Edvard Munch. ‘Snow Falling in the Lane’. Oil on canvas, 1906. Munch Museum, Oslo.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) left Munich for Switzerland in 1919, ostensibly to take up an invitation to lecture in Zürich, but actually to flee the chaos of post-war Germany and to resume work on his ‘Duino Elegies’. He lived in various parts of Switzerland as he struggled to find a convenient and affordable residence, and it was only in 1921 that he moved into the Chateau de Muzot in the Valais. In 1922 Rilke’s patron Werner Reinhart purchased the chateau and renovated it for Rilke’s use gratis. And it was there that the poet completed not only the ‘Duino Elegies’ but the entire cycle of 55 sonnets which make up the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’.
The poem I have translated here into English was written by Rilke in October 1924 at the Chateau de Muzot. The title poses a special problem for the translator in that the title ‘Handinneres’, is not the usual German word for ‘palm of the hand’, though that is clearly what Rilke meant by it. ‘Inside of the hand’ would be a more or less literal translation. But since that is a somewhat ambiguous phrase in English, I have followed the practice of most translators and given it the title I have used here. Rilke’s German text follows my own.
Palm of the Hand
Palm of the hand. Sole that now goes only
by feel. That remains facing upward
the streets of heaven, which themselves
Which has learned to walk on water
when it draws it up,
which passes over fountains,
transformer of all paths.
Which appears in other hands,
which makes others like it
it journeys and arrives in them,
and fills them with arrival.
Inneres der Hand. Sohle, die nicht mehr geht
als auf Gefühl. Die sich nach oben hält
und im Spiegel
himmlische Straßen empfängt, die selber
Die gelernt hat, auf Wasser zu gehn,
wenn sie schöpft,
die auf den Brunnen geht,
aller Wege Verwandlerin.
Die auftritt in anderen Händen,
zur Landschaft macht:
wandert und ankommt in ihnen,
sie anfüllt mit Ankunft.