Rilke’s Epitaph

by Erik Bendix


       Rilke’s grave lies against the windswept south wall of the village church in Raron, Switzerland.  Old village barns and arbors and alleyways lie far below, huddled around a steep path up to the church, which sits atop an enormous cliff jutting over the Rhone Valley floor.  The outside walls of the church are as bare as the rock on which it stands, while the churchyard affords commanding views of the great river’s westward cut through the Alps. Inside there is quiet sanctuary and exquisite Renaissance depictions of saints:  St. George standing over his dragon, and St. Augustine wielding a sword and a feather writing quill.  So the chapel seems dedicated to the art of writing and the slaying of demons.  Someone has seen to it that a small bush of red roses grows outside above Rilke’s remains.         

       Rilke chose both his own gravesite and epitaph.  He is buried where one can see both German-speaking villages and land where the main language is French.  Late in his life Rilke began writing in French, so this burial site at the edge of his German-speaking world suits his writing well.  So does the blend of vastness and intimacy that so nearly reflects the quality of Rilke’s own poetic voice.

       Rilke’s epitaph speaks on so many levels that the best translation I can offer is an excavation of its layers, admittedly a bit like trying to explain away a superbly nuanced joke.  His epitaph is also an extraordinary feat of verbal condensation.  The German word for poetry suggests that a poet’s task is to condense (‘Dichtung’ derives from the root ‘dicht’ meaning dense). Rilke’s epitaph does just that.  It reads:

             “Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust, niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern”

The nearest translation I can manage is:

            “Oh rose, pure puzzlement in your desire to not be anyone’s sleep beneath so many eyelids (so many songs).”

        Rilke here compares rose petals to eyelids, and remarks that unlike eyelids, the petals conceal no desire for sleep.  But the word for eyelids (Lidern) happens to sound exactly like the German word for songs (Liedern), so this pun in sound also lets him say that beneath his many songs there is no desire to be anyone’s sleep.

        What could this mean?  In slight jest it could mean that the poet resting in death beneath his work never intended to put anyone to sleep, to bore them with his songs.  It could mean that his songs were intended for awakening, as the rose too lives to awaken into bloom.  By equating rose petals with his songs, Rilke has indirectly likened himself to the rose.  He knew the rose to be a symbol of resurrection.  So there is a delicate hint that he had no wish to sleep or be mortal, perhaps that his work in creating songs carried no desire for death, even perhaps that he hoped through them for some kind of resurrection.  But the epitaph refrains from saying that the rose (or the poet) desires no sleep for itself alone.  Instead it says it does not want to be anyone’s sleep.  So Rilke’s desire may be for a general awakening, not just his own.

        Other layers of meaning remain.  The rose disdains sleep despite the songs it is blanketed with; thus, it continues to grow and bloom regardless of all that has been said about it.  No words can really do it justice, nor is the rose itself lulled by songs sung to it.  In the words of Rilke’s Sonnets, it is an inexhaustible object, certainly one Rilke had written many poems about, perhaps none of them doing full justice to the object itself.  In the face of the actual flower, the poet can only be humble.

        Another suggested meaning is that beneath all Rilke’s songs, beneath all the petals, nothing sleeps or lies hidden.  There are no hidden meanings.  The songs speak for themselves, and they arose only from the energy of his own life force, just as the petals conceal nothing but the sap and stem of the rose.

        What made Rilke say the rose is a puzzlement or contradiction?  Perhaps the puzzle is that the grave is clearly one in which Rilke lies dead, yet his epitaph expresses no wish to sleep in death.  His wish is to continue to feed life with song, just as Orpheus’ song was nourished by the dead, or just as the dance of the dead Vera Ouckama Knoop fed the words of the then living poet.  She slept in his ear, and Rilke’s desire is to do the same for us.  In death, he rests not silenced but strangely wakeful and willing to speak to us.          

        What a feat of compression these words are!  The cycles of blooming and fading are compared here with those of wakefulness and sleep and those of life and death.  The poet’s double meanings take us to the edge of what language can do, and leaves us both humbled by its limits in the face of a real flower and hopeful of its potential to transcend mortality.  In one gesture, he both apologizes for putting anyone to sleep, hopes for resurrection and likens his creative output to a force of nature.  All with a light sense of bewilderment at his predicament, all with the gentlest touch, all in just thirteen words.  Condensation indeed.

        Below these words, facing sun and wind and rain, Rilke lies nestled under a rose bush.

photo:  Rilke's grave (with roses and a wooden cross) above Raron.
The epitaph is carved into the stone slab against the church wall.
Erik Bendix's poetry     
Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry     
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Hellinger on Rilke      
Rilke's Epitaph      
poems by Rainer Maria Rilke