Jul 09 2021

Rainer Maria Rilke – You who let yourselves feel

Published by at 8:30 am under Poetry

You who let yourselves feel
by Rainer Maria Rilke

English version by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.

Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.

— from In Praise of Mortality: Rilke’s Duino Elegies & Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke / Translated by Joanna Macy


/ Image by Stephen Leonardi /

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.

Even in translation Rilke’s gift for an unusual turn of phrase always makes me pause in a moment of wonder and reassessment of reality.

Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins behind you.

This stanza reminds us to breathe, and not in a limited way, but with a full breath that opens us up. To breathe, first we must be willing to feel. We are surrounded and filled by a breath that is much larger than we are, a universal breath. We exist within an openness, an airiness, an expanse that balances against the reflex to contract into something small.

Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:

Isn’t that a wonderful phrase?

You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

This sounds like the formulation from a Hindu or Buddhist text. Subject and object, observer and observed. We are both and one at the same time.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;

As lovely as the preceding lines are, it is this phrase here that I find the most healing. Physical pain, psychic pain, the wounds we carry through our lives, we spend so much time fearing them, trying not to feel them, trying to get past them. And we exhaust ourselves carrying those unacknowledged burdens. When we stop running and set them down, we discover the deep soils of the earth can draw in an weight and support it for us.

for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

…And the earth bears them with ease.

The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.

These are interesting lines. What do you suppose the poet is saying here? Something about the aspirations or dreams we first conceived of in our youth? Why would they become too heavy? What did we create or imagine when we were younger that now holds us back? What do we need to let go of in order to be free?

Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.

There is a tendency, especially as we grow older, to endlessly refine our definitions as a way to concretize our understanding of how the world works and how we can be effective within it. And that generally works well until we find we have also trapped ourselves in those definitions. Sometimes we just need to step beyond everything we’ve built up and give ourselves into the open, intangible air.

Images of earth and weight and support, air and breath and liberation…


Recommended Books: Rainer Maria Rilke

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke The Soul is Here for its Own Joy: Sacred Poems from Many Cultures Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God In Praise of Mortality: Rilke’s Duino Elegies & Sonnets to Orpheus
More Books >>


Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Rainer Maria Rilke

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Rainer Maria Rilke – You who let yourselves feel”

  1. Ruthon 09 Jul 2021 at 9:54 am

    This poem helps me accept the aging process and feel less scared at the thought of making the transition to death, less alone, because nature surrounds me, holds me, and is what I am part of now and will return to when I die. The poet tells me I am held, always.

  2. Lilias Darcy-Foxon 10 Jul 2021 at 2:12 am

    few words because i feel so moved within…

    Thank you

  3. Carolon 11 Jul 2021 at 3:47 am

    Thank You Ivan, coming through an illness, dehydration, that left me almost helpless,
    I am recovering now and thoughts that this poem conveys, will stay with me through
    further treatment. God’s Peace and Love and Justice, Carol

  4. Cristina Hutchinson 12 Jul 2021 at 2:45 pm

    Just read this Rilke poem today. And I am a fan of the Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy translation. Funnily, earlier today, I read my Brainpickings email where a Kahlil Gibran piece on children, from The Prophet, was posted. Then I read the Rilke poem and was struck by similar metaphors.

    From Gibran on Children:
    You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

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