Neil R. Coulter's Reviews > Rilke's Book of Hours

Rilke's Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke
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it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, worship, poetry

I found this copy of the Book of Hours on a giveaway shelf several months ago, and I believe it's the best free book that has ever come to me. I would even say it's destiny that let me find this collection of amazing poems and reflections on God.

I'm not much interested in poetry. I often find it either gimmicky (bound by certain rules that make it seem artificial to me) or impenetrable (re: almost any poem that appears in the New Yorker). But Rilke's poems knocked me off my chair again and again (and I've read through this volume numerous times since first finding it).

I've rarely found any writing, poetry or prose, that so perfectly captures the feelings I have as I contemplate God and my relationship to him. As someone involved in the arts, I love that Rilke has an artist's perspective. Throughout the first of the three books in the collection, he considers the challenge of portraying God artistically but honestly.
We must not portray you in king's robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you. (I:4, p. 50)
This is the challenge for any artist committed to following Christ: portraying God without being distracted by the portrayal itself.

Near the end of Book 1, Rilke returns to that theme.
I want to utter you. I want to portray you
not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark.
There is no image I could invent
that your presence would not eclipse.

I want, then, simply
to say the names of things. (I:60, p. 89)
I also like how in Rilke's landscape, darkness is where God dwells and meets us. "But in the deep darkness is God" (I:50, p. 83). Bright daylight, "where light thins into nothing" (I:50, p. 83), can be a distraction, but throughout these poems darkness is where the truth is revealed and peace is possible.

Having spent some time earlier this year with Shusako Endo's Silence, and Makoto Fujimura's meditation on Endo, Silence and Beauty, I appreciated the recurring theme of God's silence in Rilke's poems.
Sometimes I pray: Please don't talk.
Let all your doing be by gesture only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means. (I:44, p. 80)

He who will overcome you
is working in silence. (I:49, p. 82)

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night. (I:59, p. 88)
I am very fond of each of the three books in this volume. Book 1 contains many of my favorite poems of the collection, and Books 2 and 3 are astounding when read straight through, as one unbroken meditation. I don't think every follower of Jesus would love Rilke as much as I do, but for a certain type of Christian (me), Rilke is a godsend.

Other reviews of this edition point out the liberties that the translators, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, have taken in setting Rilke into English. I understand that, and I don't claim to "know Rilke" through having read this translation. I probably know Barrows and Macy as well as I do Rilke. But that's okay with me. The way they translated, while perhaps altering Rilke's original meaning, spoke to me in exactly the way I needed. Whatever it is that I've read here, it has lifted me up, and I will return to it again and again.
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Reading Progress

January 27, 2017 – Started Reading
January 27, 2017 – Shelved
June 20, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
June 20, 2017 – Shelved as: worship
June 20, 2017 – Shelved as: poetry
June 20, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Melora (new)

Melora Wonderful review! I really enjoyed the verses you shared, and now I need to see what I've got of his in anthologies!


Neil R. Coulter Thanks, Melora! Please let me know what you find of his that you like. It was really hard to choose just a few samples of his poetry to include in my review!


Jennifer Hughes Thanks for your lovely review. You make some wonderful points. It was difficult to review this book since I felt like what I had to say just got in the way of the beautiful poems that need to speak for themselves.


Neil R. Coulter Yes, I understand that feeling, Jennifer. Sometimes I write the least about the books I love the most, because I feel that my own words will only be a haphazard mess in the presence of the sublime.


Carmen Harris Just caught your review of Rilke's Hours and I agree with you quite a bit. I found I love Rilke's ability to showcase God how I feel he often is--that is, that he meets us where we are, and if we "see through a glass darkly," it only makes sense we see would find him most in darkness, because we have not fully stepped into the light just yet; we do not see clearly yet and Rilke's poems are heartfelt observations about the silence, the darkness, the quiet, that can come between. I find his work fascinating. If you haven't read his Sonnets to Orpheus I recommend them as well. c:


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