilke made famous in his 1907 collection of verse. Throughout the three sections, the reader never loses a sense of ‘the island’ as being something quite concrete. It can be viewed from a distance or up close, but it also serves as a very abstract symbol for the interior world which exists within each person, a world which has its own individual trajectory in reality, its course through time and space.
Here is my English translation of Part III of Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Island’, followed by Rilke’s German text.
Only the Within is near, all else far.
And this Within presses, and fills daily
to overflowing, and can never be said.
The island is like a tiny star
which Space ignores and silently destroys
in its unreflective awfulness,
so that, unillumined and overlooked,
to bring this all to an end,
darkly, upon a self-discovered path,
it seeks to go, blindly, beyond the course
of planets, systems and stars.
Nah ist nur Innres; alles andre fern.
Und dieses Innere gedrängt und täglich
mit allem überfüllt und ganz unsäglich.
Die Insel ist wie ein zu kleiner Stern
welchen der Raum nicht merkt und stumm zerstört
in seinem unbewußten Furchtbarsein,
so daß er, unerhellt und überhört,
damit dies alles doch ein Ende nehme
dunkel auf einer selbsterfundnen Bahn
versucht zu gehen, blindlings, nicht im Plan
der Wandelsterne, Sonnen und Systeme.