[T]he monk who is the imaginary author of the poems is represented as an adherent of the peculiar faith that Rilke ascribed to his spiritual kinsmen, a faith in a God remote from the august if benign Father of western Christianity, a God, rather, who is waiting to be born of the artist’s alert and sensitive consciousness.
— Babette Deutsch (translator), from the Introduction
. . . In The Book of Hours, Rilke, not quite ready to speak purely as himself, uses a persona; he is a monk, a meditator, a solitary seeking God. But though there are echoes in the poems of Russian iconic mysticism and the severe sweetness of Giotto frescoes, this monk is not praying in a church; no institution or congregation supports him in his solitude, and his search is not for certainty. His elusive God is not imprisoned, like a fugitive in sanctuary, by beliefs or by cathedral walls. Rather the wall that separates the worshipper from his diety is built of images of the deity, and the soul’s illumination is “squandered on their frames.” God isn’t in the church: he is the church, the cathedral not yet built. “We are all workmen . . . building you.” God is the neighbor we hear breathing in the night. He is the gift, the lost or unfound wholeness of being. Flowing through all things, yet he needs mankind. Which creates the other? “What will you do, God,” the poet-monk asks with childlike directness, “when I die?”
In one of the greatest lines of the book, God is “to the ship, a haven — to the land, a ship.” And yet this is a contingent God, threatened, dependent. He might yet be joy, sword, ring, mountain, fire, storm — but is, now, only a starved fledgling bird who the poet must try, in fear and trembling, to keep alive. He must be wooed into being, refined into purity, he must ripen in deep peace and silence towards the future, like a wine “that unperturbed, grows ever sweeter and all its own.”
That mankind and deity may grow slowly together towards fulfillment in ages yet to come is an idea inexhaustible in suggestions, and welcome to a heart that looks for hope. Maybe it is an idea only a poet could have. The word that was not spoken in the beginning is the word we must all learn to speak.
Babette Deutsch’s selection and translation of nineteen poems from The Book of Hours is thoughtful, felicitous, and honest, a noble introduction to the work and to the poet. When New Directions first published this book in 1941, it appeared as part of an effort by several poets and critics to bring Rilke to the attention of English-speaking readers. But unmistakably the motive force of this, as of all good translation, was the translator’s love of the texts, the pure desire to sing what the poet sang.
— Ursula Le Guin