Rilke: After the Fire


Rilke – deemed Austrian, born in Prague  part of the German-speaking district of erstwhile Czechoslovak Prague , so  of insecure national identity – was at his most prolific between 1900 –1925. His watch-words are: ‘alienation’, ‘lyricism, ‘mysticism’, ‘spirituality’.

Heaney show-cases a version of a Rilke poem from 1908. A man whose past has been destroyed overnight  is suddenly alienated from his environment. The poem is pervaded by uncertainty, unexpectedness and hostile forces that threaten the mental health of an anonymous individual.

In common with Rilke’s early lyricism the poem starts with personification: startled early autumn morning hesitated taken aback by something unexpected shying at newness.

Nature begins to take stock of a perceived gap in the landscape, an emptiness behind scorched linden trees  – the phrase introduces both the fire element and the Germanic context using ‘linden’ for ‘lime’. Out of curiosity or to conceal the disaster the trees are still crowding in around a home reduced to a shell, now just one more wallstead.

Despite the remote location, there are children present: a rabble gathered up from god knows where … uncivilised and wild in a pack. Their presence is not explained …  arson, simple curiosity or an element of nightmare.

They are reduced to silence by the arrival of the son of the place, come to search the smouldering ruin for personal effects from under hot, half burnt-away house-beams.

The man is literally and metaphorically unroofed by the catastrophic circumstances like one with a doubtful tale to tell but driven by the need to share his deeply personal feelings with those he finds on the site, present but remote from his lot.

Where to begin? This nightmare is the stuff of fantasy it all seemed  stranger: more fantastical than Pharaoh. Faced with youngsters/ a society in general disinterested in his personal hurt or loss he feels alienation: he was changed: a foreigner among them.

  • crowd in: leave little room in the space;
  • moorland: uncultivated upland, heath
  • wallstead: the roofless walls of a previous dwelling
  • pack: group of wild animals especially wolves
  • forked: divided at an intersection:
  • beam: long timber holding up the roof
  • at pains to: making a great effort
  • fantastical: fanciful, unreal, the stuff of fantasy


  • the poem is full of allegorical possibilities: firstly the ‘poet’ as a stranger in society, condemned to solitude, ‘different’ from ordinary mortals and a suspicious outsider; the people are depicted as a rabble dismissive or incapable of finer feelings or understanding; alternatively the person feeling politically exiled by catastrophe not of his making, the displaced person, stretching things: picking up the pieces, say, after brush/forest fires caused by environmental neglect;
  • the identity issue can easily be associated with the poet-figure trying to build bridges but unable to transmit his feelings, like a Heaney caught up in the Northern-Irish conflagration; finally, even, the Christ figure amongst those ‘who knew him not’.
  • Heaney may have other reasons for highlighting Rilke who, for example, exhausted by his efforts to finish works, went through periods of ‘blockage’ and turned to translation to see him through. The later poem attributed to Rilke will contain a different but equally mystical message.
  • 4 quatrains based on lines of 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 4 successive enjambed lines in the 1st sentence; 2 more before the semi-colon; 3 sentences of diminishing length at the end, the last summing up the feelings that the man is left with;
  • The 1st quatrain is a recipe of assonant flavours: [ɔː] autumn morning/ Scorched/moorland/ more/ wallstead; [e] hesitated/ emptiness; [au]  crowding/ around/ house now; [ɪ] morning/ hesitated/ emptiness/ linden/ still/ in;      
  • 2 introduces [ʌ] youngsters/ up/ Hunted; [y] youngsters/ yelled/ Yet [ai] wild/ silent; [k] pack/ forked stick carried into the next stanza: cab/ kettle/ like; examples of nasal [n];
  • 3 offers [au] out-/ house-/ doubtful resonant [t] and [z] others present/ pains
  • The final stanza combines[əʊ] so/ Pharoah; [ei] stranger/ changed; [æ] fantastical than; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f]: fantastical/ Pharoah/ foreigner;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final quartet is dominated by alveolar plosives [d] [t], sibilant variants [s] [z] , nasals [m] [n] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

Alternative version by Alan Tucker – The Scene of the Fire

At first light the chequered autumn day hesitates, a change, an unexpected void;/ the leaves of the lime tree hang like rags, walls still smoking, a homestead destroyed./ Kids arrive shouting from God knows where/ Clambering all over, looting, running wild./ But they fall quiet when the son appears,/ equips himself with a long forked stick to wield/ and poking among the still glowing timbers/ fishes out a blackened and bettered kettle/ that, turning to them, he holds high in the air/ as if to prove all existence is brittle/ and to bring to their mind the loss of things,/ and how overnight the everyday, familiar, to hand/ becomes more fantastic than the death of kings./ And he was else. As if from a distant land. 

  • In dialogue with Dennis O’Driscoll (Stepping Stones p.387) Heaney regarded  his reading of Rilke as a ‘ chance re-immersion’.

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