Rilke: The Apple Orchard

Heaney’s version of a second Rilke poem leaves readers with a double challenge: addressing the complex thinking process of the original poet and considering Heaney’s success as interpreter and translator. For latter comparison an alternative version is appended.

Heaney sees a correspondence with his own inner feelings as if conscious of a certain ‘something’ inside himself that he needs to ‘excavate’. Ultimately he digests Rilke’s message!

Rilke invites us to observe (watch) changes of light brought on by nightfall in an apple orchard (deepening of green in the evening sward).

 This has a purpose – he is seeking to give meaning to his feeling (it will be expressed in a long single sentence) that, just as darkness deepens at dusk, and in common with all contemplative spirits (we) he is undergoing the build-up (garnered and stored within ourselves) of an elusive, unspecified awareness (a something). 

 Rilke claims the emotional state is born out of present and past (feeling and from feeling recollected) is reborn in new hope, buoyed by half-forgotten joys and to be found within an inner recess of the ‘self’ (an inner dark infused with these) where the whirl of emotion takes on coherent shape within his psyche (issues in thoughts).

The orchard turns metaphor: the liberated thoughts are as abundant and haphazard as apples blown down by the wind (ripe as windfalls scattered here); they reflect the intricacy and detail of trees in a Dürer woodcut.

Rilke extends his metaphor –fruiting thoughts are rich and healthy (pendent … gravid) thanks to careful and caring cultivation (pruned, the husbandry of years), emerging in a palatable shape (ready to serve) thanks to time given to maturation (replete with patience).

Every process, growth or thought, has a natural cycle – whatever its outcome/ his intellectual presumption (no matter how above measure or expectation) there comes a moment of reckoning (harvested and yielded).

 Two creative minds converge – the sixty-seven year old Heaney who savours his earthly existence but acknowledges that his days are numbered picks up the Rilke message  –  who is blessed with long life is prepared for what is pre-ordained (cleaves to what’s willed) and develops the mute resolve to enjoy his apple-orchard of a life.

  • 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’.
  • deepen: grow more intense, darken;
  • sward: expanse of short grass;
  • garner: gather in, collect;
  • store: keep for future use;
  • feeling: emotional state;
  • recollect: call up from memory;
  • infuse: fill, steep;
  • issues: important topics, personal difficulties, stumbling points;
  • windfall: fruit blown down by the wind;
  • Dürer: German engraver and painter (1471-1528) of the Renaissance period; known for technically advanced woodcuts and copper engravings (often of outdoor scenes); see, for example, his picture Linden Tree on a Bastion;
  • woodcut: design cut into a block of wood; commonly used to illustrate books;
  • pendent: overhanging, swinging;
  • prune: trim to cut away dead wood and encourage growth;
  • husbandry: care and cultivation of crops;
  • gravid: pregnant, full, swollen;
  • replete: filled, well supplied;
  • harvest: gather a crop;
  • yield: fetch in, measure;
  • cleave: archaic secondary meaning  to adhere O.E. clifian
  • willed: pre-determined;
  • mute: silent;
  • 4 quatrains; no  rhyme scheme; lines based on 10 syllables; a feat of construction: a single complex sentence over 16 lines;
  • sound effects in (1): [ʌ] come/ just/ sun; [ɒ] gone/ watch/ not/ long; [i:] deepening/ green/ evening [ɔː] sward/ stored; [au] down/ ourselves; alliterative effects centre round sibilants: just/ sun/ sward/ stored/ ourselves/ something with touches of velar plosive [g] gone/ green/ garnered;
  • stanza (2) runs with extended vowel inflections [i:] feeling/ feeling/ these and [ɑː] half/ dark alongside the more percussive [ɪ] feeling/ inner/ infused/ issues/ windfall and [u] new/ infused/ issues; a chain of alliterative fricative [f]: feeling/ from/ half-forgotten/ from/ infused alongside aspirate [h] of hope/ half;
  • in (3) variant sound of vowel (u) inter-react[ʌ]  with  [u]: under woodcut/ husbandry/ until; Dürer/ pruned/ fruit; then vowel (e) variants: [i:]  trees/ trees/ replete [ɪə] years/ appears; [e] pendent/ ready/ patience; alveolar [r] flickers through the text: here/ trees/ Dürer/ pruned/ husbandry/ years/ gravid/ fruit appears/ ready/ rooted;
  • assonant [e] is carried through into the final stanza: knowledge/ measure/ expectation; injection of [i:] yielded/ cleaves and [ɪ] willingly/ willed/ in; alliterative alveolar [l] is dominant: knowledge/ all/ yielded/ long life willingly Cleaves/ willed/ resolve;  
  • The poem is best read and enjoyed in its own right. However, Heaney’s version of a second Rilke poem leaves readers with a double challenge: addressing the complex thinking process of the original poet; considering Heaney’s success as interpreter and translator. To that end an anonymous alternative is appended as a comparison.
  • A second poem in the collection with specific reference to the early twentieth century German-speaking lyric poet born in Prague. This poem contains a touch of mysticism and, as with the nature of much of Rilke’s poetry, requires some teasing out.
  • Heaney weaves the early stages in the poetic process into the text. He is conscious of a certain ‘something’ inside himself that he sets out to ‘excavate’. Subsequently he completes a process and produces the poem we are reading!
  • 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: thirteen 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  especially rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosive [b], breathy [w] and [h]plus alveolar [l];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • offers an alternative translation: (translator unknown):  Come let us watch the sun go down /and walk in twilight through the orchard’s green./Does it not seem as if we had for long /collected, saved and harboured within us /old memories? To find releases and seek /new hopes, remembering half-forgotten joys, /mingled with darkness coming from within, /as we randomly voice our thoughts aloud /wandering beneath these harvest-laden trees /reminiscent of Durer woodcuts, branches /which, bent under the fully /ripened fruit, /wait patiently, trying to outlast, to /serve another season’s hundred days of toil,
    straining, uncomplaining, by not breaking /but succeeding, even though the burden should / at times seem almost past endurance. /Not to falter! Not to be found wanting! /Thus must it be, when willingly you strive /throughout a long and uncomplaining life, /committed to one goal: to give yourself! /And silently to grow and to bear fruit.

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