Silent comrade of the distances,
Know that space dilates with your own breath;
ring out, as a bell into the Earth
from the dark rafters of its own high place –
then watch what feeds on you grow strong again.
Learn the transformations through and through:
what in your life has most tormented you?
If the water’s sour, turn it into wine.
Our senses cannot fathom this night, so
be the meaning of their strange encounter;
at their crossing, be the radiant centre.
And should the world itself forget your name
say this to the still earth: I flow.
Say this to the quick stream: I am.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
This is Don Paterson’s version of a Rilke poem, a perfectly-crafted piece of introspection. His ability to control the tone of voice in these finely-balanced lines shows the maturity of his poetry, which has a special dignity.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
Don Paterson’s versions of other poets (notably Machado) allow him, as he says, to try on other voices. In so doing he has discovered other ranges and dimensions to his own voice. His renderings of Rilke are the best I’ve read, faithful to the spirit of the original yet coloured by Don’s own insight and shaped by his remarkable craft. ‘Being’ is a crucial poem, coming as it does at the end of the whole sequence. It was essential that he get it right, and he did (big-time!). It’s ironic that Don has approached the sequence from the point of a hard-won scientific materialism, yet his versions are radiant with spirituality. The final three lines have all the spare beauty of the Tao te Ching.
[extracted from the Afterword and Appendix to Orpheus]
No one could mistake the timeliness of Rilke’s call to confront our own nature, to address our own endangered species – this astonishing double creature of horse and rider, singer and dancer, breath and clay, life and death, noun and verb, being and becoming, I am and I flow. How in heaven’s name are we to live, now the soul we have bred into ourselves no longer has a heaven to ascend to? The word Earth is the Sonnets’ heartbeat, and is offered as an answer in itself.
This is not a translation, but a version. … Versions are trying to be poems in their own right; while they have the original to serve as detailed ground-plan and elevation, they are trying to build themselves a robust home in a new country, in its vernacular architecture, with local words for its brick and local music for its mortar. This means they must have their own course, their own process, and have to make a virtue of their own human mistakes; they will have, in other words, their own pattern of error and lyric felicity.