Duration of Childhood

by Rainer Maria Rilke

English version by Stephen Mitchell
Original Language German

(For E.M.)

Long afternoons of childhood...., not yet really
life; still only growing-time
that drags at the knees--, time of defenseless waiting.
And between what we will perhaps become
and this edgeless existence--: deaths,
uncountable. Love, the possessive, surrounds
the child forever betrayed in secret
and promises him to the future; which is not his own.

Afternoons that he spent by himself, staring
from mirror to mirror; puzzling himself with the riddle
of his own name: Who? Who?-- But the others
come home again, overwhelm him.
What the window or path
or the moldy smell of a drawer
confided to him yesterday: they drown it out and destroy it.
Once more he belongs to them.
As tendrils sometimes fling themselves out from the thicker
bushes, his desire will fling itself out
from the tangle of family and hang there, swaying in the light.
But daily they blunt his glance upon their inhabited
walls -- that wide innocent glance which lets dogs in
and holds the tall flowers,
still almost face to face.

Oh how far it is
from this watched-over creature to everything that will someday
be his wonder or his destruction.
His immature strength
learns cunning among the traps.

But the constellation
of his future love has long
been moving among the stars. What terror
will tear his heart out of the track of its fleeing
to place it in perfect submission, under the calm
influence of the heavens?

-- from Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

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Duration of Childhood